Mazda’s new RX-8 is a son of a gun – the legendary RX-7. Time to saddle up, hit the highway and pull the trigger of the most revolutionary car of recent times.
Ever since he drove the RX-8 in Japan last year, the usually affable Dr Peter Louisson has been unbearable. Any time any of us has waxed lyrical about driving some latest and greatest car, the Doc has taken the wind out of our sails. He’d give our current rave a quick once around the block, come back, and dismiss it quickly with phrases like, “Not bad, but it’s not a patch on the RX-8.” It was clear that a handful of laps around a Mazda test track in a pre-prod prototype RX-8 had made a lasting impression on him. He left no doubt that it was his new benchmark by the way he kept singing its praises. It was like having a Mazda commercial endlessly replaying itself in his corner of the office. Believe me, I have been sorely tempted – more than once – to snuff out the “zoom zoom” of Mazda’s mind-numbing lyrics with a double-barrelled ‘boom boom’.
The Doc’s insidious enthusiasm for the RX-8 made me want to hate the Mazda all the more prior to driving it. The new Rotarian and I didn’t get off to the best of starts anyway. I arrived back at the office from a photo shoot to find the grinning doctor handing me the keys to what I thought was a near-virginal test sample. When I jumped into the car, I found he’d already drained three-quarters of the fuel tank during performance testing. When I hauled him over red-hot coals for this cardinal sin against the editorial budget, he eventually admitted to “taking the long way back to the office” from the test road. His punishment?
To be made to drink Lion Red instead of Redback, his beloved Aussie beer, at all future office shouts. That’ll teach him for burning ‘my’ fuel. The point of this sorry tale of professional rivalry is that RX-8 had a mountain of prejudice to climb once the keys were safely clasped in my hands. I couldn’t wait to find its soft underbelly, then surgically insert the poisoned pen. Trouble was, the RX-8’s faults were far from obvious. The normally aspirated twin-rotor engine might maintain the reputation of ‘spin cycle’ engines for thirst, but it does offer a 20 per cent fuel-use improvement over a turbocharged RX-7. Besides, any criticism in this regard would fly in the face of its recent International Engine of the Year award. Apart from a liking for dinosaur juice out of proportion with the usual needs of a 1.3 litre engine, and the slightly ‘sticky’ shift action of the six-speed manual gearbox, the RX-8 represents almost the perfect road vehicle. It is totally adept at meeting the divergent needs of all the drivers in any given family, and as capable of providing sporting thrills as cocooning its occupants from the tedious commuting toil. It only took a few kays at the wheel to admit – grudgingly – that the Doctor just might be able to tell a truly exceptional car from a merely excellent one.
So the rotary engine makes a glorious return to our market hot from its international win, a gong decided upon by 50 motoring writers worldwide (including our own Brian Cowan). As befits such a prestigious accolade, this rotary is remarkable, and for more reasons than just the extraction of some 177 kW of power from a cubic capacity normally associated with tinny little econo-boxes driven by the blue-rinse perm brigade. Because of a different approach to measuring a rotary, some engineers – mostly those associated with rival car companies – will tell you that the engine is actually 2.6 litres in size instead of 1.3. Even taking this less flattering specific output measurement into consideration, that peak power figure should still raise the pulse of anyone with any concept of fossil fuel as a source of entertainment. But that alone doesn’t do it for me, the ability of this new-age rotary to produce levels of power from a modest 1.3 litres akin to a 3.5-litre six-cylinder. Nor does the fact that it generates that power peak at a heady 8200 rpm while still qualifying for Euro IV emission status in the First World and low-emission-vehicle tax breaks in California. What really turns my crank about the new rotary is the packaging.
For the most impressive aspect of the twin-rotor engine is where it can be placed within the wheelbase of the car. The turbocharged 13B rotary of the last RX-7 was already an efficiently packaged engine capable of lowering the centre of gravity and providing better front-to-rear weight distribution than reciprocating alternatives. Indeed, it was the quality of the powertrain packaging and low engine mass that provided the foundations for the RX-7’s legendary handling, and allowed it to pull off V8-spanking feats such as victory over a Monaro-mounted Peter Brock in the last Targa New Zealand. The RX-8 improves this formula by mounting the engine 40 mm further back and 60 mm lower than in the RX-7, while lowering the mass further through the binning of sundry turbos and intercoolers. The dynamic result of these revisions is absolutely spectacular.
