United States: 2004 Mazda RX-8
The Car Connection
Rotary fans can rejoice: the Wankel’s back.
by Dan Carney 7/13/2003
Rotary engine fans rejoice! Mazda has at long last delivered an engine that fulfills the promise of Felix Wankel’s ingenious concept. The RX-8’s Renesis side-port engine should finally banish the smoking, fuel wasting, spark plug–fouling rotary gremlins that blemished past iterations of this compact and powerful powerplant. And Mazda has wrapped it in an unorthodox four-door sports car package that may open ownership to a group of customers who couldn’t live with a two-seater.
Prospective customers will find not only unexpected space inside this sports car, but a nicely detailed interior too. Mazda wants to emphasize that it went to great lengths to design and execute a sumptuously luxurious interior for the RX-8. “Just because you have to use plastic doesn’t mean you have to use cheap plastic,” sniped Weldon Munsey, RX-8 manager for Mazda USA. So began what will likely be a long, tough battle between Mazda’s new RX-8 and the Nissan 350Z.
The interior was a particular point of criticism when Porsche rolled out the Boxster some years ago, and more significantly, when Nissan debuted the Z-car last year. The RX-8’s luxurious interior stands in stark contrast to the 350Z’s cockpit, which isn’t purposefully spartan, just cheap and plain-looking.
Inside and out the RX-8 exhibits a unity of design, with exterior lines on the hood continued on the dashboard and triangular engine rotor shapes used throughout the car to remind viewers of its unique powerplant. The effect is positive, but then, I thought the same of the Ford Taurus’ much-derided pervasive oval shapes, so maybe I’m generous to designers who may be too clever.
A bigger design question is the car’s hunchbacked Studebaker Avanti-esque styling. The hump leaves space for a surprising large and useable back seat. No Camaro seat here, a six-footer can sit behind a six-footer in tolerable comfort.
The rear doors operate easily and give passengers better access than traditional two-door coupes. The front-seat safety belt mounts on a metal rod on the bottom and slides automatically out of the way when the rear door swings open, so passengers needn’t hack their way through a jungle of nylon webbing to reach their destination.
But only the market can tell us whether there is a demand for a sports car with a functional back seat, especially when there is a styling penalty. I suspect that a lot of customers will wait for a sleeker two-seat RX-7 built on the same platform.
Front and center in the driver’s view is Mazda’s traditional centrally-located large-diameter tachometer. To make room for the 9000-rpm-redline engine speed meter, RX-8 designers stuck a small digital speedometer into the lower right corner of the tach. Normal people might think the speedometer deserves more space, but true believers know nothing matters more than the tach.
The pre-production and early production RX-8s made available for the press introduction were all outfitted with six-speed manual gearboxes, again indicating the Mazda is in touch with the preferences of sports car drivers. A five-speed automatic will be available for those whose faith isn’t as strong, but it is at least equipped with steering wheel-mounted shift paddles.
The unbelievers will suffer for their weakness however, because their automatic machines are powered by detuned versions of the impressive Renesis rotary engine. Turns out that torque converters cannot handle that much power at 9000 rpm, so they are limited to lower speeds.
The six-speed manual shifter snicks through the gears with Miata-like short throws, while the light, easy clutch recalls the best BMW clutches. The two combine to make the RX-8 a joy to run up and down through the gears, though it is also fun to just leave it in a gear and listen as the engine revs ever higher toward its stratospheric fuel cutoff at 9300 rpm.
Steering is precise, communicative, and confidence inspiring, with just enough assistance from the electrically boosted power steering, and the leather-wrapped steering wheel feels good. The RX-8’s ride is smooth and comfortable, but at a price. Here is where sports car die-hards may disagree with the company’s approach, but the comfortable ride may sell more cars because it gives a smooth five-minute test drive at the dealer.
The problem is that the car has soft springs and even softer anti-roll bars, so that in fast bends, rather than knifing confidently into the turn like an RX-7 or Miata, the RX-8 waffles, as the body rolls and loads the suspension on the outer side of the car. Eventually it takes a set and handles the curve competently, but by then the driver has likely backed out of the throttle with his confidence shaken.
Perhaps Mazda will indulge us with a “sport” suspension package featuring more suitably stiff springs and sway bars. They could consider, as part of the same package, providing brake calipers that look the part. Today’s open-spoked wheel designs highlight the brake hardware, so that the calipers have become another part of the car’s styling. Except in the case of the RX-8, which has unstyled calipers wearing dull black paint and showing unsightly clips on the brake pads.
Functional? Absolutely. Attractive? Not. And frankly, the bar has been raised by competitors since the RX-7 departed to include calipers as an important styling item. Mazda says they were just watching the price, which is understandable. But that is Nissan’s reply to questions about the 350Z’s cheap interior, and the answer isn’t acceptable to many customers in either case.
Regardless, we are left to pick some pretty insignificant nits when we gripe about details like the appearance of the brake calipers, so that should serve as an indication of the esteem with which we hold this car. It is a fine piece of work that should introduce a new generation of customers to the thrills of an engine that goes, “Hhmmmmmm.”
2004 Mazda RX-8
Base Price: $25,100 (automatic); $26,600 (six-speed manual)
Engine: 1.3-liter aluminum two-rotor, 247 hp/159 lb-ft (manual), 207 hp/164 lb-ft (auto)
Transmission: Six-speed manual or four-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 174.6 x 69.6 x 52.8 in
Wheelbase: 106.3 in
Curb Weight: 3029 lb
EPA City/Highway: 18/25 (manual); 18/24 (auto)
Standard safety equipment: Anti-lock brakes, traction control, stability control, front and side air bags
Major standard equipment: Power locks/windows/mirrors, AM/FM/CD stereo
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles
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.....