U.S.A.:Sensible RX-8 can please the purist
4-seater delivers sports car looks, performance
October 16, 2003
BY TONY SWAN
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST
Sports car and practical are uneasy semantic allies at best, but they function harmoniously when they're teamed to describe the new Mazda RX-8.
Sports car purists, particularly those who knew and loved the old Mazda RX-7, might take exception to the practical label.
Sports cars are all about passion, and involvement, and driving perfection; the automobile as an extension of the driver's will.
Practical, on the other hand, has distinct overtones of sensible shoes and pocket protectors.
I mean no insult. The RX-8 definitely delivers on the emotional front.
But here is a sports car capable of seating four adults.
This doesn't mean knees tucked under chins for a dash to the nearest restaurant. And it doesn't mean contorting oneself through a narrow opening made more challenging by a maze of dangling seat belts.
Like Saturn's clever Ion Quad Coupe, the RX-8's sides open up clamshell fashion, allowing passengers to get in or out with something like dignity. Marvelous.
While the extra seats give the RX-8 an edge among most of its rivals -- Audi TT, BMW Z4, Honda S2000 and Nissan 350Z, for example -- it obviously takes more than places for four to win in this game. A sports car is not a dinner party.
The other essentials are traditional: fighter plane responses, race-worthy brakes and enough power to at least keep up with the competition.
Give the RX-8 an A in the response category, A-plus for its formidable stopping power and a B for its engine.
This last is an intriguing soft point, because, like its doors, the RX-8's engine is another element that's unique in this arena. Unique in autos, in fact.
Rotary technology returns
Mazda is the only carmaker on the planet offering a rotary engine, a tradition established with the RX-7 in 1979 and revived after an eight-year hiatus with this new coupe.
Do you want to know exactly how a rotary engine works?
I thought not. Let me confine the description to this: A rotary engine has no pistons, no valves, is exceptionally smooth and delivers unusually high volumetric efficiency, i.e., the amount of power extracted from a given displacement.
In this case, Mazda's latest update on the rotary, it adds up to 238 horsepower from 1.3 liters.
What's missing is torque, the low-r.p.m. thrust that gets you moving when the light turns green or when you're trying to slide into that rapidly closing hole in the next lane.
My test car was rated at 164 pound-feet, which isn't much.
Like other small displacement engines -- Honda's sizzling 240-horsepower 2.0-liter S2000 four-cylinder, for example -- the Mazda's rotary doesn't really deliver much punch until the tachometer begins to spin toward the high end of the dial.
On the other hand, allied with Mazda's six-speed manual transmission -- a gratifyingly precise device to operate, I might add -- the RX-8 is deceptively quick, capable of dashing to 60 m.p.h. in about 6 seconds.
And because it's so smooth, it's also deceptively fast. More than once I was surprised to find myself humming along at speeds that could be considered, by some, to be socially unacceptable.
Officer, I had no idea. Are you sure?
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you the RX-8 does offer an automatic transmission model, which is actually less expensive than the six-speed manual version.
I must also tell you that, in addition to eliminating the sense of driver involvement that goes with a really good manual transmission, the automatic saps the car's performance.
It goes beyond the usual lag associated with self-shifters. Allied with a four-speed automatic, the rotary is tuned for just 197 horsepower, dictated by the high-r.p.m. traits of the engine and by the limits of the transmission.
If you consider yourself a sports car fan, you will not, repeat not, opt for the auto.
As noted, the RX-8 offers the unusual sports car bonus of usable rear seats with enhanced access, a feature that trumps even the 2+2 Infiniti G35 coupe.
Beyond that, it comes with a set of unusually supportive and long-haul-comfortable front buckets that stand out even in the sports car realm, plus one of the best looking dashboards going, highlighted by one the most legible instrument displays in the business.
Storage space is better than average for a car in this class, with bins, cubbies, door pockets, a good-sized trunk and of course the rear seats, when unoccupied.
It would be better if the rear seat backs folded forward, to augment cargo space, but there's structure behind there, one of the keys to the RX-8's exceptionally rigid chassis.
And that trait -- exemplary structure -- is what makes RX-8 magic on a winding road.
It attacks corners with the effortless, headlong grace of a cheetah chasing a gazelle -- never a false move or wasted motion.
The steering is light but precise, giving the driver a sense of connection with the front wheels even when the car is going straight ahead, and for all its resistance to body roll, the RX-8's ride quality is acceptable by everyday standards.
Understand, this is no Buick LeSabre; you don't get cat-quick reflexes with bovine suspension tuning. But it's compliant enough to handle Michigan's lumps and bumps without communicating every nuance directly to the occupants.
Styling: Can we agree on non-vanilla?
Mazda's design team had a tough job here. Building four doors and four seats into something that still manages to look like a sports car is a tall order, but that's precisely what's been achieved.
Is it beautiful? That's a tough one. From certain angles, that thickish midsection can't avoid looking awkward, try as it might.
On the other hand, those exaggerated front fenders prevent confusion with anything else on the road, and avoiding anonymity must be worth something.
At $31,239, my loaded test car doesn't make a particularly compelling case as a bargain. But peel away some $4,000 in options and it begins to look a lot more attractive.
The six-speed RX-8 starts at $27,200, the automatic version (which you should forget about right now) at $25,200.
The basic car is far from spartan, and at $27,200 it's about the same as a base Nissan 350Z with a five-speed manual. More impressive, it's some $3,000 to $6,000 less than the base price of its other rivals.
It might not be the quickest in its class, nor is it as quick as its RX-7 ancestor. But the RX-8 is delightful to drive, pleasant to live with and unique among its contemporaries.
Practicality never looked so good.
Rating: THREE STARS out of 4 stars
Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-drive 2+2 sports coupe.
Base price: $25,700 (automatic), $27,200 (manual)
As tested: $31,239
Standard equipment: Antilock brakes; curtain side air bags; tire pressure monitor; air-conditioning; AM-FM-CD audio; power windows, mirrors and locks; keyless remote entry; cruise control; leather-wrapped steering wheel with cruise and audio controls; limited slip differential; 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels
Engine: 238 horsepower, 1.3-liter rotary
Fuel economy: 18 m.p.g. city, 23 highway
Curb weight: 2,940 pounds
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Length: 174.2 inches
Width: 69.7 inches
Height: 52.8 inches
Where assembled: Hiroshima, Japan
Key competitors: Audi TT, BMW Z4, Honda S2000, Infiniti G35, Nissan 350Z
(Photo)The two-tone interior of the Mazda RX-8 seats four adults comfortably. The doors open in clamshell fashion, allowing relatively easy entry and exiting.
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.....