2004 Mazda RX-8
(AutoWeek Nov. 25, 2002)
The Playing's the Thing: You can't mistake Mazda's RX-8 for what it isn't
By DUTCH MANDEL
Mazda is trying hard to spin its new rotary engine-powered RX-8 story, and we’ll have none of it. Neither should you: RX-8 is a sports car as Godzilla is a house pet.
Now that you know what RX-8 isn’t, here is what RX-8 is: a well-balanced, high-revving, nimble, four-door, sharp-nosed, four-seat sports grand touring vehicle that will make you smile from behind its wheel.
Though that’s a mouthful description without the same monosyllabic ring as “sports car,” RX-8 might yet be the shape of things to come, and therein lies the rub. The RX-8 does not qualify in the traditional definition of what makes a sports car, but that’s okay. Mazda is not a traditional car company; it almost entirely creates cars and trucks that jump-start enthusiast blood. It aims to be in the fray of competition, whether on the grid at Le Mans— indeed, the winner’s circle—or as the grid with its Formula Mazda-powered cars at Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca.
While RX-8 isn’t a sports car, per se, it could be the right car at the right time for a population—growing in age and around the waist—that remembers fondly the company’s seminal RX-7. But we’ll get to more on that in a bit.
To the first official drive impression you will read: Automotive scribes gathered at Mazda’s 3.4-kilometer Miyoshi Proving Grounds. Limited to a total of six laps at speed, after three laps we swapped from right- to left-hand-drive models. In this controlled environment it can be said without equivocation that RX-8 is a delight to drive, and easy to drive fast—quickly. As well it should behave since this is where for three-plus years RX-8 has been driven, tested and developed. For those who’ve piloted an RX-7, when you get into the RX-8 nostalgia washes over you with the turn of its key, a blip of the throttle and the sound of its rotary hum. RX-8 is every bit a Mazda and it conjures up images of the company’s past sports cars—except, of course, for its four doors and its full four-place seating capacity. There is just no getting away from it.
But you don’t notice these things from behind the RX-8’s wheel. Here you concentrate on the road, and you don’t pick up peripherally the added doors or seating space. From here you get a sense of the RX-8’s behavior, its demeanor—even in such a short drive.
You’ll note the steering is not overboosted, but you feel its direct-shaft (the motor shaft is the steering column) electric power assist, and it is welcome; a gentle tip into a corner and the wheel doesn’t kick feedback through your outstretched arms.
The cockpit works well as the instruments, in a cluster of three large gauges, perch above the steering column in plain sight. This gauge placement makes hand timing standstill to 60 easy—slightly less than six seconds, which puts the car in competitive company.
You notice the throttle response immediately. Though this 247-horsepower rotary (at 8500 rpm) is the more potent of two engines headed to the United States, it doesn’t boast high torque with just 159 lb-ft at 5500. A less potent 210-hp model that peaks at 7200 revs only comes with a paddle-shift-actuated automatic transmission and it puts out 164 lb-ft at 5000.
We didn’t get a chance to try the automatic so we’ll reserve judgement on both the engine and its delivery until later. But we did work the manual: Keep it in second gear and it wails. Grab third and it pulls true enough so as not to disappoint either driver or passenger; that lovely aural payoff has been so long in coming that to hear the rotary spin again is a delight. Go ahead and try it, try to induce oversteer in one of two ways: Either crank its leather-wrapped wheel, drop it to second, bury your foot and enjoy the wheel play. Or—and this happened in an uphill, positive-camber left-hander—lift your foot out of some strong-rev fun too quickly and prepare to keep the nose in a straight line. Oversteer happens, and it is good. Still, RX-8 isn’t at all ill-behaved, and Mazda’s engineers have balanced it to understeer to neutral in its everyday canter, though we must wait until early next year for an everyday drive as RX-8 is slated for market in June 2003.
Even the suspension points to it as a sports car. Up front, double wishbones with a long arm, and a multilink suspension at the rear connect to the axle housing with six rubber bushings to minimize road noise. Large-piston, high-pressure gas tube shocks and springs add to the mix. For the sport suspension model, add 225/45R-18-inch tires all around with large ventilated discs, otherwise the standard wheel-and-tire package is a 225/55R-16.
Credit the engineers for its balance. The REnsis (Rotary+Engine+Genesis=REnsis) rotary engine fits snugly 5.5 inches behind the centerline of the front axle. This packaging benefits the RX-8 in a multitude of ways. First with its design, as a long, low nose adds to its style. Second is safety; front bumper-to-engine area allows for a greater deformable structure up front in the event of a head-on impact.
Third is a 50:50 weight distribution on its long—106.3-inch—wheelbase. The RX-8 also has a low gravity center that allows for a decrease in yaw moment inertia by 5 percent over the RX-7... a car Mazda refuses to use to compare to RX-8. Regardless, think of this car hunkered down and able to move on a moment’s notice.
The new rotary is a Dagwood sandwich of cast iron and aluminum, with cast- iron pieces as the bread and alloy as the meat. Had Mazda tried to make the whole motor from aluminum it would have found the metal less able to dissipate heat and maintain shape. Still, the motor is a bantamweight, tipping scales at little more than 270 pounds. Mazda says it has no plan to bolt a turbocharger to it—unlike its predecessor—but never say never to a company that likes enthusiasts, and that enthusiasts like.
