The 1979 Mazda RX-7 was a milestone sports car. It was nimble, affordable, and thanks to its unique rotary engine, very quick. But over 16 years and three generations, the RX-7 grew rapidly in performance and price, until its demise in 1995. Still Mazda promised the rotary RX would return, and with the 2004 RX-8, that pledge finally has come true. But with a rear seat, and four doors, is the new RX-8 sports car, a sport sedan, or just a good sport?
Let’s get the trivial stuff out of the way first. If you think having rear seats disqualifies the 2004 Mazda RX8 as a sports car, then you can count out the Porsche 911, too. And while the four doors are special, we’re not sure small, rear opening access panels qualify as true doors.
Moreover, the RX-8 has what makes a modern sports car in the first place. A finely tuned, rear-wheel drive chassis and lightweight multi-link suspension that puts handling at the top of its to-do list. Easy power through a drive-by-wire throttle that under an educated foot can be played like a fine instrument. Plus, four-wheel vented disc brakes with ABS, that only know how to stop fast, fast steering that feels like an extension of your will, and finally an interior that makes sure you are as close to being intimate with a car as society will tolerate. Taken together, that’s some sports car, and that’s the Mazda RX-8.
Now, we didn’t use the word ‘‘perfect’’ before sports car did we? There is a price to be paid for the RX-8’s novelties. The long, for a sports car, 106.3-inch wheelbase is there to provide rear seat room, and it does stretch the proportions more than a little. Otherwise, the RX-8 shies away from the last generation RX-7’s smooth, curvaceous form. The RX-8 has a more angular, athletic, forward leaning stance. Hints of its rotary engine abound, most notably the triangular hood dome. Xenon lighting is included with the Sport, Touring, and Grand Touring packages.
Our RX-8 with the Grand Touring package rode on 18 inch five spoke alloys with aggressive 225/45 Potenza rubber. Stock wheels are 16 inchers. Not only are wheels and tires up to the game, they look well grounded, pushed out to the far corners of the vehicle. The rear end is less detailed with twin exhaust almost hidden within the lower facia. But overall there is an upturned, bobtail appearance that could be mistaken for a flippant attitude.
As for the serious stuff, power for the RX-8 is made by way of Mazda’s new 1.3 liter normally aspirated Twin Rotary Renesis engine. There are two versions. The Standard Power rotary delivers 210 horsepower and 164 pound feet of torque, channeled through a four speed automatic with a steering wheel paddle shift manual mode called Activematic.
Our test car had a 6-speed manual with the High Power rotary. With variable intake runners, it punches out 250 horsepower at 8500 RPM and 159 pound feet of torque at 5000 RPM. That 40-horsepower gain puts peak output near the 255 of the last turbo RX-7. Get up and go from rest is impressive: 0 to 60 in 5.9 seconds. Renesis delivers an invigorating turbine-like rush of acceleration every time you hit the gas. The six speed manual shifts firmly, managing well the very finite amount of torque.
With a mid-ship mounted engine, and a fuel tank mounted forward of the rear axle, the RX-8’s front/rear weight distribution balance is a superb 50/50. There is just a hint of understeer on corner entry, and the steering weight and feel could not be a better match. Minimal body roll and instant throttle response make this car a hoot to throw around our favorite set of curves. And just in case you overextend yourself, Dynamic Stability Control is available to help.
While we’re regaining our composure, lets look at where you will get to know the RX-8 the best. Unlike the stark, minimalist interior of the Nissan 350Z, the Mazda RX-8 is full of jazz. The deeply hooded, overlapping gauges have floating red needles and, as if you were immune to tickets, only a digital readout for speed. The standard cloth seats have an upscale sew pattern. Comfortable and supportive, the Grand Touring package adds leather trim, seat heat, and driver’s power assist. Bright center stack accents outline our car’s Bose stereo, which is easier to control than it looks. Oversized rotary knobs control climate and air flow. And that real rear seat? Well, thanks to the long wheelbase and rear access panels, the RX-8 can swallow two six footers without complaint…. from the passengers that is!
And best of all, the RX-8 is reasonably priced. Base for the Standard power RX-8 is $25,700. The High Power starts at $27,200, and our car with the Grand Touring Package came in at $31,200. Tack on another 2-grand if you want a satellite navigation system.
And, for that you not only get the world’s only rotary powered car, but one that’s fit for a double date. But moreover, the RX-8 is a true sports car in every measure, and better than most that don’t offer its convenience and style. It may be the only four-door sports car, but it takes a backseat to no one.
Engine: 1.3 Liter Twin Rotary Renesis Engine
Torque: 159 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 5.9 Seconds