Chassis balance is something you usually only notice in cars that don’t have any, but the RX-8 immediately gives every impression that it could walk a tightrope across the Huka Falls blindfolded. This is the quality that is the rotary engine’s very reason for existence, the Holy Grail that kept Mazda swimming against the flow of accepted engineering wisdom until it perfected it. The rash of early rotary apex seal failures that blighted cars like the RX-2 sedan was a small price to pay for a technology that allowed Mazda in 1991 to become the first (and only) Japanese manufacturer to win Le Mans. That the race authorities banned rotary engines immediately after the winning four-rotor 787B crossed the line only highlighted the power-to-weight advantages Mazda’s spinning rotors held over their reciprocating competitors. The 787B weighed just 830 kg and the roto-motor developed a healthy 523 kW. Listen hard as you watch the needle of the RX-8’s large, centrally mounted tacho chase the 9000-rpm redline, and you’ll hear echoes of the 787B whistling down the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans at over 320 km/h. Well that’s the sound the romantic in me hears: to philistines it’ll have all the appeal of a band-saw cutting through gib board. At maximum rpm, the RX-8 emits another sound as well. The shift-warning beep of the RX-7 makes a welcome return to our market, and it’s no gimmick. It is the only hint the Mazda gives of the need for a higher gear. For, as in most stock rotaries, noise, vibration and harshness levels are well below what we’re used to.
If you like top-end power, the six-speed manual version of the RX-8 will be the one for you. The slighter mass of the vehicle compensates for the comparative lack of torque at low revs, and it just keeps filing the surrounding traffic into the mirrors at sub-5000 rpm engine speeds. However, this is also the threshold for the RX-8 to get serious about being a true sports car, the start of a long, withering burst of power that lasts all the way to the redline. At 6250 rpm the intricate variable-length induction system of the manual changes throat, enhancing the rush of power reaching the limited-slip rear diff via a carbon-fibre driveshaft. It’s this top-end rush that makes the RX-8 such an engaging car to drive. Keep the tacho soaring above 6000 rpm, listen out for the beeps to time the upshifts, and you’ll cut a swathe through a country back road with enough urgency to invite Porsche Boxster comparisons.
Not everyone derives pleasure from working an engine hard, and for those that like a less frenetic driving pace there’s the other RX-8: the four-speed automatic version. This misses out on the induction trickery, and receives two intake ports per rotor to the manual’s three. The result is more efficient performance at lower rpm at the expense of almost all the top-end snap. Peak power drops by more than 30 kW to 141 kW at 7000 rpm, and the torque peak now becomes the engine’s defining statistic. The auto-eight generates 220 Nm at 5000 rpm compared to the manual’s 216 Nm at 5500. As befits the softer powertrain, Mazda has toned down the chassis tune of the two-pedal RX-8. It receives a less stiff front stabiliser bar (25.4 mm in diameter instead of 26.5 mm) and plusher springs all round.
It’s hard to imagine the need to revise the suspension of the automatic RX-8 when at the wheel of the manual. Few cars with sporting aspirations come set up so supple and plush. The chassis focus is close to that of the FPV GT in that ride quality hasn’t been sacrificed in the quest for cornering grip. It’s probably fair to say that the RX-8 trades a few lateral-gees for its ability to pamper occupants over the long haul. Price position competitors like the Nissan 350Z or Subaru Impreza STi will make better ‘track day’ drives at any car club event, but given the choice of this tasty trio to drive from Auckland to Wellington, we’ll take the RX-8, thanks.
