- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2003

There’s no mistaking the 2004 Mazda RX-8 for any other car.

If the styling and four-door-sporty-car concept don’t differentiate enough, there’s the rotary engine under the hood.

Not since the 1995 model year has Mazda offered a vehicle with a rotary engine. In fact, no other automaker currently has one in a mass-produced passenger vehicle sold in this country. But the rotary engine — here a 1.3-liter Renesis powerplant capable of 197 horsepower with automatic transmission and 238 horses with six-speed manual — is entrenched in Mazda history.

A four-rotor engine helped Mazda become the first Japanese carmaker to win an overall victory, in 1991, in the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans.



With a starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $25,700 for an automatic transmission model, the 2004 RX-8 is some $12,000 less than its predecessor RX-7, which ended distribution in the United States after 1995.

There are a lot of bulges and undulations on the RX-8 body. Folks aren’t likely to confuse this car with the Nissan 350Z, for example, which has tight-fitting, edgy sheet metal that seems stretched into place.

Instead, the RX-8 wheel wells are exaggerated by sport-utilitylike fender flares and the roof and hood have bulges here and there.

Mazda designers have interjected softly triangular shapes throughout the car as a reminder of the rotary engine.

The test car’s fabric seats, with side-ribbed material, and the optional floor mats with a different kind of pattern, added to the helter-skelter feel. At least the RX-8 seats were comfortable and held me in place during aggressive maneuvers.

Sports car purists may be unimpressed by Mazda’s effort to make the RX-8 usable for four passengers. I know I was skeptical of the idea of an RX with four doors and four seats. But don’t let the RX-8’s looks fool you.

After climbing inside the back seat — which is relatively easy because of the rear-hinged, small, rear doors — I found more leg and head room than I had expected.

Why, with the driver’s seat moved forward on its tracks to accommodate a driver my size — 5 feet 4 — I rested quite easily in the back seat and could even extend my legs.

Mazda said rear legroom totals 32.2 inches, while rear-seat headroom in my test car without a sunroof was 36.8 inches.

But if the front seats are back on their tracks all the way and reclined a bit, you may as well forget even putting a grade-school youngster in the RX-8’s back seat because legroom becomes negligible.

I still wouldn’t want to ride in the back seat for a long trip. The rear-door window is small, opens only slightly outward manually, and the window pillar back there is thick and blocking.

The center tunnel of the car creates a confining, high-riding center console between the two individual back seats, too.

The best spot to be in the RX-8, not surprisingly, is the driver’s seat. True, this car is so low to the ground even the driver can’t see much around trucks, vans and SUVs. I found myself at eye level with a taillamp on a Jeep, for example.

But the RX-8’s quick-response steering, wonderful weight balance created by the use of the compact rotary engine, satisfying engine sounds and the short-throw, satisfying gear-shifter provide an all-around sports car experience.

The engine is unique — low, smallish and fitted a bit back from the front of the hood. This helps account for the RX-8’s excellent 50-50 front/rear weight distribution.

But the engine isn’t visible when you raise the hood, because it’s under a large shroud.

The RX-8 hugs the highway.

Passengers in the test car, which had an optional sport suspension, felt vibrations much of the time, but it wasn’t too harsh except on really rough pavement. The front suspension is an independent double wishbone design,while there’s an independent multilink at the rear.

The test car had optional, uplevel sport tires that were 18-inchers, and the steering is assisted rack-and-pinion that requires a bit of attention.

But torque is the real delineator. The RX-8 tester with manual transmission is rated at 159 foot-pounds at 5,500 rpm, and it can be noticeable in city driving.

Note a rotary internal combustion engine works by handling intake, compression, combustion and exhaust, one at a time, using a turning, triangular-shaped rotor in a cocoonlike combustion chamber.

Rotary engines are known to be smooth and high-revving, which was evident in the RX-8 tester with manual transmission. Its redline was at 9,000 rpm.

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