The Right Stuff: Mazda's RX-8 provides plenty of driving joy
on the track and on the road
By MAC MORRISON/AutoWeek
It takes less than halfway through your first lap of Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca to gain new respect for those who make a living at the limit around the 2.238-mile circuit.
You know an ill-balanced, unpredictable car is the last thing you want to strap into on a clear, northern California morning. Neither TV nor PlayStation can convey the sheer blindness of some corners, or how severely the elevation changes. And then there’s the speed: It amplifies feelings that one too-abrupt wheel tug or missed brake point equals disaster.
It’s good, then, to learn Laguna’s layout behind the wheel of Mazda’s sporty new RX-8. That’s sporty, not sports, car. We’ve debated whether any four-door, four-seater is rightly included in the ultimate enthusiast category (AW, Nov. 25, 2002), determining that RX-8 is no new RX-7. And Mazda says as much. Instead, the RX-8 joins a growing breed of performance cars—Subaru’s WRX STi, Mitsubishi’s Lancer Evolution and Audi’s RS6—providing adrenaline-shot thrills and everyday livability.
Mazda had meted out a small first dose: six all-too-brief laps at its Miyoshi Proving Grounds. Now, we get another run with the RX-8 on the circuit and, for the first time in the United States, on the road. It’s a two-part acid test in which failure could spell marketplace doom.
Where to begin? Undoubt-edly, the 1.3-liter twin-rotor Renesis engine is the RX-8’s trump card. It will be available in two guises when launched in mid-June: Standard and High-Power. We’ve yet to drive the Standard twin-rotor that pumps out 210 hp at 7200 rpm and 164 lb-ft at 5000. The High-Power engine antes up 250 hp at 8500 rpm and 159 lb-ft at 5500.
The output difference between motors is mainly down to the High-Power’s two additional intake ports (three per rotor chamber) and a variable fresh air duct incorporating a shutter valve. At 7250 rpm, the shutter valve opens, shortening the intake manifold. Combined with a variable intake valve located inside the manifold, the shutter valve provides the engine an optimal length intake at any given point across the rev range. It’s why output increases as the tach edges near its 9000-rpm redline.
Unlike Mazda’s previous 13B rotary, the Renesis shines in the real world. The 13B was a thirsty, dirty engine known to fry its rotor apex seals. You won’t mistake the Renesis for a fuel-cell motor, but Mazda engineers improved the engine substantially, thanks to a new exhaust-port layout.
The 13B featured exhaust ports on the face of each rotor chamber, creating overlap between intake and exhaust as the rotors spun. Renesis relocates exhaust ports to the side plates between rotor chambers, eliminating the overlap. With no hot exhaust gas creeping into the intake ports, the normally aspirated Renesis produces nearly as much power as its turbocharged predecessor (which made 255), using less fuel. Less fuel burned equals lower emissions.
What’s more, Renesis expels hydrocarbons more efficiently. The 13B immediately released unburned pollutants into the atmosphere; Renesis’ side-exhaust layout retains these gases between the rotor and housing, burning them in the next combustion cycle. Reliability improves: The rotors’ apex seals no longer directly push hot exhaust gases around the rotor chamber, decreasing seal carbonization and creating less heat for the seals to withstand. Thus, Renesis requires less lubrication and consumes less oil.
The engine’s small size also aids the RX-8’s handling, as is unequivocally demonstrated on an autocross course set up in the Laguna paddock. The Renesis sits 5.5 inches behind the front-axle centerline, aiding in 50-50 weight distribution. Combined with the long, 106.3-inch wheelbase (one inch longer than Mazda’s 6 sedan), the RX-8 proves remarkably stable.
We find it’s only marginally productive to fling the car rally-style into corners; this clearly is not its strong suit. The low torque is not the stuff of power-slide dreams. Brake late, crank the wheel, and floor the throttle in an attempt to kick out the tail: The RX-8 understeers off-course through innocent orange cones. Unfortunately, there’s not enough torque to snatch the rear tires loose. Instead, brake early and wait until the apex before you squeeze the throttle to transform the RX-8 into a neutral cone carver.
Corner-exit oversteer is possible, indeed. During a brief run we were able to break the rear loose once or twice, if only by a modest amount, but to learn the technique is rewarding for the driver. Which is not to say only Juan Montoya need apply.
