While not specifically a replacement for the long-departed RX-7 sports coupe when it debuted in 2004, the rotary engine-powered Mazda RX-8 filled that vehicle’s niche in the automaker’s lineup, but did so in a much different way than did its-predecessor. While the last-generation RX-7 offered blazing speed and racetrack-ready handling, it also came at a steep price, with unreasonably cramped quarters and a ride that could be brutally rough at times. The RX-8, on the other hand, proved that enthusiasts could enjoy admirable performance at a more-affordable price and not be punished for it in the process.
The car continues with only minor changes for 2011, with its next full revision not expected until the 2014 model year. This means it retains the “smiley face” front-end treatment it shares with models like the Mazda3 and MX-5 Miata in received in a model-year 2009 update.
Remaining the only rotary-engine car sold in the U.S., the RX-8 packs Mazda’s 1.3-liter RENESIS rotary that generates a peppy, though not exactly overpowering 232 horsepower and just 159 pound-feet of torque. A slick-shifting six-speed manual gearbox is standard and is recommended, if only because choosing the optional six-speed automatic transmission drops the engine’s output to 212 horse-power. Nevertheless, the automatic includes a quasi-manual mode for those who want to shift gears manually, via steering wheel-mounted paddles.
Offered in three trim levels, the RX-8 remains distinctively styled, with a long hood and muscular wheel arches. A set of dual rear-hinged half doors not only permits easy entry into the rear seats, but helps the car maintain the overall look of a curvaceous coupe. The RX-8’s interior is surprisingly roomy and comfortable, especially for those who have suffered from claustrophobia and stiff limbs while sitting in cramped sports-coupe cabins.
Fortunately, the car’s lively nature through the curves makes up for its inherent lack of pavement-burning speed. An electric power steering system teams up with a double-wishbone suspension up front and a multilink array at the rear to deliver quick and precise handling with a reasonably compliant ride (especially for a sport coupe) over rough roads. Eighteen-inch wheels and tires are standard, along with four-wheel-disc antilock brakes for sure stopping abilities and a limited-slip rear axle to help maintain traction on slick surfaces.
The top R3 version adds a sport suspension that features shock absorbers sup-plied by noted automotive component manufacturer Bilstein, along with 19-inch aluminum wheels with performance tires to improve the car’s handling, though with a rougher ride in the bargain. This version also includes a rear spoiler, side sills and a revised front bumper for a somewhat more-aggressive look.
The car comes well equipped, with side-impact- and head-protecting side-curtain airbags, antilock brakes with Electronic Brake force Distribution for sure stopping abilities, and a limited-slip rear axle on hand to help maintain traction on slick surfaces. Stability control is included on all versions but the base model to help prevent a loss of control in extreme handling situations. Available features include a Bose audio system with six-disc CD changer and Bluetooth hands-free mobile phone interface, heated leather seats, a keyless push-button entry/start system, rain-sensing windshield wipers and a power moon roof.
In all, the RX-8 is well suited for those who seek a sports coupe that affords the rare combination of style, performance, and comfort, with a bona fide rear seat. Unfortunately, those desiring a hotter coupe that delivers added power and/or luxury will need to look elsewhere.
Mazda RX-8 Quick Facts
Engine: 1.3-liter Rotary
Horsepower: 232 @ 8,500 (212 @ 7,500 rpm w/AT)
Torque: 159 @ 5,500 rpm
City/Highway: MPG 16/22-16/23
Transmission: 6-Spd Manual, 6-Spd Automatic
Wheelbase: 106.4 in Overall Length: 175.6 in
Width: 69.7 in
Height: 52.8 in
Curb Weight: 3,064 lbs
Did You Know?
Instead of relying on pistons that move up and down within a cylinder, the RX-8’s rotary engine utilizes triangular rotors in cocoon-shaped combustion chambers that accomplish the four processes of intake, compression, combustion, and exhaust. The prime benefit to a rotary engine is its ability to generate strong and smooth power with reduced vibration and harshness in what is a relatively small package. Unfortunately, a rotary tends to lack low-end torque, which is what enables a car to accelerate quickly from a standing start.