We need to remember that Mazda is hard at work on a new-generation RX-7 to meet the needs of hardcore enthusiasts. RX-8 could afford, therefore, to be a softer drive, and more GT-oriented. But don’t get the idea that this isn’t a grin-generator par excellence. As the female crew chief said to the race driver: “It’s not the amount of grip you’ve got that matters, but what you do with it.” And the way the RX-8 relinquishes its grip is the key to its magic, but to experience this you’re first going to have to switch off the standard-issue Dynamic Stability Control system. Although calibrated so as not to intrude rudely, the RX-8’s DSC still acts as a chaperone, and prevents the full consummation of the union of car and driver. It’ll keep the Mazda tracking straight and true while maintaining enough corner speed to provide mild exhilaration, but turning it off takes this chassis to another level of driving pleasure altogether.
Without DSC, the RX-8 just loves to be ‘backed’ into corners. Late braking into turns produces a measured amount of oversteer, which can be maintained, even enhanced, by applying the throttle for a wild, tail-out slide through the bend. The transition between brake-slide and power-on is wonderfully smooth, and at no time does the car get unsettled, or run wide – a hallmark of a beautifully balanced car. If you like playing toss and catch while cornering, Mazda has made catching the tail of this one child’s play (Mrs Owen: when are you finally going to act your age?).
The facility of the RX-8 to have two tyres burning and two turning when cornering has a willing accomplice in its electrically assisted steering. The system’s such a good ’un you don’t notice the lack of hydraulics until reading the press blurb. With the linear increase in assistance the further the wheel is turned and the precise feedback available to the driver, Mazda dishes out a ‘how to do it’ lesson to BMW no less, the RX-8 succeeding in an area where the Z4 patently fails.
The final component of the RX-8’s dynamic appeal is the brake system. The middle pedal also displays calibration that suggests that this car was developed by people who love to drive hard. It has a progressive action, and the generous ventilated discs haul the car to a halt with some urgency. At 33.39 metres, the stop from 100 km/h was one of the shortest we’ve measured, but equally notable is the pedal feel and placement of the newest Mazda. If you were going to open a driving academy, this would be the demonstration car for ‘Heel and Toe 101’. The alloy pedals that encourage such downshift dancing are but one aspect of the RX-8’s impressive interior.
Once you sit inside the RX-8 you realise Mazda has stolen a march on its Nissan and Subaru rivals. The 300-watt nine-speaker Bose audio system looks as good as anything from B&O, and black lacquer – a traditional finish of Japanese furniture – looks upmarket in its applications on the centre dash and door panels. The designers got quite enthusiastic with their rotor shapes all over the interior, but you’ll find their finest expression of the theme in the triangular alloy gear lever. Equipment includes pollen-filtered climate control, cruise, power eight-way seat adjustment for the driver, tilt-adjustable steering wheel, and overhead sunglasses storage.
As if a user-friendly rotary engine wasn’t a radical enough concept, the RX-8 will also generate lots of column inches for its ‘freestyle’ rear doors. Although Mazda still insists that this is a coupé body, the rear-hinged doors provide four-door convenience; however, only those below 175 cm in height need apply for the two back seats: headroom comes more limited in the rear than legroom – and the latter’s on a par with that offered by a 3 Series BMW. A long centre console extension covers the robust transmission tunnel that allows the RX-8 body to have class-leading torsional rigidity (at 30,000 Nm per degree of twist), and this also divides the two rear bucket seats. It goes all the way to the parcel shelf, although a plastic panel detaches to create a portal to the rear boot for skis and other long loads. The boot offers 290 litres of space, a measurement no doubt taken before Mazda NZ added a space-saver spare for our puncture-prone market.
The four-seat, four-door RX-8 offers so much practicality that it really begs the question on whether it qualifies as a sports car. If your definition says that such cars are only defined by the amount of driving pleasure they provide, then the RX-8 certainly qualifies. However, while the Doc and I now concur on the absolute excellence of the new Mazda, we still debate over its status. For me, there is nothing bestial about the RX-8, no primal quality that places any demands on the driver or passengers – and a sports car should place performance above everything else. The ultra-civilised RX-8 will just have to settle for being one of the world’s best-value Gran Turismos instead.
|Engine||1308cc, rotary, EFI, 177kW/211Nm||Drivetrain||6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive|
|Fuel Use||XL/100km||C02 Output||Xg/km|