Even counting exotics, there are few sports cars as unique as the Mazda RX-8. It's the only rotary-engine car available in the U.S., and it has four seats with rearward-opening back doors on either side, like an extended-cab pickup truck. It's an odd duck, to be sure.
The 2011 RX-8's unique characteristics help distinguish it, but you'll have to favor finesse over brute force if you're going to appreciate this car.
You'll also have to act quickly; the 2011 model year is the RX-8's last, marking the end of the rotary engine era — one that never gained much steam.
I tested an RX-8 Grand Touring with an as-tested price of $33,055. To see how the RX-8 compares with two more-conventional sports cars, the Ford Mustang and Nissan 370Z, click here.
Rotary Engine Highs & Lows
If you relish high-revving power over low-rpm grunt, the RX-8 might be for you. Its 1.3-liter rotary engine's redline is 9,000 rpm with the six-speed manual transmission, and it makes 232 horsepower at 8,500 rpm. Both of those rpm levels are incredibly high for any production-car engine. (With the six-speed automatic, the engine makes 212 hp at 7,500 rpm, which is also the redline.) You have to be willing to let the engine rev in order to fully enjoy it; if you do, you'll be treated to a wonderful mechanical symphony as the tachometer swings unrelentingly toward that stratospheric redline.
Even when that's happening, the RX-8 doesn't offer forceful acceleration by sports car standards, though it's entirely acceptable for everyday driving. On the other hand, if you're unwilling to wind the engine out, you likely won't be pleased by the RX-8's performance, as peak torque is an underwhelming 159 pounds-feet at 5,500 rpm. One editor thought the 263-hp, turbocharged four-cylinder from the Mazdaspeed3 would make the RX-8 a more appealing car, and I concur: That engine's low-end torque — 280 pounds-feet at 3,000 rpm — would go a long way toward improving the car's overall drivability, if diminishing some of its uniqueness.
As it is, you must keep the six-speed manual in the correct gear if you hope to keep the engine in its power band. If the rpm drop too low, there's little power available. Fortunately, the short-throw stick is a joy to shift; it moves precisely from gear to gear with an easy familiarity, giving you confidence the moment you hit the road. The clutch is also forgiving and not overly grabby.
One of the problems with the rotary is it sucks gas at an alarming rate for such a small engine. At 1.3 liters, the two-rotor engine is one of the smallest available today in the U.S., but its EPA gas mileage estimate of 16/22 mpg city/highway with a manual transmission is akin to a full-size pickup truck's. It's true that sports cars aren't typically the thriftiest on gas, but both the 332-hp Nissan 370Z and the 412-hp Ford Mustang GT get better estimated mileage, with ratings of 18/26 mpg and 17/26 mpg, respectively. With tougher fuel economy rules looming, automakers are looking high and low for ways to improve gas mileage. Perhaps getting rid of the thirsty, rotary-powered RX-8 is an easy one.
Ride & Handling
Mazda has done a good job of giving cars like the MX-5 Miata roadster and Mazda3 compact car engaging handling, and that quality is also present in the rear-wheel-drive RX-8. The car feels balanced in corners, though there's more body roll than I expected given its firm, sporty ride. The RX-8 lacks enough power to make the tail step out with a jab of the gas pedal, so if you're looking for that kind of fun, consider a Mustang GT instead. The RX-8's steering has just the right amount of weight to it, but there wasn't as much feedback as I would have liked.
Even though the ride is firm, it never crosses into unbearable roughness in normal driving. Its responses to minor road imperfections gently remind you that you're driving a sports car, but it won't wallop you with the message.
Tire noise was especially noticeable. It varied by road surface — with an especially pronounced roar on concrete interstates — but it was always present on the highway.
Four Doors, Four Seats
I've gone back and forth on whether I like the RX-8's rear-hinged half-doors. A traditional coupe would have yielded more graceful body lines, but the extra doors make it a whole lot easier to get into the backseat. (Though it's still a pain to install a rear-facing infant seat back there.) Sports cars have never been about practicality, though, and I would go without the easier backseat access if it meant a sleeker two-door coupe shape.
By sports car standards, the RX-8's backseat is pretty usable and offers decent headroom, but there's one caveat: The driver or front passenger can't be too tall. I'm 6-foot-1, and with the driver's seat in a comfortable spot for me to depress the clutch and other pedals, there was little legroom left for anyone sitting behind me.
The RX-8's cabin materials are decent, with the only really cheap-looking stuff on the front door pulls. Otherwise, the piano-black accents look nice, and the dashboard isn't muddled by too many controls.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety doesn't usually crash-test sports cars, and it hasn't tested the RX-8. Standard safety features include side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags and antilock brakes. An electronic stability system is optional.
RX-8 in the Market
Like any car purchase, choosing a sports car involves tradeoffs. The fun of a high-horsepower engine is often tempered by its thirst for fuel, but in the RX-8, the thirsty rotary engine doesn't even offer the kind of power the competition does.
While demand for more powerful engines is abating somewhat in the face of heightened gas prices, sports cars are still largely defined by power and style; nimble, light-footed entrants like the RX-8 still play at the edges. The RX-8 has always been the scalpel to the meat cleavers of the sports car world, and if you want to slip behind the wheel of this back-road carver, time is running short.
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