by Deiondre van der Merwe
The Mazda RX-8 is an excellent little sports car and the last rotary-powered vehicle produced by the Japanese automaker. As the successor to the famous tuning icon that was the RX-7, the RX-8 came to some in the US as a disappointment. However, others see it as a spectacular piece of sports car history. The main reason for this is the 1.3-liter rotary under the hood, sending up to 232 horsepower to the rear wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox - provided you don't opt for the 212-hp six-ratio auto. Despite being down on power and torque compared to many, a sky-high redline of 8,500 rpm, the wailing of a Wankel motor, and technological advancements like a carbon fiber driveshaft all mean this is something unique. But against competition like the Nissan 370Z, special doesn't always mean impressive, and the NC Miata-related sports car has its flaws.
The RX-8 is a sports car that has an easily distinguishable exterior design, highlighted in three paint colors. The nose is complemented by a set of slim halogen headlights and a wide bumper. The rear end of the iconic machine boasts a spoiler and pointed taillights, while the dual-exhaust displays as two openings on either side of the diffuser. The design of the RX-8 is in-your-face Japanese, though its rear suicide doors make it unique. The R3 spec errs on the tacky side but by just enough for us to love it even more. The trim welcomes a body kit that adds different side skirts, a revised front bumper, rear spoiler and 19-inch wheels. In terms of dimensions, the four-door coupe has a length of 175.6 inches and a width of 69.7 inches. It has a curb weight of 3,111 pounds in its heaviest guise.
The RX-8's claim to fame over the years is that it's the only passenger car in the world that's powered by a rotary heart. The manufacturer's 1.3-liter rotary Wankel seems diminutive in comparison to the V8s that challenge it, but the 232-hp mill is mated perfectly to a six-speed manual transmission that proves power figures are just numbers after all. Automatic variants drop the horsepower figure down to 212 hp and allow for a lower 7,500 rpm peak in comparison to the manual version's 8,500 rpm. The torque figure sits at 159 lb-ft. You have to appreciate the 13B Renesis for the noise it produces, it sounds high-strung even at lower speeds and the soundtrack that is produced is absolutely unmistakable. It makes the run from 0 to 60 mph in around 6.5 seconds according to independent test drives, and top speed is rated at 145 mph.
While it has its flaws, the way it handles is not one of those. The engine, despite being front-mounted, is positioned behind the axle to centralize its weight on the wheelbase. This, in combination with other weight savings measures like a carbon fiber driveshaft, means that lightness is the order of the day. It pays dividends in the corners, where the high-strung motor, ultra-direct steering, and fine rear-wheel-driven chassis combine into one of the purest expressions of what a sports car can be. It might share a platform with the NC-generation Miata, but this is a different kettle of fish altogether. High levels of grip, particularly from the R3 derivative, and impressive stopping power yield one of the most involving drives to ever come out of Japan. In short, it's a ridiculously entertaining thing to drive - competitors don't come close.
Rotaries were not built to be frugal sippers, and the trend continues with the RX-8's mileage. With the automatic configurations, it's the most economical, returning EPA estimates of 16/23/19 mpg, slightly less fuel-efficient in comparison to the BMW 135i's 18/25/20 mpg. The worst performer of the lot is the manual-equipped variant with 16/22/18 mpg. A 16.9-gallon gas tank requires premium gasoline, resulting in a maximum combined range of 321 miles.
The inside of the RX-8 at a higher trim level is swathed in leather upholstery and soft-touch materials, though the base model gets cloth upholstery, making it one of the better interiors available at this price point. It's also one of the most practical cars of its kind, hiding seating for four within its compact appearance. Some will bemoan the strange suicide doors at the rear, but they give it a unique appearance and allow all four positions to be filled with ease. Taller adults are unlikely to struggle for space in the front, but the limited adjustability of the perches could be an issue for some. As for cargo space, it has a 7.6 cubic-foot trunk. This isn't particularly large, but it's not beyond manageable. Overall, the Mazda is undeniably sporty inside thanks to Recaro sport seats and a stubby gearshift.
Mazda's foremost performer is kitted out in terms of features, offering manual air conditioning on all models along with cruise control, leather upholstery, an eight-way power-adjustable driver's seat, and a multifunction steering wheel. Heated front thrones are stock in higher trims along with a leather-clad steering wheel. As for infotainment, an optionally available seven-inch LCD touchscreen enables Bluetooth streaming and navigation, and audio is pushed through a nine-speaker Bose system, though this is optional for the Grand Touring.
For safety, front, side, and head curtain airbags are standard across all trim levels along with an alarm, tire pressure monitoring, and warning lamps in the cluster. There are only partial reviews for the RX-8 from the NHTSA, awarding it a five-star rating for rollover protection.
The Mazda RX-8 may not be new, but it's a favorite amongst enthusiasts for a reason: the rotary sings an incredible song, and the balanced chassis is a performance driver's delight. But it's not known for reliability, and how much it'll cost you to keep it running is less than ideal. Still, few sports cars offer all that noise, rear-wheel-drive thrills, and four seats, meaning the Mazda RX-8 we review here is unique among its peers. An all-new variant isn't expected for some time, however, so now is your last chance.
The price for the Mazda RX-8 in the USA begins at around $26,795 and at just over $32,290 for a top-level trim.