2008 RX-8 New Car Test Drive
The Mazda RX-8 handles like a true sports car, with great balance and precise turn-in. Yet the suspension is soft enough for daily comfortable use and not as stiff as that of the Nissan 350Z, which corners like a race car but pays the price with a stiffer ride.
Greatly benefiting the RX-8's handling is its perfect balance, with 50 percent of its weight on the front wheels and 50 percent on the rear. While some conventional, reciprocating-piston sports cars have also achieved this balance, it has usually been at the expense of interior space. The compact size of the rotary engine makes it possible in a four-seater.
Extremely smooth and simple, the rotary has benefited from 40 years of development by Mazda engineers. The RX-8 features the latest and by far the best rotary engine design, which Mazda calls Renesis. The engine is about 30 percent smaller than a typical inline four-cylinder, and its compact dimensions allow it to be mounted in a low and rearward position that results in that perfect balance. It also keeps the four-seat RX-8's center of gravity low and the curb weight down to just 3,045 pounds, more than 500 pounds less than even the lightest version of the two-seat, 3,578-pound Nissan 350Z. The RX-8 is not the sports car that the third-generation RX-7 was but nor is it as expensive.
The rotary engine offers a sweet unique sound under acceleration and is very refined now, with little of the rasp that early RX-7s were known for. The two three-sided rotors deliver six power pulses per turn of the output shaft, the same number as a V12 (and twice as many per revolution as a V6), resulting in an exhaust note that's almost hypnotic on a rhythmic road, and chainsaw-like under full steam. The rotary revs extremely quickly, but lacks the mid-range grunt of a V6. Downshifts for quick acceleration are definitely necessary. The RX-8 can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph is less than 6 seconds, according to Car and Driver magazine, making it nearly as quick as a Nissan 350Z.
Downshifting is redefined by the rotary engine, especially when paired with the brilliant close-ratio six-speed gearbox. You can drop the RX-8 into second gear at a speed that would cause almost every other car on the planet to scream, if not explode. This baby revs.
The brakes work well. The fact that the RX-8 is so light, thanks not only to the rotary engine but also to the thoughtful use of aluminum in the hood and rear doors, reduces the stopping distance impressively, with performance comparable to that of the 350Z. When the automatic is equipped with the sport suspension and 18-inch wheels (standard on the manual RX-8), the brake rotors measure a massive 12.7 inches in front and 11.9 inches in rear, with increased ventilation ribs for more resistance to fade.
Out on the open road the RX-8 feels even better. It hugs the pavement progressively, meaning the deeper it gets into a turn the harder it grips, which is wonderfully confidence-inspiring.
The optional Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) works effectively, yet allows the driver to work the tires without intruding. The RX-8 wasn't completely forgiving when driven hard on an autocross circuit. We found with too much throttle the Mazda would understeer (the front tires plowing, and the car going straight instead of turning). When we pushed it still harder, driving like hacks, the DSC would kick in to limit the understeer. What we learned is that the DSC is programmed to tolerate small errors but saves you from the big ones. In other words, it will let you get away with two feet of understeer in a curve, but not six feet.
And when DSC does take over, it uses the brakes, slowing one or more wheels as needed to correct the imbalance. The electronic stability control systems in some other cars correct skidding by closing the throttle, which skilled drivers find intrusive. The RX-8's DSC will eventually cut the throttle too, but not so early that it frustrates you.
The Mazda RX-8 is a unique sports car. Its four-seat, four-door configuration is an original design that works. The rotary engine is super smooth, simple, high-revving and almost indestructible. It's complemented by a beautiful six-speed gearbox and great brakes. The RX-8 is a great sports car with an innovative approach and admirable engineering.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from Irvine, California, with Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles.