2008 Mazda RX-8 Grand TouringPosted on May 15th, 2008
Rotary speed demon
By Nina Russin
I love cars that spit in the face of convention. The Mazda RX-8 is a personal favorite. The rotary engine under its hood is about the size of a gallon of milk, but its output matches four- cylinder blocks that have twice its mass. The design might not seem radical by today’s standards, but it was a different scenario in the years immediately after World War II.
A German engineer named Felix Wankel came up with the idea of using a rotor rather than reciprocating pistons to create power. Automakers scoffed at Wankel’s idea, citing durability issues in the prototype. But Mazda swam against the stream, unveiling the prototype Mazda Cosmo, the first rotary engine car, at 1964 the Tokyo Motor Show. The Mazda Cosmo Sport went into production for the 1967 model year.
Four decades in production
Mazda remains the only automaker to use the rotary engine in production: over two million rotary- powered cars have rolled off Mazda assembly lines in the past four decades. They include the R100, the RX-2, RX-3, RX-4, and RX-5 Cosmo, and a rotary pickup truck. The RX-7 sports car debuted in 1979. Its successor, the RX-8 rolled out in 2003. The current model is the second generation, introduced last year.
The RX-8 has racing roots as well. The current RENESIS rotary engine is based on Mazda’s formula race cars. It runs off two rotors rather than one, for better fuel efficiency and fewer emissions.
It revs much higher than conventional internal combustion engines: redline is over 9000 rpm, with peak horsepower (232) beginning at 8500 rpm, and peak torque (159 lbs.-ft.) beginning at 5500.
Modified versions of the current RX-8 campaign in the Grand American Road Racing Association’s Grand Am Cup Street Tuner division. The production model is fast, light, and not half bad to look at. Best of all, it’s affordable. Base price on the sport model is $26,435.
Nothing says “Arrest me” like candy apple red.
The minute I opened the garage door, I knew I was in trouble. The RX-8 may be small, but so is a Roman candle. The paint is called Velocity Red for a reason. By the end of the week, I feared my driver’s license would be the same color.
But sports cars have the same effect on me that tarpaper does on flies. I hopped behind the wheel and lit up the ignition. Three thousand pounds of heavenly joy purred beneath my feet.
Though I didn’t take the car to the track, I had plenty of time to drive around town. Like the Mazda Miata, the RX-8 is a car that makes everyday driving an adventure. Part of its appeal is its size: the wheelbase is a mere 106-inches.
It’s exceptionally easy to maneuver through traffic, and it can find a right-sized hole between a couple of big sport-utility vehicles. The down-side is that the car’s low profile makes it harder for other drivers to see, especially high profile trucks.
It’s obvious that the guys who designed the RX-8 love to drive. Every component on the car is positioned to enhance performance: the engine midship, and the fuel tank ahead of the rear axle to maintain a fifty/fifty weight balance. All four seating positions are low and inside the frame.
The fully independent aluminum suspension minimizes unsprung weight. Monotube gas shocks keep eighteen-inch wheels and low-profile tires firmly planted on the ground. Large vented disc brakes with four-channel ABS stop the car on a dime.
The steering wheel small like a race car; so is the shift knob. Because the rear doors are hinged in back, there’s no B-pillar, so visibility to the side is excellent. Ditto for visibility to the rear.
Up front: an analog tachometer dominates the gauge cluster. A small digital display inside the tach gauge is the speedometer. The pedals are textured metal and rubber for traction: a short clutch throw makes quick shifts easy. Gears on the six-speed manual transmission have enough range for the real world: specifically for rush-hour traffic.
Seats four adults
Because the rear doors are hinged in back, the back seats are fairly easy to enter and exit. There is more hip, shoulder and head room in the back seats than I expected. With the front seats pulled forward, there’s enough leg room for a small adult. Both front and rear seats have center console bins and cupholders. All four seating positions have three-point safety harnesses. There are overhead reading lamps for both rows of passengers.
The instrument panel is small and compact: the gauge cluster has analog readouts for oil pressure and temperature. Climate and audio controls on the center stack are easy to reach from both front seating positions. The steering wheel has redundant audio and cruise control buttons, so the driver can keep his eyes on the road.
The side mirrors are small but adequate to minimize any blind spots to the sides and rear of the car.
The trunk is big enough to hold a modest amount of luggage or some groceries, but I wouldn’t want to try to stuff a bicycle inside. The RX-8 is all about the sport of driving: it’s useless for carrying gear for other sports, and due to its low stance, a poor choice for driving off-road.
Available in three grades
The 2008 RX-8 comes in three grades: Sport, Touring and Grand Touring. The test car is the upscale Grand Touring Grade, priced from $31,070, with two options: Sirius satellite radio ($430), and navigation ($2000). Standard equipment above the base sport grade includes HID headlamps, fog lamps, a moonroof, upgraded Bose audio system, eighteen-inch wheels, limited slip differential, sport suspension, leather trim with heated front seats, heated outside mirrors and keyless start.
All models come with four-channel antilock brakes, front, side and side curtain airbags. Dynamic stability control is optional on the base model, and standard on both Touring and Grand Touring grades.
Because the engine is positioned towards the back of the engine bay, there is an ample crumple zone in front. The brake pedal is designed to break away in a severe collision, to prevent injury to the feet and legs. The hood design yields to pedestrian impact more than a standard design.
All models come with a three-year, 36,000 mile warranty and 24/7 roadside assistance. The fortieth anniversary RX-8 is available for test drives at Mazda dealerships nationwide.
Likes: A fun, affordable sports car with a racing heritage. The sleek RX-8 is as much fun to drive as many cars that cost twice as much. While the rear seats don’t have a lot of legroom, the car can hold four adult passengers.
Dislikes: Average fuel economy of 18 mpg is not particularly good for such a small, light car. The trunk is too small to make the RX-8 a practical lifestyle vehicle for athletes who carry large gear on a regular basis.
Model: RX-8 Grand Touring
Base price: $31,070
As tested: $34,254
Horsepower: 232 Hp @ 8500 rpm
Torque: 159 lbs.-ft. @ 5500 rpm
Antilock brakes: Standard
Side curtain airbags: Standard
First aid kit: N/A
Bicycle friendly: No
Fuel economy: 16/22 mpg
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