Three new colors are all that define the 2007 Mazda RX-8 but the styling's still fresh, the unique rotary engine still spins to 9000 rpm as it delivers 232 hp, and the clamshell four doors open to an interior that's surprisingly luxurious and perfectly suitable for a family with small children. With a base price of $27,030 ($31,665 as tested) the RX-8 is somewhat of a bargain compared to other sports cars. Our well-equipped RX-8 Grand Touring came with a 6-speed manual; a 6-speed automatic is available. EPA mileage: 18 city/24 highway.
First Glance: A coupe you can live with
Mazda's RX-8 would be unique enough if all it had to differentiate itself from the competition was its engine. But the product planners went a step further to create a 4-door coupe (link goes to photo), something no other manufacturer offers. Forget those sedans falsely referred to as coupes in PR releases and ads; they're merely pretenders with styling that does little more than create discomfort for passengers who squirm to get in and can barely see out. The 2007 RX-8 is the real thing and it works, albeit primarily as a conveyance for owners with small children.
The rotary engine - Mazda calls it RENESIS, but as a purist I refer to it as the Wankel in honor of its German inventor, Felix Wankel - differentiated Mazda's RX series from the start. Having no valves a-popping, no pistons sliding up and down (or back and forth) and no camshaft, it is brilliantly simple, producing ample power from an engine whose size and weight is much less than reciprocating engines with similar outputs. The current dual-chamber rotary delivers 232 hp, redlined at 9000 rpm from a mere 1.3 liters in displacement, though torque is less impressive at 159 lb. ft. and fuel economy is a weakness.
Aside from its engine and versatility, you could, however, buy this beauty on looks alone.
In the Driver's Seat: Better accommodations than many large sedans
Prior to driving the Mazda RX-8 I was testing an Audi A8L executive sedan (read review). I could not get in or out, front or back, without bumping my head. What would the much-lower RX-8 be like? Amazingly I had no such difficulty and that included an intimidatingly narrow rear door. Tall drivers will find this a welcoming interior.
Of course it's what's up front that counts most in a sports car and the RX-8 met most of my expectations. An 8-way power driver's seat made it easy to get comfortable, especially on a winter's day when those heated front seats were welcome. Instruments were large and easily read but what caught my eye immediately was the placement of the tachometer: front and center, like a race car. In fact it took a few moments to spot the speedometer which, it turned out, was a digital instrument within the tach. Displaying the current mph (or kph in my Canadian test car) instead of a sweep dial, it required only a brief period of adjustment. Clearly the RX-8 is all about the business of driving, as it should be.
I was less enchanted with the proximity key. No need for an ignition key to start the engine - the key stays in your pocket or purse - yet I was still required to twist a knob as if a key had been inserted. A simple pushbutton would have been better.
On the Road: A passion for driving
After some practise I could slip through all six speeds with precision, using the Wankel's sweet spot for best acceleration. The Mazda RX-8 is not one of those torque-masters that explode at low revs; you have to play it like a virtuoso. Not a problem for me, though. As an F1 racing fan I love the song of high-revving engines.
Mazda added a 6-speed automatic to the RX-8's option sheet late last year, but it comes with 12 fewer horsepower and a redline of 7,500 RPM instead of the stick-shift's 9,000. The engine is tuned for better performance with an automatic, but the high-revving rotary is such a big part of the RX-8's charm that I can't see doing without it.
With a 0-60 time of just over 6 seconds, the RX-8 is going to win few drags against Porsches and Corvettes. So what? On the thrust-and-parry of a winding road Mazda's coupe holds its own, aided by a well-trained suspension, perfect front-to-rear weight distribution, and electrically assisted steering. Put a wheel wrong and the "dynamic stability control" comes to your rescue. I was privileged to test the RX-8 over an empty piece of tarmac that twisted and turned by a river's edge on a misty winter's morning. In that setting we made love, this car and me. (Editor's note: Philip is single and desperately in need of a date. Interested parties can email him via this site.)
Journey's End: Reminiscent of the world's best lightweight sports cars
The clamshell doors make entry to the rear easy and once inside passengers can recline into bucket seats as good as those up front... if those up front are willing to sacrifice some legroom. Let's be honest, this is not an adult's 4-seater. It is, instead, a sports car for the man or woman with one or more children, a person not prepared to sacrifice the driving experience for a mundane transportation device. And with a long list of standard equipment it's also a bargain.
The RX-8 gets a slot on my personal "best sports coupe" list. I'd consider it for the engine alone and with the added passenger space plus a spacious trunk it can function as a family conveyance. "Practical" should look so good.