The Mazda RX-8 undergoes its first significant update since its introduction in 2001. But even after all that time it is hard to place the Mazda RX-8 in just one category, and not just because of its unique rotary engine. The RX-7 had one of those t0o, but someone could easily answer that it was a rear-wheel-drive two-seat sports car without blinking. In fact, in performance terms, the RX-8 is in some ways a step back from its predecessor despite its more “reborn” engine. The RX-8 also has four seats and, depending on your definition of what a door is, four doors. So really, is Mazda’s “sportiest” car even a sports car?
Drivetrain and Performance
The RX-8’s uniqueness begins under the hood with Mazda’s newest rotary engine. The Mazda RX-8 remains the only mass-produced rotary-powered passenger car in the world and its latest version is the RENESIS engine which is a combination of Rotary Engine and Genesis – or rebirth. The 2009 Mazda RX-8 is available as either a 232-horsepower model fitted with a six-speed manual transmission, or a 212-horsepower model fitted with a six-speed Sport automatic with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. As a former RX-7 owner, I can attest to the fact that Rotary engines are like no other. That is both good and bad. First the good stuff. With the manual transmission, the rotary engine quickly and easily spins up to 9,000 rpm with a smooth sound that is hard to not like. In comparison to the RX-7, which was plagued with both imaginary and real durability issues, the RX-8 seems to have overcome that obstacle. Like previous RX cars the RX-8 handles superbly and communicates just the right amount of feedback to the drive. And if you owned the RX-8 on some isolated twisting moutain road where you had an hour commute in which to toss it around curves everyday, you would probably never call in sick to work. But in reality, the rotary engine has little low-end torque and because the rotary engine requires high engine speeds to make power, it has dismal fuel economy of just 18 mpg in combined driving. And although redline is an insane 9,000 rpm, the car lopes to 60 mph in a very unsportscarlike 7 seconds. Don’t get me wrong, horsepower is impressive given size of the engine, but hardly in the ballpark of other sports cars. To put it in perspective another reviewer cites the fact that the 3,000-pound, 232-horsepower Mazda RX-8 gets the same fuel economy as the 4,300-pound, 273-hp Mazda CX-9 crossover.
Placing aside the engine, unquestionably one of the biggest advantages of the RX-8 is its real life four-passenger seating. This is not just some sort of 2+2 arrangement. The reverse-opening rear suicide style doors make loading people and cargo light years easier than other two door coupes. With the exception of headroom which is a tad on the short side, those seated in the back will find supportive seating and ample room to spread out. The rear compartment is equally accommodating for luggage or grocery bags, though the trunk opening is small and no flip-down rear seat function exists to increase that luggage capacity.
Up front the RX-8’s cockpit features the rotary theme, with three round gauges and a circular central dash colume that contains the stereo and climate control functions. The optional navigation system is operated through a touchscreen and voice recognition interface. Materials and fit and finish of a high quality and on par with other Japanese competitors.
For 2009 the exterior receives a new front end with a wider grille and a slighly upgraded tailight section. A rear spoiler, side sills, fog lights and sporty front bumper are added to give the coupe-like body an aggressive appearance, all riding on19-inch forged aluminum-alloy wheels with high performance tires.
Standard Features and Options
In any trim, the RX-8 comes equipped with a solid list of features. There are four trim levels: Sport, Touring, Grand Touring and R3. The base Sport features 18-inch wheels and performance tires, a rear lip spoiler (manual transmission models only), air-conditioning, cruise control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, full power accessories and a six-speaker stereo with CD player and auxiliary audio jack. The Touring trim adds a limited-slip rear differential, xenon headlights, foglights, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and an in-dash six-CD changer. Grand Touring RX-8s have this equipment plus automatic headlights, heated side mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, an eight-way power driver seat with memory, heated front seats, leather upholstery, automatic climate control, keyless ignition/entry, Bluetooth and a nine-speaker Bose surround-sound system. The new R3 trim level is essentially a Touring model with a more aggressively tuned suspension with Bilstein shock absorbers, revised front bumper, Recaro front sport seats, keyless ignition/entry and upgraded300-watt Bose audio system and Mazda advanced keyless entry and start system.
The Touring and Grand Touring can be equipped with a premium package that includes a sunroof, satellite radio and the Bose stereo. Also optional on the Grand Touring is the touchscreen navigation system with voice commands and a dedicated iPod connection.
Another bright spot for the RX-8 is a price betwen $26,435 and $31,930. Not that this is cheap, particularly when you factor in fuel costs, but accounting for the added flexibility of seating four people, there really is nothing else in the sport car/coupe segment that compares to it. The RX-8 may not be a sports car in the purist of definitions, but it is distinct, capable and still fun to drive.