For comparison, this new rotary is 70 percent as big as an I4 engine, but still delivers power in spades. What was once its downfall—clean burning and fuel economy—is now a bright spot. Relocating the exhaust ports to the side of the rotor itself allows for a 30 percent increase in the ports’ size, which in turn makes a freer and cleaner-breathing engine, increased fuel economy and more power. Though the numbers aren’t in from the EPA, Mazda officials expect a 20 percent increase in fuel economy from the former rotary-powered car, the RX-7, which equates to 21 mpg city, 23 highway.
It may be just one man’s opinion, but the exterior doesn’t wow. Yes, there is an edge to it. Yes, there are many design cues packed onto its skin. And there is no mistaking this for anything other than a car from Japan. But unlike the new Nissan 350Z, itself a reincarnation halo vehicle, the RX-8 visually misses. Maybe it’s just that there is so much going on.
“The ‘surface excitement’ is maximized on this car,” says Morray Callum, a Scot who has been in the Ford system long enough that he designed the next-generation F-150 truck and who, for a year now, has called Hiroshima his station. “This car has great proportion. People try to disguise proportions when it’s not there, but this has the right balance.
“This is the right car for Mazda at this time. It is not an RX-7 replacement. We aren’t targeting the RX-7 buyer, who is a younger male.” But will it induce lust? “I think for some of the customers, it will,” Callum says. “For a lot of people RX-8 will induce lust. And it will be a car that people will be able to get, and get in to.”
A great deal of engineering energy went into opening the RX-8 rear seat area to ease passenger access. Not only did the car require sufficient seat space, but it mandated comfortable entry and exit. Cabin reinforcements and a rigid underbody frame make up the RX-8’s centerpiece.
The pillarless doors—would it be appropriate to call these hara-kiri doors?—have a virtual center barrier, thanks to a steel pipe that runs north-south inside each rear door. The pipe connects to the body via the rear door latch and a catch-pin system that aligns doors with the RX-8’s underbody—quite similar to what Honda has done with its Element SUV. Inside the front doors, impact beams, running parallel with the road surface, help minimize interior intrusion and get this pillarless design past the side-impact safety standards.
Getting in and out is easy. The front doors open with a hinge angle of 70 degrees while the rear doors open at 85 degrees; the combination of front and rear doors agape looks for all the world as if the car could swallow you whole. The front seatbelts attach to the seats (more convenient than the Element’s door-mounted belts). And if you think the rear seats are vestigial offerings, a 95th-percentile male can fit comfortably in the back seat, with another in the front passenger seat. Don’t try that combination as driver and rear seat passenger for too long, but it can be done. Suffice it to say that on a date night, four adults could get into an RX-8 without needing chiropractic care later.
Crossmembers in the floor and roof help to increase the shell’s rigidity, as does a high-mounted center transmission tunnel, ŕ la Honda’s S2000, though it’s not nearly as pronounced. For the safety-minded, six airbags fit throughout the car, including front airbags and side-curtain airbags to prevent injury to passengers, though no airbags exist for rear passengers.
The last RX-7 sold in America erred on the side of being too compact, with a cabin too constraining for the average American male, let alone a 95th-percentile one. The RX-8 overcompensates in the other extreme... if Mazda ever got around to sucking the back seat out and dropping the extra doors—a kind of reverse version of the process that gave us the earlier RX-7 2+2 model—they might just have something here.
At least, they’d have a sports car here. Keeping the rotary alive is more to the point, though, and that means putting this power in a car with broad appeal. But is keeping the rotary alive just for one car, or does it mean we might see it in something else? While Mazda executives are mum about the reincarnation of RX-7— a legitimate, two-seat, two-door rotary-powered sports car—they aren’t wholly denying it, either.
That said, here’s another question Mazda may have answered in another roundabout way: Has the evolution of the sports car gotten like the evolution of the sports car buyer? RX-8 has many of the same styling cues of its progenitor, but has grown up and grown out. There is room inside for wide-shouldered and wide-bottomed boomers. The rotary’s hum soothes with a familiar, dulcet whistle as you step on it; back out of it and you get a slight exhaust backfire—an unintended flatulence—and giggle with the memory if not the sound itself.
Mazda officials are clear when they insist this is not the RX-7 replacement. Would it compete and compare with sports sedans from Europe? Is that a fair comparison?
Perhaps not. Perhaps this new RX-8 is a car that begins to redefine the sports car genre, the way minivans redefined station wagons, and the way the new crossovers redefine minivans and sport/utes.
Whatever you might call it, RX-8 is not a traditional sports car. That, however, does not prevent it from being full of sports car excitement.
2004 MAZDA RX-8
ON SALE: June 2003
BASE PRICE: $30,000 (est.)
POWERTRAIN: 1.3-liter, 247-hp, 159-lb-ft two-rotor engine; rwd, six-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT: 3000 pounds (est.)
0 TO 60 MPH: 6.0 seconds (est.)
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....