- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2003

The rotary engine is back, and it’s powering one of the best sports cars around, the Mazda RX-8. Not only is it a great car and a blast to drive, it’s the only one of its kind: a four-seat, four-passenger sports car. No, it’s not a 2+2 sports car or a sports sedan. The RX-8 is a genuine sports car that happens to have four doors and can carry four people comfortably. The entire vehicle is meant for those who want a true sports car but don’t want the accompanying noise, harshness and lack of practicality.

The car is gorgeous from any angle, with little hints of Aston Martin, Avanti, Miata and Corvette, but it’s all Mazda. The styling elements work together to form a very attractive package that gets noticed, especially those curved fenders over the wheels.

Although the car has four doors and a long wheelbase (because the axles are located at the far ends) and looks somewhat larger than you would expect in a sports car, it is within an inch or so in length, width and height of a Porsche 911.

One immediately notices the little styling details in the interior, from the gauges to the central console running front-to-back. The navigation system controls are right at your fingertips, located on the console next to the best-looking parking-brake handle in the industry. Little details hint of the rotary engine and the multiple hues on the side panels and seats give a real sense of richness. There are no cheesy pieces of plastic or monotones anywhere to be found.

A car’s value is in the driving, after all, and the RX-8 doesn’t let you down one bit. It’s great fun to launch the car from a stop and take it up to 9,000 rpm before shifting. The car’s smoothness hides its performance capabilities, and you find yourself constantly amazed at how much faster it’s actually going than you think. Curves or straight roads are eaten up effortlessly while all you hear is the pleasant growl of the engine’s exhaust.

The ride is almost sedanlike, and left me comfortable and wanting more, even after some very impressive cornering, acceleration and braking tests. The car doesn’t violate the laws of physics, it just takes advantage of them.

Now, about that rotary engine…

The RX-8’s rotary displaces only 80 cubic inches (1.3 liters) and is the size of a toaster oven, but don’t let that give you the impression it can’t do the job. Its diminutive size allows it to sit entirely behind the front axle centerline and nearly at the same plane as the axle itself, allowing for incredible gains in chassis performance.

Size doesn’t mean “namby-pamby,” however. The twin-rotor engine pumps out 238 horsepower (down from the original spec of 247) and 159 foot-pounds of torque as it winds up to its redline, a point just short of 9,000 rpm. It doesn’t go “vroom,” it goes “hmmmm.” Coupled to a six-speed manual transmission, the engine thrusts the 3,000-pound Mazda RX-8 from 0 to 60 mph in less than six seconds, doing so as smoothly as you please, because there’s no vibration.

Smooth operation, high power output and small size make up the “beauty” of rotary engines and Mazda knows it. That’s why its been developing them — one improvement after another — for nearly 40 years.

The culmination of that development is the RX-8’s Renesis engine. Mazda coined the name from the description of its engineering: Rotary Engine for the New-generation with Exhaust ports on the Side housings and Intake ports on the Side housings.

The engine is about 30 percent smaller than its predecessor, the twin-turbo 13B-REW, the one that powered the well-known RX-7 sports car of the 1990s.

It would require many thousands of words to fully describe the details of Mazda’s rotary engine, but suffice to say it works extremely well and is every bit as reliable as anything else out there on the road.

Fuel rating for the six-speed is 23.9 miles per gallon, so put away your guilt and enjoy the drive.

The RX-8 body and suspension are every bit as sophisticated as the engine. The rear-drive car’s drive shaft is a single-piece, reinforced plastic unit that weighs just 12.8 pounds, at least 40 percent lighter than steel, and requires no center bearing. Because the engine sits so low in the chassis, there is no angle in the U-joints, a feature every other manufacturer just dreams of.

The limited-slip differential is a special design that has a high torque-bias ratio (without going into engineering terms, it is a very desirable feature in high-performance cars) that doesn’t lose its limiting features under deceleration.

This unique design eliminates “trailing throttle oversteer,” the dangerous condition that occurs when drivers lift off the gas during hard acceleration or cornering.

The four doors aren’t a sales gimmick. Mazda believes sports cars can be everyday vehicles that can be enjoyed by more than just two persons. They set out to create a true, four-door sports car that has 50-50 weight distribution, performance, fuel economy and knock-out styling. They did just that, plain and simple, and priced it affordably at around $30,000.

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