2004 Mazda RX-8 GS
Photo: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

by Paul Williams

Back in the early days of automotive journalism, it was common for writers (typically men, of course) to describe cars using the same adjectives they used for women. Certain hacks would freely use gratuitous sexual metaphors to represent the sinuous profile of a Ferrari, for instance, or slyly comment upon the fulsome shape of a Lamborghini’s rear end. Some cars, like movie stars of the day, were portrayed as exciting and sophisticated, while others were regarded as temperamental and demanding.

Times change. We never see cheap stereotypes like these from today’s enlightened auto writer.

Not a chance.

But if we did – and I’m speaking purely hypothetically – if we did, well, that new Mazda RX-8 is one hot little number!

2004 Mazda RX-8 GS

2004 Mazda RX-8 GS

2004 Mazda RX-8 GS
Photos: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

Yessiree. This cutie can move in with me any day of the week. I just couldn’t take my eyes off her, and when I was behind the wheel, she responded to my every move like she could read my mind. I’d think we were made for each other, except for one thing.
Man, she’s got issues.

Well, before I lose my job, let me calmly recommend that if you’re in the market for a competitively priced sporty sedan, you should drive the RX-8. It’s a car that can cause you to lose all kinds of inhibitions.

It’s not really a sedan, I suppose, but take it for a spin, and you’ll find yourself wondering how much you use that back seat, anyway. Because clearly people who live and breathe cars have designed the RX-8 – there’s simply nothing else like it on the road. It’s not that it’s so vastly superior to everything in its price range; it’s just that it’s so totally different.

First of all, the RX-8 is low. This is a time when manufacturers are making tall sedans that you just open the door to, point your bum in, and you’re there. But the roof of the RX-8 is below my chest (and I have Welsh ancestry!) so you descend somewhat indelicately into its sculpted bucket seat. There, you find a perfect fit, and an excellent view over its superbly conceived fender and swoopy hood.

What else is different? It’s rear-wheel drive. Most everything else on the market is front-drive, four-door, V6, yadda-yadda. But this is rear-drive with two hidden rear-doors that work surprisingly well, and it’s powered with a 238-horsepower, 1.3-litre rotary engine that screams to 9000 rpm in each of its six manual gears. You’re going to like that.

Or you can get a five-speed automatic at no extra charge if you need to preserve some semblance of conservative behaviour, but the engine is reduced to 197 horsepower in this configuration.

The dashboard locates a big analog tachometer right in the middle of the gauge cluster (following RX-7 tradition), with a little digital speedometer included almost as an afterthought. At night the instruments are bathed in a soft blue light. The gearshift is capped with an aluminum knob in the shape of a rotor from the engine, and that shape is echoed with inserts found in the head restraints of the front seats. Nice touches like these are found throughout the car.

2004 Mazda RX-8 GS

2004 Mazda RX-8 GS

2004 Mazda RX-8 GS

2004 Mazda RX-8 GS
Photos: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

The two rear seats are functional and comfortable for the short haul. Ingress and egress is easy with the novel rear doors.

Once you’re underway, and as soon as you turn the steering wheel, you know this is a handling car. Your first inclination is to drive down the road from side-to-side, like they do in Formula 1 to warm up the tires. Your next inclination is to join the local slalom club, because with its superb suspension, low centre of gravity and balanced weight distribution (close to 50/50) the RX-8 is simply flat in the corners, no matter how much you push it.

Acceleration is brisk, and the sensation of speed is amplified by sitting so close to the road. There’s torque in every gear – it doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re in third, or fourth or fifth – just flatten the accelerator and you’re away.

And while you’re enjoying yourself, people look at you (well, they’ll look at the car, not you). They pull up beside it, drop back behind it, get beside it again to look inside. Its appeal is magnetic because the styling, literally, is outside the box.

I think this is a triumph of design. Maybe the rear is a bit less successful, but the front and sides are wonderfully sculpted. Even the roof is notable, with its character lines running down each side (the optional sunroof spoils this effect, by the way). Overall the car looks both aggressive and sophisticated, and successfully renders the feeling of “athletic tension” that Mazda set as a design goal for this car.

