If a car doesn’t need a major redesign every three or four years, you know they got it right the first time. When a car stays in production largely unchanged for twice that long, you know they really got it right.
Around since late ’03 and pretty much the same car today (with a few important tweaks – including the weekend racer R3 variant) the RX-8 has outlasted competitors like the Honda S2000 and watched competitors like the BMW Z3 become the Z4.
More than 182,000 have been sold – a big number for a specialty car.
Here’s a look at why.
WHAT IT IS
The RX-8 is a compact RWD sports car powered by a 1.3 liter rotary engine that can spin to 9,000 RPM. The RX-8 also has a second set of reverse-opening rear doors, which like the rotary engine is a feature no other sports car has.
Prices start at $26,795 for the standard Sport model with six-speed manual transmission and top out at $32,290 for a weekend track day-minded R3, which features a larger 19 inch whee/tire package and more aggressive suspension tuning, among other upgrades. There’s also a Gran Touring model with a milder-tuned version of the rotary engine and a six-speed automatic. It has a sticker price of $32,260.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2011
Other than a couple hundred bucks’ uptick in the sticker price (thanks, Fed) the 2011 RX-8 is identical to last year’s RX-8.
Rotary engine revs like a sport bike’s engine and sounds like nothing else.
One of the highest output-per-liter-of-displacement non-turbo engines ever sold to the public.
Exceptional handling, balance and steering.
Almost usable back seats – and you can get at ’em, too.
Still affordable – and a steal compared to cars like the $46k (to start) BMW Z4.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Less-than-sport-bike acceleration (0-60 in about 7 seconds; nothing special these days).
Little engine, big appetite! 16 MPGs city, 22 highway. (A new Mustang V-6 gets 30-plus highway).
Back seats are almost usable – but at least you can get at them.
UNDER THE HOOD
The RX-8’s rotary powerplant is unlike any other. No pistons – and a super tiny 1.3 liters. A pair of rotors spin on a common crankshaft, and this reduction in rotating mass allows for a motorcycle-like operating range from 0-9,000 RPM. Peak power for manual-equipped versions is 232 hp; models equipped with the optional six-speed automatic are detuned a little to 212 hp, with redline cut back to 7,500 RPM.
Because of its unique design and operating characteristics, there’s no way to compare the Mazda’s rotary engine with conventional piston engines.
The upside is an engine that sounds – and feels – like no other. You really do have to drive it to appreciate it. Most piston engines will start to come apart if you rev them much past 7,000 RPM, but the RX-8’s rotary is just warming up at that speed. More on what it’s like to drive the RX-8 below.
The downside is this little engine drinks more fuel than engines twice its size; no three times its size: 16 city, 22 highway. Just for comparison, a 2011 Mustang comes with a 3.7 liter, 305 hp V-6 that’s rated 19 city, 31 highway.
All RX-8s are rear-wheel-drive.
ON THE ROAD
Since the RX-8’s introduction almost eight years ago, new cars have gotten progressively quicker; family cars such as the Camry do 0-60 in under 7 seconds – and sporty coupes like the new Mustang, Camaro (not the V-8 version, the standard models with V-6s) get to 60 in 6 seconds or even less. So the RX-8’s 7 second time doesn’t sound like much. But numbers don’t tell you everything. It’s true a new Mustang V-6 or even a Camry V-6 can beat the RX-8 in a straight-up drag race. A 370Z (or a BMWZ4) will, too – easily. But even though it’s not the quickest thing on the road, the RX-8 is a treat to drive because of the unique operating characteristics of its rotary engine.
Let me try an analogy by way of explanation. If you ride motorcycles, you may have a thing for V-twins. They have their own personality that no other type of engine can replicate. An inline DOHC four may produce more power, but for some people, that doesn’t matter.
Only a twin will do.
