- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2006

Making the choice to buy a sports car is typically a decision to toss practicality to the wind. The majority of sports cars seat only two and of the few that do boast a back seat most can’t legitimately seat a full-size human there.

Some high-horsepower sports cars, such as the Dodge Viper, are virtually not drivable in the quagmire of bumper-to-bumper big city traffic, rendering them unsuitable for daily commutes. Shoppers demanding a sporty driving experience and a degree of utility often find themselves left looking at high-ticket sports sedans such as BMW’s M3.

Presenting an acceptable balance between sports car and performance and everyday usability without overwhelming compromise is Mazda’s RX-8. Fun to look at, a rush to drive and with honest-to-goodness four-passenger seating, the RX-8 successfully straddles the boundary separating sporty and practical.

RX-8’s exterior styling certainly does its part in earning this 2+2 its sports car designation. A low hood line, sweeping roofline and bobbed tail present a streamlined profile. Although the lines aren’t as fluid as, say, the Nissan 350Z, the functional back seat has much to do with that.

In another styling note, the rear-hinged back doors open opposite to the main front doors. While less than half the width of the front doors, the back doors swing open sufficiently wide to provide easy entry and exit to the rear seat. You don’t need to fold Aunt May in half and smear peanut oil on her flanks to shoehorn her into the second seat as with conventional two-door 2+2s. Granted, the rear doors demand a more rounded roofline; but when closed, they are nearly unnoticeable.

Essentially there are two RX-8 models with identical $26,995 base-price tags. One has a six-speed manual transmission and the other a six-speed driver-shiftable automatic. To even up the bottom line, manual-shift versions have 18-inch wheels in place of the automatic’s 16-inchers. They also have a limited-slip differential and stiffer suspension. Other than the $2,000 navigation system and $500 six-disc CD changer, nearly all other popular upgrades are bundled into option packages. Without exception, the prices of these packages are more for automatic-equipped models as a result of the extra content in manual-transmission versions.

The RX-8 continues to be the only production car utilizing a rotary engine. Its compact size, the ratio of its size to its output and its remarkably smooth operation are the rotary’s primary attributes. The Renesis rotary in this RX-8 delivers 232 horsepower when bolted to the manual transmission. Horsepower drops to 212 with the automatic.

Steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles provide quicker shifting when the automatic is switched to manual-shift mode. A manual version was provided for this evaluation. The shifter is silky smooth and the clutch provides just the right amount of resistance. Acceleration is brisk, if not blistering.

Fuel economy is mediocre. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the manual RX-8 at 18 miles per gallon in city driving and 24 mpg on the highway. The automatic version squeezes out an extra mile per gallon on the highway.

With weight evenly distributed front to rear, the RX-8 is wonderfully balanced. A double-wishbone setup in front and a multilink arrangement in the rear are the basis for the fully independent suspension. With the rear wheels doing the work, the RX-8 is agile and predictable.

Standard on all RX-8s are all-wheel disc brakes supervised by an antilock system featuring Electronic Brakeforce Distribution. Stability control is optional, but the least expensive way to acquire it is through the Touring Package ($3,775 AT and $2,975 MT) that also includes such enhancements as xenon headlights, nine-speaker Bose audio upgrade and moon roof.

Remarkably roomy, the cabin can accommodate four adults. Anyone over 6 feet will probably find legroom a bit lacking in the back seat, but shorter folks should be quite comfortable. At 7.6 cubic feet, cargo space is stingy; but better than might be expected, and that’s fortunate because the fixed rear seat doesn’t allow creating more hauling room by folding it down. Styling inside equals the superb exterior execution.

A trio of large, round gauges are neatly arranged directly in front of the driver. The short shifter is comfortably situated at the driver’s hand. While the center stack with its audio and climate controls has tremendous eye appeal, it’s somewhat congested and a challenge to comprehend at a glance. The controls, however, are simple enough to operate.

Most convenience features, such as the windows, door locks and outboard mirrors are power-operated. In addition to the front air bags, the RX-8 has front side-mounted and side curtain air bags.

When a degree of utility is as critical as looks and performance, the RX-8 nicely fills the bill. While it can’t deliver a sub six-second 0-60 mph time, it accelerates aggressively, handles responsively and looks as good as nearly anything else on the road. And if conditions call for it, the RX-8 can swallow an extra passenger or two in comfort. Few vehicles have attempted to be all things to all people with the success of the RX-8.

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