- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Is it proper for a sports car to have four doors? Better yet, if a car has four doors, can it legitimately be labeled a sports car? Having opened that can of worms, which will be arguably questioned by the automotive sporting purists until doomsday, the new RX-8 from Mazda may well be considered two vehicles in one — both sports and touring.

There are two versions of this resurrected rotary-powered sports tourer — one being more focused on sport, the other concentrated on touring.

The base model begins at $25,700, produces 210 horsepower, changes gears via a paddle-shift four-speed automatic and runs on 16-inch wheels and tires.

A more powerful RX-8 starts at $26,680 and delivers 250 horsepower to the rear wheels with gear changes courtesy of a six-speed manual transmission, and riding on 18-inch performance wheels and tires. The suspension is sport-tuned as well. The 250 horsepower version, with all the bells and whistles, runs $31,100.

The most common question asked about the RX-8, is “Does it have a V-6 or V-8?” A look of incredulity sets in following “neither” as the answer.

Rotary engines are a breed apart — they lack conventional pistons and cylinders, operating with a triangular-shaped, gear-driven internal mode circulating, or rotating, within a housing containing both inlet and exhaust ports. The RX-8 features a twin-rotor, Wankel-style, normally aspirated rotary engine measuring 1308cc in displacement. The newest version in the three-decade rotary engine history of Mazda is called Renesis (a compilation of Rotary Engine Genesis)13B and positions its lightweight, compact package low and aft of the front-wheel center line. The RX-8 follows the turbocharged RX-7 which left the U.S. marketplace in 1995 as Mazda’s third-generation rotary-powered sports car. It is based on the RX-Evolv concept show car, introduced at the 1999 Tokyo Motor Show.

The innovative four-seater is void of a “B” pillar, with the uniquely hidden rear doors opening “suicide” fashion for rear-seat access. Structural strength for the large four-door opening comes from a central floor tunnel running the length of the cabin. The low, aft rear seating position is extremely cozy, given the high shoulder or beltline, the broad “C” pillar or sail panel and the rear door’s small pop-out-to-open window.

Despite its four-door configuration, the RX-8 appears for all the world to be a coupe — a sleekly styled coupe at that. Front and rear overhangs are short, the windscreen is sharply raked into the low, streamlined top, following the broad, forward sloped hood flanked by distinctive rounded front fenders. The front fascia sports a molded-in air dam, while the elevated, short rear deck offers an integrated spoiler lip.

The interior is stylishly sporty and cool with highly supportive front seats, a trio of legible circular black analog gauges with white graphics and red, floating indicator needles. The center stack IP displays a circular theme within a box, with sensible placement of switch gear and controls. The circular theme would be better if replaced by the triangular rotary-symbol format offered by the gear-shift knob and front bucket seat cutouts, not to mention a similar sculpting in the hood. The navigation system screen pops up from the dash at the touch of a button and tilts as needed to avoid reflection from exterior light sources. Tasteful brushed aluminum trim and pedals continue the car’s sporting look.

The test RX-8 came with a Calypso Blue metallic exterior and charcoal and black interior. It was the 250-horsepower version with the six-speed manual gearbox, 18-inch wheels and tires, and navigation system. Standard equipment for the freestyle four-door-design sports car included power windows, mirrors and door locks, cruise control and an AM/FM/CD audio system with six speakers.

Four optional trim packages are available: a Base Model, Sport Package, Touring Package and Grand Touring Package. Pricing ranges from $1,100 for the manual-transmission Sport Package to $4,600 for the automatic Grand Touring Package. Included are such accoutrements as Xenon headlights, Dynamic Stability Control with traction control, a Bose audio system, heated seats and leather-trimmed upholstery.

Mazda’s RX-8 is truly a sports car like no other. It redlines at 9,000 rpm and emits an adrenaline-pumping exhaust note across its broad torque range. Acceleration is rapid enough, once in motion — off-the-line zip could be a little better to properly compete with other cars in its class. In the handling department though, it is quick and agile, responding to a light touch, while managing to provide pleasing feedback. Braking is extremely positive and effective, bringing the RX-8 to a halt in a shorter distance than several competitors.

The RX-8 is anything but boring, it combines imaginative design cues with precision engineering, while delivering an exhilarating and emotional driving experience. It provides a practical solution to the traditional sports-car dilemma — what to do when faced with transporting more than one passenger? More graceful ingress and egress is made possible by the additional two doors than with the more common 2+2 configuration.

Throw in a four-year roadside assistance program and four-year/50,000-mile warranty covering every part on the vehicle except those subject to normal wear, along with a five-year/unlimited-mileage corrosion warranty and the RX-8 represents more than simply sporty transportation. It embodies the rotary revolution.

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