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Story and photos by Grant Yoxon
Mosport International Raceway, Ontario – You have a four door family sedan lifestyle, but your taste (and desires) lean more toward sports cars and coupes. If you had one car to choose, what would it be? The answer could be the 2004 RX-8, Mazda’s answer to this classic dilemma for driving enthusiasts.
Mazda has resurrected the RX nameplate and the rotary engine last seen in the 1995 RX-7. But this RX and its RENESIS (for Rotary Engine Genesis) rotary engine are unlike any RX or rotary that has gone before it.
Click image to enlarge. Photo: Mazda
First, the RX-8 has four doors. That would make it a sedan right? Well, not exactly. The RX-8 has two normal front doors and two small half-doors that open rearward, like a pickup truck or the similarly configured Saturn Ion Quad Coupe, which allow easy access to the rear bucket seats. There is no B-pillar, so it is a wide opening. And the back is not reserved for people under four feet tall. These seats are meant to hold adults. Headroom is adequate for six-footers and there is sufficient legroom too, so long as the folks in front give an inch or two.
Mazda insists the RX-8 is a coupe and I won’t argue the point. It really depends on the angle; from the front, the RX-8 certainly looks like a sports coupe, but from the rear or three-quarter view, it appears more sedan like. Certainly there will be no mistaking an RX-8 for anything but an RX-8. With its low ride height, distinctive fenders and long roof line (to accommodate full-size rear passengers), the RX-8 is unique. But if more manufacturers join Saturn and Mazda with these mini rear doors, we might need a new classification.
Inside and out, the rotary engine provides a design theme. Rotor emblems are everywhere – in the seatbacks, on the manual shift knob, impressed in the hood and on the engine cover, as well as below the grille.
Mazda designers kept the interior design simple and functional, but it is not plain by any means. Different textures, like leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, bright work found on the shift knob, front door handles, dash and centre console, and the glossy-black, CD-shaped panel that contains the controls for the car’s 9-speaker Bose audio system, provide variety. But available two-tone leather interior treatments really jazz it up.
A cabin-long centre console divides both front and rear buckets, providing storage space and cup holders. The trunk is decent for a small car – 290 litres or about 10 cubic feet.
The RX-8 is available in two trim packages – GS and GT. Cloth covered, manually adjustable seats are standard, with a driver’s manual seat lifter on GS models ($36,795). Features such as cruise control, steering wheel mounted cruise and audio controls, air conditioning, power door locks and windows, remote keyless entry, engine immobilizer, 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels, fog lights and headlight cleaners are standard equipment. The GT ($39,595) adds heated, leather seating surfaces, 8-way power adjustable driver’s seat, auto-dimming rear view mirror with Homelink, anti-theft alarm system, auto-levelling Xenon headlights and dynamic stability and traction control. A limited slip rear differential is standard on manual transmission cars and the automatic equipped GT. A power moon roof ($1000) and navigation system ($3000) are the only options.
Despite four doors and full four-passenger capability, there is no doubt the RX-8 is a sports car. In cars equipped with the 6-speed manual transmission, a 10,000 r.p.m. tachometer is front and centre for the driver because the 1.3 litre rotary engine produces 247 horsepower at a lofty 8,500 r.p.m. Redline is 9,000 r.p.m.
The sound of the RX-8 approaching redline is unlike anything you will hear on either two or four wheels. It is not a roar nor a whine, but more like a robust snarl. An electronic alarm urges you to move up a gear.
A short stalk shifter with short throws falls readily to hand. Shifter and clutch action is as good as it gets, as good as the Miata, widely acknowledged to be one of the best.
The RX-8’s RENESIS rotary engine is unlike any engine you will find in any other vehicle or any rotary before it. A rotary engine performs the four processes of intake, compression, combustion, and exhaust in succession by turning a triangular-shaped rotor in a cocoon-shaped combustion chamber. Compared to traditional internal combustion engines, it is significantly smaller and high revving, but previous rotaries suffered from high fuel consumption and poor emission ratings.
