The cars we loved.
In the world of automotive engine design, different can sometimes be good. Take the rotary engine for example. A few manufacturers dabbled in rotary powered cars over the years, but fewer have managed to stick with it. Mazda is the only major manufacturer still offering mass produced rotary powered vehicles. For Mazda, the RX range of rotary powered cars have been reserved for sportier machines that didn’t always require the fuel economy and other practical shackles of daily drivers.
When the increasingly complex and expensive RX-7 was retired from the American market in 1996, its dismissal followed trends pointing to the decline of the sports car’s popularity in general. Mazda rotary fans had reason to be sad; it was the sole proponent of the rotary engine in the world outside Japan it seemed. Trends suggested that Mazda would be moving away from the troublesome application in the RX-7 to more conventional designs. So it came as a great surprise when in 2001 Mazda showed a rotary powered concept in Detroit. The press and fans began to speculate about the possibility of a new rotary powered sports car from Mazda. Given the renaissance that Mazda was enjoying with the new Mazda 6 and 3 sedans, expectations were high.
After nearly 10 years with no rotary car in its US line up, Mazda launched the RX-8 as a 2004 model in the summer of 2003. Instead of continuing with a new RX-7, Mazda decided on an all new car, following a history of successive naming of RX cars (RX2,3,4,and so on). The number change was justified. Not only did the new RX-8 have a completely new engine dubbed RENESIS, its design incorporated a trick four door coupe concept similar to what Saturn did with the Ion. The design was sporty yet practical. The added rear seat was a concession to lower insurance rates, a issue that plagued the RX-7. The sculpted fenders would find their way to other Mazda’s, while the rear end resembled an updated RX-7.
As a front mid-engine, rear wheel drive car, the RX-8 promised performance on par the RX-7, but without some of that car’s problems. Ultimately, the RX-8 was not as fast as the late twin turbo RX-7, but benefited from similar chassis and suspension tuning making it just as fun to drive. The old RX-7 matured into an all-out sports car, with no real concessions to ride and comfort, while the RX-8 would
be a comfortable and capable grand tourer.
More importantly, a new rotary increased reliability and drivability for a wider range of drivers. The RENESIS engine was smooth and high revving. By increasing the intake with a new side and exhaust port design, engineers saved weight and increased efficiency over the previous RX-7 based design. The Mazda RX-8 is available as either a 232-horsepower model fitted with a six-speed manual
transmission, or a 212-horsepower model with a six-speed automatic. Self-shifting cars came with a steering wheel mounted paddle shifters for a race car like driving experience.
Power would eventually reach a high of 250 on versions with a 6-speed manual transmission. The small engine still managed to
deliver big engine thrust even as its overall power rating was eventually reduced. A nearly 50/50 weight distribution insured balanced handling and the use of plastics and aluminum would insure light weight, aiding acceleration. The double wishbone front suspension and rear multi-link system was similar to the one used in the RX-7, but without the jarring ride.
Powergate and Other Issues
There were initially two trim levels (Sport, Grand Touring) offered in America, with the Grand Touring being the most popular. Transmissions ranged from 4 or 6-speed automatics to 6-speed manuals. Light weight models similar to the Type S version of the RX-8 in
Japan were sold in America called “High Power”. They were as the name suggests the most powerful at a rated 247hp. Regardless of what trim level or transmission combination chosen; public response to the RX-8 was positive and immediate. In the haste to meet early sales projections, an unfortunate miss quoting of factory horsepower happened in early cars. Advertised at 238hp, the actually figure was revealed to be off by about 9hp for various technical reasons. To save face, Mazda gave customers $500 and free
warranty period service. As much as some of the media wanted to blow up the story, automotive journalist and customers forgot about it as long as the RX-8 continued to be an excellent driver’s oriented car. There were other problems as well. A September
2005 Car and Driver long term test car was riddled with problems, prompting the reviewer to give it a cautious mixed bag review.
Improvements came with a slight refreshing in 2009, resulting in added rigidity and revised gearing for improved acceleration and aggressive new looks. With some nagging quality issues addressed, Mazda launched a new trim level called the R3 in 2009. Now there were three trim levels in America (Base, Grand Touring, R3) with the R3 being the top. In addition to Recaro seats, the R3 had 19in wheels, beefed up suspension and a slightly distinctive front end design. The R3 was a small concession to those who
lusted after the many other variations of the RX-8 that would never make to American shores.
A True Driver’s Specialty Car
The RX-8 was not for everyone, as a low volume specialty car, its sales numbers declined even as it it became a favorite of automotive journalist. Everyone from Top Gear to Motor Trend was singing the RX-8’s praises. The accolades began with it being picked as
the Japanese Car of the Year in 2003 and the praise portfolio has fattened since then. In a Car and Driver performance comparison in 2010, the RX-8 came in 3rd place, besting 2011 versions of a BMW M3, Nissan GT-R and Corvette Z06. Only the Lotus Elise SC and Porsche Boxter Spyder did better (all of which cost much more).With a starting price of around $27k and topping out below $34k, the RX-8 remains as one of the best handling cars for the money. Odd looking at some angles, it still manages to be uniquely sporty and practical, or as practical as a car that can do 0 to 60 in 6.4 seconds and top out at 146mph can be.
It can also be an affordable used car, but buy with caution. Used ones that have been hopelessly molested can dip as low as $5k for some early examples. Strong and loyal RX-8 fan clubs have sprouted around these cars giving them a near cult like appeal. The RX-8 has continued an ongoing legacy of performance for lovers of rotary engine design everywhere. The future of the RX-8 is unclear after the
2011 model year. Sales have fallen off globally, leading many to doubt the arrival of any new RX-8 in the future. For car lovers everywhere, hopefully there will always be some sort of RX car in Mazda’s future.