2006 Mazda RX-8
2006 Mazda RX-8. Click image to enlarge


Review and photos by Peter Bleakney

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Weirdly wonderful. Strangely beautiful. If there is one car that proudly marches to the beat of a different taiko drummer, the Mazda RX-8 is it. There is not too much “normal” about this rotary-powered, clam shell-doored, four-seat sports car.

Let’s start with the obvious. The six-speed manual RX-8 is powered by a 1.3-litre twin-rotor Wankel engine that puts out 232 hp at 8500 rpm and 159 lb/ft of torque at 5500 rpm (the no-charge 6-speed auto car makes do with 212 hp). With no pistons or valves to go up and down, the very compact unit will happily rev to 9000 rpm (7500 for the automatic). Yes folks, that’s more spin than a White House press agent can whip up.

Time for a quick history lesson: German engineer Felix Wankel received a patent for his rotary engine in 1929. By placing a triangular rotor within an oval chamber, he was able to reproduce the four strokes of a piston engine (intake, compression, ignition and exhaust) within one rotation of the rotor. The rotor incorporates a central ring gear, and is driven around a fixed pinion. The three corners press against the inner sides of the chamber, and as it spins, the chamber size changes, creating compression.

2006 Mazda RX-8
2006 Mazda RX-8. Click image to enlarge

He worked through the 1940s to improve the design, and Mazda came on board in the sixties, introducing the rotary-powered Cosmo Sports 110S in 1967. While other auto and motorcycle makers have dipped their toes in the Wankel waters (Mercedes-Benz, General Motors, NSU, Citroen, Suzuki, Norton) they have long since departed, leaving Mazda as the sole and determined purveyor of rotary motivation.

Advantages of the Wankel engine are its high specific power output, smooth operation and compact size. The disadvantages, historically, have included poor fuel economy, relative lack of torque, high emissions, problems with rotary seals and excessive oil consumption. With this latest Renesis rotary, Mazda has brought most of these issues in line.

2006 Mazda RX-8
2006 Mazda RX-8. Click image to enlarge

As with the engine, the RX-8’s layout is a departure from the norm. Although it looks like a two seat coupe, the small rear “suicide” doors allow access to two quite comfortable and usable back seats. At just under six feet tall, I was able to “sit behind myself” without complaint.

The driver’s seat is really where you want to be. The interior is a paragon of design and an ergonomic delight, and the compact engine allows for a low cowl and sloping hood, so the view down the road is exemplary. The leather seats hug you an all the right places and the controls are perfectly placed. The rake-adjustable leather wrapped, multi-function wheel feels just right (same one as in my wife’s Mazda5, thank you) and the stubby shifter snicks even better than the one in the MX-5 Miata.

Rear 3/4 visibility, however, is somewhat compromised due to the large C-pillars and sculpted head restraints.

2006 Mazda RX-8
2006 Mazda RX-8. Click image to enlarge

Front and centre is a large tachometer containing a digital speed readout. The trio of gauges are clearly backlit. Not so for the small rectangular screen at the top of the centre stack that displays time, ambient temperature, HVAC and sound system settings. It completely washes out in bright sunlight. Too bad, as this is the only flaw here.

The HVAC and fine sounding six-CD in-dash Bose system are controlled with good old-fashioned big rotary knobs and large buttons. My tester had the $1,000 optional moonroof. A sat/nav system can be had for $3000.

Overall, a sense of high-quality pervades this driver-oriented environment, and it’s fun to look for the three-sided-rotor design theme that crops up both inside and outside the cabin. The way cool cut-outs in the seats are the most obvious.

From the outside, the RX-8 is a mixed bag. Like Rene Zellweger, it is sometimes dead sexy and at other times kinda odd, but never boring. For me, this car looks best from the front and not so great from the rear. Which, come to think of it, is exactly the opposite of Rene Z. Oh, never mind!

2006 Mazda RX-8
2006 Mazda RX-8. Click image to enlarge

As with any sports car, the experience is really about driving, and Mazda has created a zinger with the RX-8. However, we must get one little caveat out of the way first. The rotary engine is a tad shy in the torque department. Not a big deal, because it’s so neat just to rev the whee out of it and hear that strange turbine-like whine. With a claimed 0-100 km/h time of 6.0 seconds, the RX-8 is hardly slow, but in this age of ever-increasing engine outputs, there are those who will wish for something a little more visceral under the hood.

That said, I can’t heap enough praise on the dynamics of this rear-wheel-drive car. If you like your sports cars lithe, balanced, communicative and playful, the RX-8 delivers in spades. There’s not much this side of a Porsche Boxster that can serve up these motoring delights.

2006 Mazda RX-8
2006 Mazda RX-8. Click image to enlarge

On a twisting road it’s your willing ally. Riding on 225/45R18 performance rubber (Bridgestone Potenza RE040 on this tester), the RX-8 grips like a leech. Quick transitions don’t upset the chassis and the direct drive, electronically assisted steering is quick, perfectly weighted and laser accurate. Clutch take-up is smooth and the close-set pedals are positioned well for heel-and-toe downshifting.

It all inspires grins and confidence, and if you’re so inclined, the back end can be coaxed into sidestepping on tight second gear turns. The icing on the cake is a subtle ride that won’t beat you up on rough roads. Thank the stiff structure, front-mid-engine layout, and the finely tuned front double-wishbone and rear multi-link set-ups with gas filled dampers.

The RX-8 has a front/rear weight distribution of 48/52 % – quite remarkable for a front-engined car. This is really where the lightness and compact dimensions of the Wankel pay dividends.

You can usually count on Mazda to deliver good value, and with a base price of $37,095, the RX-8 GS is well priced. My tester was the GT (40,295) which adds heated leather seats, 8-way adjustable driver’s seat with adjustable lumbar, auto dimming mirrors, Homelink, Intelligent Key System, Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), alarm, and auto-levelling Xenon headlights.

Safety features include dual front and side airbags plus dual front and rear side curtains. Headlight washers are also standard on both cars.

2006 Mazda RX-8
2006 Mazda RX-8. Click image to enlarge

The traditional rotary bugaboos of fuel and oil consumption still raise their heads. I saw 12.1 L/100 km over a week of mixed city and highway driving and a Mazda service bulletin recommends checking your oil at every other fill up and topping up as necessary, although I’ve heard reports from a few RX-8 owners that 4500 km per litre of oil is pretty routine. Mazda has fashioned a true driver’s car in the RX-8. Its feline reflexes and lightness of being are something to behold. The fact that it seats four, is the only Wankel powered car extant, has a funky butt and wacky bicycle front fenders only adds to its allure. Vive la difference!


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