The RX-8 comes in two trim levels: GS and GT. They both get standard 18″ alloys with 225/45 series tires, big four-wheel discs with anti-lock, sport tuned suspension, Bose sound system with six-disc CD changer, electric power steering, dual exhaust and a full range of power utilities to complete the package. The GT adds xenon headlamps, leather seating surfaces, an anti-theft system and an optional sunroof, among other cosmetic features.

So what’s not to like? Ah, yes, the issues.

It uses a lot of fuel, and premium at that. This was always a complaint about rotary engines, and even though this is the latest Renesis version, the Energuide ratings for this car are 12.8/9.2 litres/100 km for city and highway. Compare that to a 240 horsepower Honda Accord which gets 11.5/7.3 using regular gas. In real-world driving, I was able to get just over 400 kilometres of highway driving from a tank in the RX-8, which is not great.

And it uses oil. This is another historical complaint about rotary engines. They consume oil. A Mazda service bulletin recommends checking the oil every second fill-up, and topping up as necessary. In practice, this is difficult and inconvenient. The dipstick is buried in the engine bay, where it’s hard to find and reach. Once removed, you find the dipstick is the same colour as the oil, so it’s hard to determine the level. And at night, it’s impossible to replace without a flashlight. You simply can’t find the entry point.

2004 Mazda RX-8

2004 Mazda RX-8

2004 Mazda RX-8

2004 Mazda RX-8
Photos: Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

To make matters worse, adding oil requires removing the plastic engine shroud to expose the engine. This is not a big job, but it takes some effort. It’s odd that the filler cap is not easily accessible, given the frequency with which you’re expected to top up the oil. The oil light came on several times during my road test, usually when it was down about a half-litre (a bit alarming in these days of changing your oil every 12,000 km). All this oil consumption blackened the sporty, chrome dual exhaust tips.

Other issues? I couldn’t properly adjust the seat. To get the seat right for my legs, I needed a telescopic steering column. In the RX-8 it tilts, but doesn’t telescope. Consequently, in order to use the clutch effectively, I was always too close to the steering wheel.

And the layout of the instruments, while classic, is not optimal. Frankly, if the tachometer must be in the centre, it needs a bigger, centrally mounted, digital speedometer (the one that’s there is too small, and off-centre). A supplementary analog speedometer would be most appreciated, and could be achieved by moving the oil pressure gauge currently alone in the right section of the three-part panel, into the gas and temperature section on the left. That would free up an entire section for an analog speedometer.

Other concerns include the small trunk, the rear passengers feeling claustrophobic (they can’t see out the small, pivoting, rear window), the lack of traction control availability on the GS, the cheap-looking interior rear-view mirror, and the hard-to-read knobs (especially at night) for the climate control. And while I said the torque was available in every gear, it’s not what you’d call robust.

But at the end of the day, should you care? Really, if you want to bust out of your routine life, and you’re looking for a four-seat car in the mid-$30,000 range, then you can make one major statement by buying an RX-8 over a standard four-door sedan. Maybe it’s not the most rational purchase, not what you’d call mainstream, but you’ll have to pay twice as much to get the kind of exclusivity that Mazda’s offering with this car.

Remember how you used to think you were different from other people? That you weren’t just one of the masses? Here’s your chance to get back onboard with yourself. A return to a more adventurous, bold, spontaneous you.

But try to avoid boorish gender stereotypes to describe your new car. So tacky.

Technical Data: 2004 Mazda RX-8 GS

Base price $36,795
Freight $925
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $37,820
Type Four-door, four passenger sports coupe
Engine 1.3 litre, twin rotor Renesis rotary
Horsepower 238 @ 8,500 rpm (197 @ 7,200 rpm w/auto trans.)
Torque 159 lb.-ft. @ 5,500 rpm (164 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm w/auto trans.)
Transmission 6-speed manual transmission (5-speed auto w/sport mode/paddles
Tires P225/45R-18
Curb weight 1,384 kg (3,051 lb.)
Wheelbase 2,700 mm (106.3 in.)
Length 4,424 mm (174.1 in.)
Width 1,771 mm ( 69.7 in.)
Height 1,334 mm ( 52.8 in.)
Trunk space 290 litres (10.2 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 12.8 l/100 km (22 mpg)
  Hwy : 9.2 l/100 km (31 mpg)
Fuel Premium
Warranty 3 yrs/80,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km

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