Versus the competiton:
The RX-8 is the ugly duckling of the automotive world; it doesn’t have the sleekest, prettiest lines, but if you get beyond that and take a seat behind the wheel, you’ll experience a sports car with fine handling abilities. Essentially, the RX-8 lets you feel the pulse of the road.
The RX-8 has been on the road since the 2004 model year, and it’s still one of the more unusually styled sports cars available. Credit the unique front styling, which features large fenders pulled away from the rest of the car, and a cabin that has two extra rear-hinged backdoors for access to the two rear seats. Long and low, the RX-8 definitely looks the part of a sports car, just one that’s decided to break some of the rules about what a sports car should look like.
Mazda has a new RX-8 trim level — the 40th Anniversary Edition — for 2008. This model celebrates Mazda’s 40 years of building rotary engines. With this trim level come special badges on the front fenders, attractive 18-inch alloy wheels and a unique paint color: Metropolitan Gray Mica (see a side-by-side comparison with the 2007 model).
If you’re looking for a good-handling car, you’ve found one in the rear-wheel-drive RX-8. It has a balance and naturalness in its dynamics that eludes many sports cars. This sensation is no doubt helped by its perfect 50/50 front-to-rear weight distribution, which Mazda attributes partly to its ability to position the rotary engine low and rearward in the engine bay. The steps it’s taken have worked, as the car just feels right.
In addition to its superior balance, the RX-8 also has praiseworthy steering response and feel. Even though my test car was equipped with performance winter tires, the RX-8 responded readily to driver commands and exhibited confidence-inspiring high-speed stability. It takes some effort to turn the wheel, which I appreciate in a car with performance aspirations.
Living with this car, however, could become a trying experience if you drive on roads that are in poor condition. With its sport suspension, the 40th Anniversary Edition RX-8 delivered a jostling experience on Chicago’s ragged roads, which have been hit especially hard by a serious case of potholes this winter. Even if you manage to avoid these monsters waiting to bend the RX-8’s pretty rims, ride quality is still stiff.
Another key difference between the RX-8 and other sports cars is the use of a rotary engine instead of the more conventional internal-combustion piston engine. Rotary engines use a rotor that spins within a housing to complete the combustion process, and the design can make a lot of horsepower from a small-displacement engine; the twin-rotor 1.3-liter engine produces 232 horsepower at 8,500 rpm with the six-speed manual transmission (212 hp at 7,500 rpm with the six-speed automatic). It requires premium gas.
If you’re a fan of high-revving engines like those in the Honda Civic Si or S2000, you may be in heaven with a rotary engine. The RX-8’s engine makes most of its power high in the rpm range — manual transmission models have a 9,000-rpm redline — and it spins with a smoothness that can’t be matched by a piston engine.
There are some downsides to the rotary. As might be expected from such a small engine, there’s not much low-end torque, which means you can’t get away with leaving the car in the wrong gear like you can with some larger engines. (Fortunately, changing gears is a pleasure thanks to the RX-8’s manual transmission, which I’ll discuss below.)
The other negative is gas mileage; the RX-8 gets an EPA-estimated 16/22 mpg city/highway with the manual and 16/23 mpg with the automatic. Compare that to the Nissan 350Z coupe, which is heaver and has a 306-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 but gets 18/25 mpg with a six-speed manual.
Speaking of manual transmissions, the one in the RX-8 is a willing companion in your driving endeavors. It has short throws and a slightly mechanical feel, and the clutch pedal only requires light effort from your foot. Sure-footed stopping performance is provided by an antilock braking system that includes ventilated disc brakes at each wheel.
An agreeable driving position and comfortable seats make the RX-8’s cockpit a nice place for driving. The steering wheel and shifter both fall to hand easily. The 40th Anniversary Edition features special Cosmo Red leather seats that are supportive and have enough bolstering to keep you in place during fast cornering. Heated seats are optional, but they only have “on” and “off” settings — you can’t adjust the temperature lower or higher like you can in some cars.
If you take a minute to look around the RX-8’s cabin, you’ll see numerous reminders that there’s a rotary engine under the hood; the front seats have a rotor-like triangular opening in the head restraints, and there’s another rotor design on top of the shifter. The instrument panel features a large tachometer and supplementary gauges, but no traditional speedometer. Instead, there’s a digital speedometer integrated into the face of the tach. Though different, I never found this setup jarring when driving the car.
Even though the rear-hinged backdoors make it easier to get into the backseat, there’s not a lot of room once you’re there. The rear bucket seats are nicely shaped, but legroom is lacking and headroom is limited, too. While this may not sound great, it is worlds better than some of the spaces other sports-car makers try to pass off as rear seats.
The RX-8 has a traditional trunk with a pass-thru to the cabin for carrying long, skinny items inside the car. At 7.6 cubic feet, the trunk’s size is respectable; it’s large enough to carry a couple small suitcases or duffel bags.
Side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags are standard. An electronic stability system is standard on all models besides the base, Sport trim level.
There aren’t many sports cars out there like the RX-8. It’s the only rotary-powered production car available in the U.S., and it’s one of the few cars out there with rear-hinged backdoors. Its biggest shortcoming is that you can buy a lot more horsepower in a competitor like the 350Z for about the same amount of money. Horsepower still matters more than handling prowess for many sports car buyers, but even the Z doesn’t give up a lot to the RX-8 in the handling department. The RX-8 is a feather to the Z’s hammer, and here in the U.S. it’s hard to see the hammer losing.