Mazda offered its last rotary engine in the RX-7 sports car, which expired after the 1995 model year. Since then, fans of the rotary power plant have hoped for a revival, and now their wish has been granted. Mazda’s new RX-8 sports car is equipped with a modern version of rotary-engine power; it went on sale in July 2003 as a 2004 model.
Instead of a two-door coupe with space for two passengers, the rear-wheel-drive RX-8 is a four-door sports car that carries four occupants. Rear-hinged half-doors permit easier entry into the backseat, and there’s no center pillar to block the way. Weight distribution is a balanced 50/50 in the front and rear.
With its long history of rotary power, Mazda has a sporting heritage that reaches back not only to the RX-7 series but also to the 1967 Cosmo Sport. Developers came up with three ingredients for the RX-8. First, it needed to flaunt “striking original sports-car styling.” Secondly, it had to be a superior blend of sports handling and performance. And finally, it had to deliver suitable ride comfort and practicality for four adults.
Mazda’s Renesis next-generation rotary engine is smaller and lighter than prior rotaries, yet it yields more power. With its new side-intake side-exhaust configuration, and without using a turbocharger or supercharger, this engine produces either 197 or 238 horsepower, depending on the transmission.
Prices start below $26,000 (excluding the destination charge) for models equipped with a four-speed-automatic transmission and just above $27,000 for models that feature the six-speed-manual gearbox. A fully equipped Gran Touring RX-8 costs approximately $33,000.
Displaying an abundance of curves, the four-door RX-8 leads off with an aggressive front air intake. A power bulge in the low hood features a rotor motif. Short overhangs in the front and rear are coupled with overfenders to enhance the appearance of stability on the road. Functional side vents sit behind the front wheels.
Lacking center pillars, the freestyle door system gives the RX-8 a look all of its own. The front doors are hinged at the front, and lightweight aluminum back doors are hinged at the rear. A safety lock mechanism allows the back doors to open only if the front doors are open. Steel pillars in each rear door serve as “virtual” B-pillars, according to Mazda. The shape of the rear pillars and back window recall the company’s prior sports cars. Mazda claims that the RX-8 driver can see all four corners of the car.
A long-arm double-wishbone suspension is used up front, and a multilink beam suspension is featured at the rear. Rack-and-pinion steering employs an electric pump.
Designers “began by sculpting a body with a dynamic feeling of motion,” according to Mazda, which says the RX-8 is “reminiscent of a top athlete.” The automaker says its dimensions are virtually identical to those of the Porsche 911 Carrera. The RX-8 stands 52.8 inches tall, measures 174.3 inches long overall and rides on a 106.3-inch wheelbase. Rear combination lamps have chrome accents and sit above dual exhaust outlets. Manual-shift models get 18-inch tires, while 16-inchers accompany models equipped with the automatic transmission. A spare tire is not included, and a moonroof is optional. A Sport Package includes xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights, fog lights and Dynamic Stability Control.
Mazda calls the two-passenger cockpit “pleasingly snug,” emphasizing special textures and metallic materials. An aluminum-framed center console and a rear parcel shelf are included. The seats and trim are two-toned in black and the body color. Aluminum accents the console, transmission tunnel and gearshift lever. The front headrests, side sill covers and shift lever have a triangular shape to suggest the engine’s rotors. A high backbone is located in the upper portion of the transmission tunnel, running from the front bulkhead to the rear bulkhead.
Lightweight front bucket seats have a rigid molded form, and they have three bolsters to hold occupants in place during fast driving. Leather upholstery and a navigation system are optional. The sun visors are mesh-textured. Two golf bags can fit into the trunk.
Under the Hood
The new Renesis 1.3-liter twin-rotor engine generates 197 hp at 7,200 rpm and 164 pounds-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm with the four-speed-automatic transmission. With the six-speed-manual gearbox, the same engine pumps out 238 hp at 8,500 rpm and 159 pounds-feet of torque at 5,500 rpm.
All-disc antilock brakes, side curtain-type airbags, side thorax (or chest) airbags and front seat belt pretensioners are standard. Dynamic Stability Control senses skidding and then applies the brakes and controls engine torque as needed.
Extra doors don’t impair the RX-8’s sports car status, but this rotary-engined beauty is almost too easy to drive. Not much effort is required to extract snappy winding-road performance from the well-behaved steering and suspension.
The seats are snugly bolstered to cocoon the occupants and comfortably cushioned to take advantage of the surprisingly good ride qualities. Though it is clearly taut to produce confident control, the suspension takes the edge off all but the worst bumps.
As expected, the RX-8’s acceleration is spirited — even exuberant — with the six-speed, but it’s not at the top of the pack. The gearshift is inviting to use and corresponds well with the mannerly clutch.
Other than some tire noise, the RX-8 is quiet. While accelerating at all but tepid speeds, the rotary engine emits a siren’s song that makes the driver want to push it harder.
Forward visibility is fine, but the door pillar impedes the driver’s over-left-shoulder view a bit. A large tachometer in the center of the instrument cluster contains a digital speedometer. Despite a small opening, the trunk has a fair amount of space and a small pass-thru.