AMR Week Peek: Mazda RX-8
I was given the opportunity to drive a 2005 Mazda RX-8 this past week and jumped at the opportunity to see what the latest iteration of the rotary-engined sports car had in store.
The RX-8, introduced as a 2004 model, is the long-awaited replacement for the RX-7, whose production run ended in 1995. The RX-7 was (and still is) a well-respected sports car that took advantage of the impressive specific output and weight/size advantages of the Wankel rotary engine. Mazda definitely had to do their homework before introducing a successor to such a car, and no half-baked idea was going to sit well with enthusiasts.
A note on the engine. As I said above, this is a rotary engine, a Wankel rotary to be exact. Mazda has dubbed the RX-8's engine "Renesis", which is the marriage of the words 'Genesis' and 'Rotary' as this is the genesis of their Wankel rotary engine. OK, enough of marketing class...let's get back to the car.
After taking the new RX-8 for a spin, I quickly noted my observations on things that surprised me, and things that bothered me and which I thought could be improved.
Although it's completely subjective, the styling of the RX-8 hits a home run in my opinion. Bold, aggressive and smooth are descriptors befitting a sports car, and are also words that are equally at home when describing this vehicle. It's especially stunning in red, but again, that is just my opinion. I really can't find any awkward or odd aesthetic design cues when looking at the overall package. It's fresh, it's unique and it's invigorating, the perfect first impression for any person about to get into the driver's seat. Of course, we can't forget that this Mazda truly is a 4-door sports car. With suicide rear doors, the RX-8 makes entry into its somewhat useful back seat area much easier. While the rear seat can definitely hold two people (it only has enough places for two people anyway), I would try to keep the trips short and sweet, for the passenger's sake. Settling into the driver's seat, I was surprised with how much room there actually was. With my seat adjusted to how I like it, I had considerable hip, shoulder and headroom. A far cry from what you'd experience in a Honda S2000, for sure. The 6-speed manual shifter fell right into hand (a sign of attention paid to ergonomics) and the steering wheel felt nice and grippy. The front seats also provided excellent lateral support and were very comfortable. Starting the car up, the Renesis rotary settled to an idle quickly. I was prepared to feel the power of 238 horses galloping at close to 8000 RPM. Clutch in, shifter into first, let out the clutch a little, feed in some throttle and — crap — I stalled. I sure do miss having low-end torque now. I re-startedg the car and, after adjusting my throttle tip-in strategy a little (and recovering from my embarrassment), I was ready to try again. This time I fed in a little more throttle and I was off. The RX-8 is incredibly linear in its power delivery, with a near constant buildup of horsepower as the tachometer needle swings through its path. Unfortunately, some sports car buffs will be turned off by the car's lack of low-end torque, as it basically has nothing to offer below 5000 RPMs. However, venture past five-grand, and you will be rewarded by a constant rush of power all the way to redline, which, by the way, is a lofty 9000 RPM. A shift tone sounds at 8500 RPM to warn any over-zealous drivers of the impending limiter. However, even at 8500 RPM, that still represents 3500 RPMs of very useful tachometer area after the torque comes online. Many other magazines have stated how smooth and sewing-machine-like the Renesis rotary engine is, however I have to disagree somewhat. While it was definitely smoother than any piston engine, you could still easily tell when you were approaching the upper reaches of the rev range, questioning the need for a shift tone. One thing I will say, though, is that the Renesis revs more willingly than most piston engines and makes rev-matched downshifts a snap with a flick of your right foot.
Taking some tight, twisty and bumpy back roads I discovered two things about the RX-8. One, it lives up to all of Mazda's hype about being almost telepathic in its road-handling, and two, it was unusually quiet and vault-tight over road conditions that could have easily exposed any corners cut in NVH (Noise, Vibration, Harshness) development. For a sports car, this is an achievement, as the usually stiff suspension settings necessary for good handling transmit almost every crack and crevice in the road through to the cabin. Not so in the RX-8, to my delight, and it's just one more factor that makes this a great all-around practical sports car.
I figured visibility wouldn't be great in the RX-8; after all, it IS a low, sleek sports car. Contrary to that sentiment, I found the visibility to be excellent in almost all 360 degrees. While the rear roof pillar is a bit wide, it doesn't interfere too much with the driver's line of sight. Overall, I felt quite comfortable making quick lane checks and changes in the RX-8, something I can't say for other sports cars.
All the stereo and HVAC controls were easily in reach of the driver and their settings were visible in a display at the top of the center stack. However, I will admit that I was so involved in the driving experience that I didn't even get a chance to play with the stereo until I returned from my romp around the New London area. A testament to the RX-8's driving experience? Maybe, but either way the standard stereo is nothing to get excited about. It's not very powerful and didn't endow any of the music I tried with much depth, but it was clear and accurate. I would suggest skipping right to the optional Bose system if your budget can afford it.
Overall, I found the RX-8 to be a unique drive. While it certainly doesn't throw you into the back of your seat with rocket-like acceleration, it builds speed deceptively and doesn't mind seeing the north end of the tachometer at any time. It could very easily serve as an excellent GT (Grand Touring) vehicle, as well, due to its quiet (for a sports car) ride and excellent NVH characteristics. I personally would like to see more torque, but that's probably because I get lazy sometimes. Meaningful acceleration is usually just a gear or two away and it's a joy to get to those gears considering the manual transmission's smooth operation. My only concern is with the rotary engine itself. While a proven design that Mazda has developed over several decades, it still has a tendency to eat oil and return poor gas mileage for such a small displacement engine. If you don't mind checking the oil every thousand miles or so and stopping at the gas pump more often than you thought you'd have to for 1.3 liters, none of this matters. The RX-8 has succeeded in being a worthy replacement for the ill-fated RX-7 and definitely represents one of the most, if not the most, unique sports car choice on the market. When you take into account that the RX-8 has a MSRP around $27,000 (that's almost $10,000 LESS than what the RX-7 cost back in 1995), the argument only gets stronger for opting to get your zoom-zoom from Mazda.