Saturday, June 28, 2003

RX-8 not typical sportster

4-door Mazda marks return of the rotary

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor

Mazda RX-8
Mazda RX-8

Wheels rating:

Vital statistics
What I drove: 2004 Mazda RX-8 with 6-speed manual transmission

Base price range: $25,180-$26,680

Price as tested: $28,000

Options on test vehicle: Xenon headlights, dynamic stability control with traction control, fog lamps

Drive train layout: Front-midship engine, rear-wheel drive

Engine:1.3-liter twin-rotor with 250 hp and 159 lb-ft of torque 1.3-liter twin-rotor with 210 hp and 164 lb-ft of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual or 4-speed automatic with paddle shifters

Wheelbase: 106.4 inches

Length: 174.3 inches

Width: 69.7 inches

Height: 52.8 inches

Weight: 2,933 pounds

EPA mpg, city/highway: 18/24 (6-speed manual); 18/25 (4-speed auto)

Warranty: Bumper-to-bumper: 4 years/50,000 miles; roadside assistance: 4 years/50,000 miles

Safety: Dual-stage front airbags, side-impact and curtain airbags, anti-lock brakes, LATCH child-seat anchorage system, tire-pressure monitoring system. Available dynamic stability control with traction control.

Cool: Rotary engine, light-touch steering, great performance-to-price ratio, thoughtful interior, Freestyle doors, seating for four.

Uncool: Low torque, claustrophobic rear cabin

Accolades: Named "International Engine of the Year" at Engine Expo 2003 in Stuttgart, Germany

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Car Talk
You don't have to wait till the kids leave home to drive a real sports car. That's the message of the Mazda RX-8, a four-door sports car that arrives at dealerships in July.

A four-door sports car? Yeah, right.

I'd seen the pictures and read the previews, but I still couldn't wrap my head around the RX-8. What exactly was it? A passenger car squeezed into sports-car Spandex? A sports car poseur?

I was skeptical. And curious. So I jumped when Mazda invited a bunch of us automotive journalists to an RX-8 familiarization session in southern California.

Here's what I learned:

Mazda developers had three goals for the RX-8: First, It had to have striking and original sports-car styling. Second, it had to offer superior sports handling and performance. Third, it had to provide ride comfort and room for four adults.

It was to be a sports car like no other.

"Mazda realizes it has to be different to survive," said Robert Davis, Mazda's vice president of product development and marketing. In the case of the RX-8, being "different" meant not only putting four doors on a sports car, but bringing back the rotary engine.

"The rotary engine is Mazda's signature, and we wanted to respark the Mazda-rotary connection," Davis said, noting that the rotary engine is what makes this four-door sports car possible.

Rotary heritage

Mazda introduced its first rotary engine to the U.S. market in the 1979 Mazda RX-7. Small, simple and surprisingly powerful, the rotary went through three renditions. A racing version even won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1991, gaining a cult-like following. But the rotary proved high on emissions and low on mileage, and it disappeared altogether in 1995 when Mazda pulled the RX-7 from the market.

Mazda officially wiped its hands of the rotary, but a cadre of Mazda engineers worked quietly behind the scenes and developed a new, improved rotary, dubbed the Renesis (which stands for "the rotary engine's Genesis").

The Renesis is smaller, lighter, more fuel-efficient and more powerful than the old RX-7 rotaries. The normally aspirated 1.3-liter Renesis produces 250 horsepower in the 6-speed manual version, enabling the car to zip from zero to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds. The same engine produces 210 horsepower in the 4-speed automatic model.

The Renesis' compact size enabled engineers to position it behind the front axle and low to the ground, giving the RX-8 perfect 50/50 weight distribution and a low center of gravity. A regular piston engine up front would have thrown off the weight balance and ruined the car's dynamics.

Sporting style

Unlike sports sedans, which camouflage their sporting credentials beneath conservative bodies, the RX-8's whole exterior shouts "Sports Car!" With so many curves and bulges, it looks ready to jump out of its skin. Viewed head on, the car looks like an animal preparing to pounce, its nostrils flared. The profile isn't as sweet. The line starts out sleek and flowing, then dead ends at an angular rear window, which makes the rear look heavy. Speaking of the rear, the trunk is big enough to carry two golf bags or a weekend's worth of gear.

Climb into the driver's seat and you're surrounded by a gallery of textures - soft leather, smooth vinyl and black lacquer. I like the rotary cues on the headrests and manual shift knob. The three-spoke steering wheel is leather wrapped, the controls and instruments are neatly arranged, and the seats are firm and snug. The beltline is high (a sports car trend), but the hood line is low, affording great frontward visibility.

People room

How about the rear seats? Thanks to the RX-8's rear-hinged "Freestyle" doors and lack of center pillars, climbing into the back seats is a cinch (no Cirque de Soleil-like contortions required). I sat in back behind a 6-foot, 3-inch guy and I still had 2 inches between my knees and the back of his seat. To maximize leg room, you can slide your feet under the front seats, which are free of electric mechanicals. There's ample head and shoulder room, but the high beltline and small rear windows would have me itching to get out within an hour.

At least I'd be safe. A safety lock mechanism allows the rear doors to open only if the front doors are open. In addition, the doors are secured to the bottom of the chassis with hefty pins - and the rear doors have a "virtual" B-pillar built into the leading edge. Seatbelt pretensioners and head-protection curtain airbags are standard. The rear seats are equipped with LATCH child seat anchors, so carrying infants would be no problem.

But make no mistake: This isn't a family car; it's a real sports car.

Sporting performance

We tested 6-speed manual RX-8s on a slalom course on the former El Toro Marine Base in Irvine.

Before jumping into the driver's seat, I rode shotgun with a writer/amateur race driver. As he flung the RX-8 around the cones, the chassis felt firm and tight. Apparently the virtual B-pillar works, as there was absolutely no body flex.

During my turn at the wheel, I found the steering light and precise; the car gripped through the corners effortlessly. It felt perfectly balanced, light on its feet. After two laps, I disabled the dynamic stability control and did a lap. (Note to self: Always keep DSC engaged.)

After lunch, we hit the highways and byways of Newport Beach. That's where I discovered the sweet scream of the rotary engine. It's a high-revving thing that doesn't redline till 9,000 rpm, and it loves to live close to the edge (power peaks at 8,500 rpm).

I also discovered the rotary's Achilles' heal: a serious lack of torque: only 159 lb-ft at 5,500 rpm. This isn't a car you can lug uphill at only 3,000 rpm; you want to keep it revving high. The short-throw manual shifter is butter smooth, making shifting easy work. The suspension is firm and taut, yet it doesn't beat you up on rough pavement. The frontward view is great, but watch out backing up: Rear visibility is constricted by the tiny rear window and broad C-pillars.

The RX-8 is available in two trim levels. The 4-speed automatic version with paddle shifters (210 hp, 16-inch wheels) lists for $25,180. Mazda estimates 80 percent of buyers will opt for the 6-speed manual model (250 hp, 18-inch wheels and a sport-tuned suspension), priced at $26,680.

You can order a "built-to-spec" RX-8 online at, and follow its progression through the building process.

Fun to drive

During my five hours with the Mazda RX-8, I learned that it's a real sports car and it really can hold four full-size adults.

Best of all, it's so fun to drive and so light on its feet, once the rotary's screaming you'll forget anyone's even in the back seat.

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