Most people know that Mazda builds sporty cars. But for driving enthusiasts, it's the company's history of building sport coupes with lightweight rotary engines that sets it apart from the competition. The Mazda RX-8 is the latest of these coupes, and it's the only one with a four-door configuration.
2008 Mazda RX-8 Grand Touring Coupe Shown
The heart of the Mazda RX-8 is its high-revving, 1.3-liter rotary engine called the Renesis. It's a made-up word: The "R" and the "e" stand for "Rotary engine," while "nesis" comes from the word "genesis." Odd name aside, the Renesis engine is an impressive bit of engineering: Unlike its forbears, it locates the exhaust ports on the side of each of the combustion chambers, rather than on the outer edge of the rotary housing. Sounds simple, but this one change allows for more power, higher fuel economy and lower emissions.
Because of the engine's compact size, engineers were able to mount it further back in the RX-8's chassis, giving the car a coveted 50/50 front/rear weight distribution. This, along with balanced suspension tuning, sharp steering and a svelte 3,000-pound curb weight, makes the rear-wheel-drive RX-8 one of the best-handling cars on the market. It's certainly among the best sports cars available for less than $30,000, and deserving of any consideration you give it.
Introduced for 2004, the Mazda RX-8 heralded the return of the rotary-powered sports car to the U.S. after a near decade-long hiatus. It also gave Mazda an image car with greater stature and performance credentials than the fun-loving Miata. Although the RX-8 hasn't been a runaway sales success, most people would agree it's been good for the company's reputation.
Although Mazda sells its sport coupe with either a manual or automatic transmission, the six-speed manual version is really the only way to experience an RX-8. It's not just the closer connection you feel to the car when moving the short-throw shifter among the neatly defined gates. It's the fact that manual-shift RX-8s get a more powerful version of the 1.3-liter rotary engine.
In a manual-equipped Mazda RX-8, horsepower crests at 238 at 8,500 rpm, with redline hitting at an amazing 9,000. Low-end torque has never been a strong suit of rotary engines, and with a mere 159 pound-feet coming together at 5,500 rpm, the RX-8 doesn't really feel potent below 4,000. Fortunately, the rotary engine loves to rev and is very smooth when doing it.
Inside Line testers have timed the RX-8 at 6.6 seconds to 60 mph and 15.1 seconds through the quarter-mile -- respectable numbers but not enough to win many straight-line acceleration crowns in this class. However, Mazda's rotary coupe quickly makes up ground when the road turns curvy.
Automatic RX-8s are tamer, redlining at just 7,500 rpm. If you're going to buy one, 2006 and newer models are your best bet, as they come with a more advanced six-speed automatic transmission with steering column-mounted paddle shifters. They also provide 212 hp at 7,500 rpm, compared to 197 in the '04 and '05 models, which came with a four-speed automatic.
In spite of its capability, the Mazda RX-8 rides comfortably enough to serve as a daily commuter, though with fuel economy typically hovering in the high teens, it's not the most economical choice. The rear seats are roomy enough to seat adults on short trips, and reverse-hinged rear doors allow the loading of bulky car seats.
RX-8s come standard with all the essential amenities, though manual versions come with a firmer suspension and 18-inch wheels, which are optional on the automatic. Further suspension upgrades are available via the Shinka special-edition package. You can also add luxuries like leather upholstery and a navigation system.
Although it has an extra set of doors, the Mazda RX-8 is a descendant of the two-door RX-7 sport coupe sold in three generations from 1979-'95. The RX-7 was yanked from the U.S. market due to poor sales and difficulty in meeting emissions standards, but lived on in the Japanese market through 2002. At the time of its U.S. demise, the third-gen RX-7 was a much more expensive car than today's RX-8, with a base price of $32,500 in 1995 dollars.
That's not to say it wasn't worth the extra money. Sold from 1993-'95, this model was turbocharged and capable of 255 hp at 6,500 rpm and 217 lb-ft of torque at 5,000 rpm. Zero to 60 took just 5.5 seconds, with the quarter-mile mark coming in 14 seconds flat. Not only was it fast, it was a superb handler, often inspiring comparisons to Formula cars. Harsh ride quality was the big downside. This car fetches high prices on the used market, though potential buyers should be attentive to excessive wear and tear and aftermarket modifications made by the previous owner.