On the contrary, the RX-8 copes with mistakes easily. Its road manners are delightfully predictable. A new limited-slip differential (standard on the high-performance model) boasts a lower torque bias ratio (2.0, vs. 2.6 to 3.0 for RX-7), while an optional stability/electronic traction control system allows extremely hard driving without landing you in trouble. The traction control is impressive, permitting a fair amount of tire slip before it intervenes.
Unlike the abrupt power cuts you find in some other manufacturers’ systems, the RX-8’s computer co-pilot waits a bit longer before activating. Once engaged it eases out progressively, gradually restoring full control to the driver.
You will be especially thankful for this car’s behavior on the racetrack, where it is a blast to drive. Turn-in is quick, the direct-shaft power steering feels well weighted and linear, and the chassis shows only small amounts of pitch and roll. The one complaint about the RX-8’s speed-sensitive steering is there’s not as much road feel as we might expect. Still, there’s plenty of grip and responsiveness thanks to a double-wishbone front and multilink rear suspension that plants the 225/45R-18 Bridgestone Potenza tires. This is one solid chassis.
As well as the RX-8 performs, you can’t help but wish for more explosive power, à la its turbocharged foes. Mazda folks adopt poker faces when pressed about plans for a MazdaSpeed version, but bet that we’ll see one eventually, as suggested by a MazdaSpeed concept RX-8 shown recently in Tokyo.
Equally heartening is to hear managing executive officer Joseph Bakaj say Mazda wants at least one more home for the Renesis engine outside of the RX-8. Talk of a “new” RX-7—a two-door, two-seat coupe and convertible—surfaces regularly, and at that point you see the RX-8’s significance: as a pilot vehicle for an expanded rotary lineup.
Mazda is serious about its enthusiast-friendly image, and the RX-8’s relevance is immeasurable. If it fails in the marketplace, you can scratch a revised RX-7 off the wish list.
Such dark days are unlikely, though. Mazda has priced RX-8 aggressively—$25,180 for the Standard model and $26,680 for the High-Power version. The more you drive, the more convinced you become this car is going places for Mazda, and going there quickly.
Around Laguna, you learn how tractable this new rotary can be. It’s a blast screaming at that nine-grand redline, but there’s really no need to push it that hard. The close-ratio six-speed gearbox puts the limited torque to good use; leave it in third for almost the entire lap, drop to second only for that tight final corner, and use fourth at the end of the main straight.
Its ability to use the Renesis’ torque across the rev range and without being peaky is impressive. The motor is equally as happy at 3000 rpm as when cracking open the fully electronic, drive-by-wire throttle toward its rev stratosphere. To keep these revolutions in check requires self-restraint: The Renesis’ scream above 7000 is enough aural reason to keep it at the limit all day long. The RX-8 survives part one of the acid test.
Part two is tricky, and more critical. Reaching its sales goal of 30,000 per year requires that Mazda deliver everyday driving joy equal to that of plunging down Laguna’s corkscrew. There is performance in spades, but if it is too high-strung as a commuter, can the car succeed?
Fortunately for Mazda, the RX-8 has impeccable manners on the road. A drive from Monterey south toward Big Sur proves this as the semi-numb steering from the track gives way to enjoyable around-town feedback. The suspension also works well with an almost BMW-esque feel: firm and stiff; well damped, yet never jarring. Highway 1 to Big Sur is, admittedly, smooth, but there’s enough compliance over small bumps and surface changes to keep passengers happy.
You will be happy, too. Cruise at 60 mph in sixth gear and the tach shows just 3000 rpm, with cabin noise virtually nonexistent. RX-8 pulls off the real-world car thing as well as it performs flat-out, though we’d think twice about trekking cross-country in it: 7.6 cubic feet of cargo space is fine for little more than a weekend getaway. Well-bolstered, hip-hugging sport seats are some of the most comfortable you’ll find, and the optional two-tone leather adds to the sporty feel. We like the rotary cues—the shift knob and stereo interface look especially slick—throughout the cockpit. The optional nine-speaker Bose stereoprovides crisp, clear sound, but with the rotary buzz only an ankle flex away...
Taking all this into consideration, you realize the RX-8 passes part two of the acid test very well, thanks. Mazda has produced a knife-edge handler with an efficient, screaming powerplant that’s clearly a halo vehicle for a performance-car company. We can only hope RX-8 is the precursor of other Mazda performance prescriptions.
2004 MAZDA RX-8
ON SALE: Mid-June
BASE PRICE: $26,680
POWERTRAIN: 1.3-liter, 250-hp, 159-lb-ft two-rotor engine; rwd, six-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT: 3000 pounds (est.)
0-60 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.....