The Mazda’s rotary engine is like that. Whenever I get a chance to drive the RX-8 I never get tired of buzzing the little chainsaw under the hood to its 9,000 RPM redline six times in succession. The only other production car that came even close was the now-retired Honda S2000 but it had a weakness – an almost dangerous lack of low-end torque. If you found yourself needing speed – or even acceleration – at say 25 MPH and you weren’t in first gear, you were in trouble. The car would literally not move until the VTEC system came on the cams at around 4,000 RPM.
But the RX-8, though no big block V-8, has enough torque down low for comfortable everyday driving. As an example, while heading up the Blue Ridge Parkway to my house – an elevation climb from about 700 feet above sea level in the valley to about 2,800 feet at the top of the ridge over the course of about eight miles – I let my speed drop to about 27 MPH in sixth gear to see what would happen. It didn’t lug and as I stared at the RX-8’s digital tach, the car began to gradually pick up speed. That was in sixth going up a fairly steep grade. Such treatment would have stalled the S2000. But the RX-8 kept moving. Not fast, but it moved – and it didn’t seem to bother the car. Drop down to 5th or fourth and it accelerated quite well, without having to spin the motor to seven or eight grand, either.
The point being, the RX-8 may not be muscle car fast but it is sports car quick – and the way it expresses its acceleration is like nothing else on the road that isn’t also a motorcycle.
Handling is exceptional. The tail doesn’t snap out, the front end doesn’t turn too quickly to the inside of a sharp curve. It’s what weekend racers lovingly call neutral. And it means you can really push this car. In the hands of someone who knows how to drive, the RX-8 is the right tool for serious work. On a road-race course, or a series of country road esses, this thing has few peers. Certainly not in the $26k range, anyhow.
Get the R3 for the ultimate experience. It adds track-day 19-inch wheels and summer tires, firmed-up suspension and Recaro sport buckets, as well as a numer of high-end add-ons such as a premium Bose stereo system, Blutooth and keyless ignition.
It’s stiffer riding, but you know you like it.
AT THE CURB
Like its rotary engine, the RX-8’s four-door layout is unique. The back doors are smaller and “suicide stye.” They open toward the back, opposite direction of the main doors. When closed, you hardly notice they’re there. But when you need to access the backs seats you’re happy they are there. Because they latch onto the front doors, when open, the entire interior is wide open; there’s no B pillar obstructing access. Like other two-plus-two sporty coupes, the RX-8’s back seats are strictly steerage as far as passenger comfort is concerned; but they’re usable and the extra set of doors make them much more so than in two-plus-twos with only two doors, like the Mustang or Camaro. Backseat passengers also get their own center console, with cupholders and storage cubbies.
The dashboard is dominated by the huge center-mounted tachometer, which reads to 10,000 RPM. A cold-engine safety feature is the two-step redline. When you first start out, max engine speed is limited to about 7,000 RPM and the tach displays this as the redline until the engine’s warm, at which point the redline goes to 9,000. A motorcycle-style digital speedometer is built into the tach. Everything is finished very nicely – typical of Mazda vehicles – with available piano black inserts and Batman-slick black leather to go with it.
The only thing that sucks about the RX-8 is its appetite for gas. That 16 city MPG rating is atrocious for a compact sports car with a teensy 1.3 liter engine. 23 on the highway’s no great shakes, either – especially with gas sailing to $4 per gallon as I write this review in early spring 2011. Drive the RX-8 with gusto and you can drain the tank in a little more than 200 miles. Even driven moderately – like they do on the EPA test loop – you’ll suck the 17 gallon tank dry in about 270 miles of normal non-highway use. Meanwhile, the engineers (at other car companies) have managed to work near miracles with their piston engines, both power-wise and fuel-efficiency-wise. The previously mentioned Ford Mustang V-6, for example. 305 hp and 31 MPG.
That’s having your cake and eating it, too.
Trunk space is puny – just 7.6 cubic feet – but that’s true of other sports car, too. Mazda does include a pass-through built into the center section of the backseats that makes it possible to get a couple of 2x4x6s home from Lowes. I know because I did it!
THE BOTTOM LINE
Its piggy appetite aside, the RX-8 is not to be missed because there’s still nothing else like it available.