- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 26, 2003

Mazda has always rolled to a different rhythm than other car companies. At one time, it powered its cars with three types of engines.

Most auto and truck manufacturers use just one: A four-cycle piston engine with valves to suck in a fuel-air mixture and expel exhaust gases. Most use gasoline, but some are oil-burning diesel engines.

Mazda has four-strokers, too, in its Miata sports car and 6-series sedans. But it also has offered the small-displacement but powerful Miller-cycle engine, now discontinued, as well as rotary engines in coupes and sports cars.

The rotary engine, based on a design by the German engineer Felix Wankel, was used most recently to power the company’s RX-7 sports car, which had a good run after it was introduced in 1978, but got pricey, fell victim to poor sales and was discontinued in 1995.

That upset a lot of Mazda fans, but now they have something to cheer about: The 2004 RX-8, which proves once again that Mazda doesn’t like to roll with the prevailing pack. It is a full-blown sports car with the only production rotary engine on the planet and — get this — four doors and plenty of room for a driver and three passengers.

Both the engine and the four doors not only make the new RX-8 unique, but also inject a dose of practicality that is only rarely seen in sports cars, most of which are two-seaters with limited luggage space.

The RX-8 has limited luggage space as well — an odd-shaped trunk with just 8 cubic feet of space. But it can easily accommodate four adults who are up to 6 feet tall. Moreover, with its forward-opening rear doors, getting in and out is no chore.

That means that an enthusiast who salivates over high performance and precision handling, but who has a couple of youngsters, can get by with just one car.

There are two versions, both rear-wheel drive: The base car, with a 210-horsepower engine and a four-speed automatic transmission, has a suggested price of $25,700, and the all-out sports version, with a 250-horsepower engine linked to a six-speed manual gearbox, goes for $27,200. Option packages can bump the price of either model to more than $30,000.

But that’s not outrageous, considering what some other sports cars cost. And none of them offers the RX-8’s combination of practicality and unadulterated driving joy.

The rotary engine is a tiny thing, just 1.3 liters in displacement, or about half the size of some four-cylinder engines. It uses two triangular rotors inside two combustion chambers. There are no valves; the fuel-air mixture and exhaust gases get in and out through ports that are opened and closed as the rotor spins.

Mazda calls the engine the Renesis, and it’s a technological leap from the company’s last rotary. It’s more powerful, runs cleaner and easily meets low-emissions requirements.

But because it’s small, it doesn’t have a huge amount of torque, or low-speed pulling power. It develops most of its juice as the engine revolutions build toward the 9,000 rpm mark.

Driven with a modest amount of clutch and shifting expertise — an easy task because the shift linkage is smooth and positive — the manual six-speed model can be moved from rest to 60 mph in about six seconds. That’s not as fast as some of the more exotic sports cars, but it’s certainly respectable.

Performance is enhanced by the RX-8’s relatively light weight of 2,940 pounds. The engine nestles low and toward the back of the engine bay, which helps the Mazda engineers to achieve 50-50 weight distribution over the front and rear wheels.

That, along with a sport-tuned suspension system and high-performance tires on 18-inch alloy wheels, makes for neutral handling, with no built-in tendencies to either plow forward or spin out.

On a race course, a driver can control the RX-8’s attitude in corners with the throttle as well as the steering wheel. The rack-and-pinion steering is electrically powered.

Mazda’s engineers gave a lot of thought and care to the rigidity of the RX-8’s unit body — particularly tricky because of the lack of a center pillar between the front and rear doors. They strengthened it to the point where it earns top ratings in either front or side collisions. The RX-8 also comes with side air bags and side-curtain air bags.

About the only glitch in the overall safety equation is the fact that a rear door can’t be opened without first opening a front door. But back-seat passengers can’t reach the inside handles on the front doors, so they could be stuck there in an accident that rendered the people up front unconscious.

Inside, even with all that room for people, the RX-8 has a cozy feel, as befits a sports car. The seats are shaped for support in hard driving, and the instruments and controls are efficiently laid out. A large tachometer dominates the center of the instrument cluster. It contains a digital readout for speed. After you live with it awhile, it seems perfectly logical.

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