Mazda embraced the rotary engine 40 years ago and has spent the past four decades improving upon the idea. It disappeared from Mazda’s lineup when the RX-7 was retired in 1995, but is back — more refined, more powerful and more efficient than ever — in the RX-8. It still may not be the most fuel-efficient power plant on the market, but its penchant for high revs and even delivery make it a hoot to drive. Wrap it in a handsome, somewhat unusual, in today’s market, 2+2 package and you have a machine to lust after.
When last we saw the 1.3-liter (Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Hold on to your hat.) rotary, it had twin turbochargers bolted to it, made 255 horsepower and was under the hood of the RX-7. Today, without the turbochargers, the updated version of the same engine pulls 238 horsepower when mated with the six-speed manual transmission. One of the few cars today where opting for the automatic tranny significantly affects performance, the RX-8’s output drops to 197 horsepower when the shifting is left to the four-speed automatic. However, at 164 foot-pounds of peak torque, the automatic actually betters the manual’s torque by 5 foot-pounds.
You will pay more to stir your own transmission — another RX-8 oddity. The automatic stickers out at $25,920 and the manual at $27,420. For that extra $1,500, you also get bigger wheels, a limited-slip differential and tighter suspension.
The big up-tick in the freshened rotary’s performance can be credited to enlarging both the intake and exhaust ports. This enhanced circulation system when coupled with the engine’s lighter weight (about 30 percent lighter than the previous rotary), beefs up engine output while reducing mass. Distilling it down, the RX-8 simply goes fast. Zoom, zoom.
Mazda didn’t invent engine branding — Cadillac has been doing it with its Northstar V-8 for well over a decade and Chrysler has recently given new life to the Hemi — but Mazda is calling its revised rotary, Renesis (Rotary Engine Genesis) for rebirth of the rotary engine. Not quite as elegant as Northstar or as catchy as Hemi, Renesis probably won’t replace the simple, and deeply embedded in this market’s automotive lexicon, rotary to describe the RX-8 engine. Shakespeare, though, had it right: That which we would call a rose by any other name, would smell as sweet.
This rotary is one sweet engine. Its rpms race upward freely and don’t reach redline until 9000 (7500 with the automatic). It accelerates like the Love Train on Valentine’s Day. A little downshift on the highway and the RX-8 effortlessly rockets past the slowpokes.
While fuel economy is marginally better in the RX-8 than the RX-7, it still lags a bit behind more traditional V-6s. The Environmental Protection Agency has rated the six-speed-equipped version at 18 miles per gallon in the city and 24 on the open road. The automatic ekes out one additional mpg on the highway. Compare that to the 3.5-liter V-6 powering RX-8’s closest competitor, Nissan’s 287-horsepower 350Z, and you find that the Z betters the RX-8 by 2 mpg both in the city and on the highway.
In the RX-8 Mazda has achieved a nearly perfect 50/50 weight distribution. By sliding the engine back toward the middle of the car and locating the fuel tank in front of the rear axle, Mazda has given the RX-8 remarkable balance. The independent suspension masterfully juggles road-hugging handling with passenger comfort. This is a sports car that can be driven without beating you up. The automatic version comes with 16-inch alloy wheels and rubber, but these are replaced with 18-inch wheels and speed-rated tires for those equipped with the manual.
Muscular, but fluid exterior lines give the RX-8 exceptional curb appeal from any angle. In reality a four-door, it offers no hint that it isn’t a traditional coupe. The rear doors are a “suicide,” rear-hinge design that open nearly perpendicular for easy access to the back seat.
Inside the cockpit are subtle styling nods to the rotary engine on the seats, center console, shift knob and parking brake. The front seats are firm, supportive and comfortable. The rear-seat cushions and front-seat backs have been engineered to provide the maximum amount of knee room possible. While this helps, taller adults simply won’t fit comfortably back there, but your future Brittany and Justin will do just fine. The trunk is surprisingly large for a car of this size with enough room to host two golf bags.
A wide range of safety elements have been built into the RX-8. Among its standard gear are seat-mounted side-impact air bags, side curtain air bags and four-wheel disc brakes with antilock.
There is no shortage of standard features and both versions of the RX-8 have everything expected on an upscale vehicle, such as air conditioning, power windows/door locks/outboard mirrors, cruise control and even a tire pressure monitor.
More than just something to initiate small talk at that next social function, the RX-8’s rotary engine is a nifty piece of technology. It performs flawlessly, delivering outstanding acceleration. It doesn’t sell in the same numbers as the 350Z, so it is somewhat more unusual, yet it’s there to keep the Z honest.