But Mazda didn’t give up on the rotary. The new RENESIS rotary has been significantly re-engineered to meet legislated fuel consumption and emission standards. The most significant change is the re-location of the exhaust ports from the trochoidal housing of a conventional rotary engine to the side housing of the rotor chamber, which allowed engineers to optimize the engine’s port profiles and eliminate exhaust and intake port overlap. Adding variable induction control, electronic throttle valving, efficient fuel injectors and high-performance spark plugs resulted in a clean-burning engine that meets some of the toughest emission standards in the world including 2005 Euro Stage IV.
It is a major accomplishment and Mazda has already been recognized for their work on the rotary, receiving a prestigious award last month. The RENESIS engine was named ‘International Engine of the Year 2003’ at Engine Expo 2003 in Stuttgart Germany.
Even so, fuel consumption is only acceptable – with manual transmission the RX-8 is rated at 12.8 litres per 100 kilometeres in the city and 9.2 L/100 km on the highway, while cars with automatic transmissions are rated by Natural Resources Canada at 12.9 L/100 km city and 8.8 L/100 km highway.
In cars equipped with the 4-speed automatic transmission, the rotary’s horsepower is reduced to 207 at 7,200 r.p.m. Though not as robust as the manual, the auto-equipped RX-8 proved to be a fun to drive car in its own right. The transmission can be shifted manually either with the shifter or large steering wheel mounted paddles. Shifts are lightning quick and, unlike most other manual-shifting automatics, it won’t shift up or down automatically if you forget to shift. I actually hit the rev limiter expecting the transmission to shift up. Marvellous. I only wished for another gear.
Torque figures for automatic and manual transmission cars differ as well, with the auto rated at 164 lb.-ft. at 5,000 r.p.m. and the manual at 159 lb.-ft. at 5,500 r.p.m. Although Mazda claims a 0 to 60 mile per hour (0 to 102 km/h) time of 6.0 seconds (manual transmission), you have to get the revs up before this engine turns on the power.
But the RX-8’s rotary is as happy turning over at 2,500 r.p.m. in fifth as it is blasting to 9,000 r.p.m. in second. This makes for enjoyable, if docile, motoring in traffic, while scintillating performance is just a downshift away. Considering the type of driving most of us encounter on our daily travels, the RENESIS rotary engine is versatile indeed.
Speaking of scintillating performance, we had the opportunity to drive the new RX-8 on every track at Mosport International Raceway during the media introduction held there last week. On both the slalom and Mosport’s 2.5 mile road course, the RX-8 displayed great balance and cornering capability nearly the equal of the Miata.
Mazda has achieved a near perfect 50/50 front to rear weight distribution thanks to the light and compact rotary engine and placement of the fuel tank ahead of the rear suspension. A low floor pan and seating position keeps the centre of gravity low, aiding handling.
If we had one complaint, it would be the RX-8’s light steering feel. Although the power-assisted and speed-sensitive steering provides good feedback, the car felt twitchy and overly sensitive to cross winds and lack of attention.
With good handling cars there is usually a trade-off in ride comfort, yet Mazda seems to have made few compromises with the RX-8. Even over rough surfaces, the RX-8 provided a comfortable and quiet ride.
Safety features are state of the art: four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock braking and electronic brake force distribution, available dynamic stability and traction control, dual stage front airbags, dual front side airbags and front and rear side curtain, and ISO-FIX child seat anchors with top tether in the rear seat positions. Mazda claims that its ‘virtual centre pillar system’ – reinforced rear doors and significant body side strength – is as safe as a typical four-door sedan.
All of which is important if you intend to use your RX-8 to satisfy both your needs and desires. The 2004 Mazda RX-8 can do both, delivering sports car performance and handling with the practicality of a four-door sedan.
The 2004 Mazda RX-8 arrives in dealerships this month.