TONY was the captain of my high school water polo team. Athletic. Popular. And if that wasn’t enough to fuel the fires of jealousy, Tony drove a silver second-generation Mazda RX-7 that was the envy of all us red-blooded teenagers with sports car lust in our hearts.
Fifteen years later, most guys like Tony aren’t driving sports cars. Instead of stepping up out of something low and sleek, they are hopping down from the running boards of big S.U.V.’s or extended-cab pickups.
Mazda is begging the Tonys of the world to come back to the fold. Recognizing the practical appeal of the utility vehicles that are now often the choice of the cool and uncool alike, the company has added a degree of practicality to the successor to the RX-7, which Mazda pulled from the American market nine years ago. The new RX-8 is a sports car with not two doors, but four, and an equivalent number of seats.
Yes, sedans have been promoted as ”four-door sports cars” before, and Saturn has tried to convince us that we should be impressed by the diminutive rear doors on its coupes. But the RX-8 actually delivers the goods: four doors plus styling, handling and performance befitting a sports car.
The RX-8 certainly screams ”sports car” — and loudly at that. Its protruding front fenders initially call to mind the Ferrari Enzo supercar, but the more you stare at the front of the RX-8, the more those pontoonlike fenders look as if they belong on a vintage pickup.
The styling is indeed the weakest part of the package, and part of the blame falls on those rear-hinged doors. There is no way to make their seams work in concert with the rest of the car’s manic lines. These swoop rearward over the hood, dart up to a crease along the trunk, and bulge over the wheels, all with the reckless styling abandon common in this era of computer-aided design. The rear end, cluttered with Mazda’s oversize badges, is especially busy.
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As expected from Mazda, handling is where the rear-drive RX-8 excels. A superbly tuned suspension — double-wishbone configuration in the front and multi-link in the rear — makes enjoyable sport out of twists and turns, allowing little of the leaning movement known as body roll. Even more impressive is how well the car soaks up bumps and poor pavement.
The ride is always firm but rarely harsh, and the driver benefits from great road feel and response through the electrically assisted power steering. With perfect 50-50 weight distribution, the car has excellent balance and a nimble feel.
The engine is a 2-rotor, 1.3-liter rotary, or Wankel, so-named after its inventor, Felix Wankel. This design allows for a compact and lightweight engine with prodigious power potential, making it an obvious choice for a sports car. Unlike conventional piston engines, in which the up-and-down motion of pistons turns a crankshaft, rotary engines have triangular rotors that rotate within housings, turning eccentric shafts that run through their centers.
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Rotaries have been Mazda’s unique calling card since the 1960’s, so it is no wonder that its new flagship features the latest developments in rotary technology, which offers lower emissions and higher performance, Mazda says.
The new unit makes 238 horsepower (at a lofty 8,500 r.p.m.) but only 159 pounds-feet of torque (at a high 5,500 r.p.m.). That low torque number means the 3,000-pound RX-8 doesn’t move off the line as quickly as you might expect, but satisfaction comes a second or two later as the engine soars toward its 9,000-r.p.m. redline.
For people unaccustomed to urging the tachometer needle that far up the gauge, driving the RX-8 may take some adjustment — by delaying your shifts, for instance. Though indeed high-strung, the mellow-sounding little rotary never feels short of power; Road & Track magazine recorded a 0-to-60 m.p.h. time of 5.9 seconds, compared with 5.8 for a Nissan 350Z. Nor is it a painful aural experience to rev it full-tilt.
The pain comes at the gas pump. My test car had a federal fuel economy rating of 18 miles per gallon in town and 24 on the highway. As they say, your mileage may vary: I achieved only 18 m.p.g. in combined driving and 14 in a strictly urban setting.
The six-speed manual transmission has shift throws short enough to ruin the business plan of an aftermarket supplier. A four-speed automatic, with gear-change paddles on the steering wheel, is also offered, but this version comes only with a detuned 197-horsepower version of the engine.
The brakes are grabby four-wheel discs with an antilock feature and electronic force distribution. Dynamic stability control with traction control is an option, bundled to cost you at least $1,200. Ditto the moonroof; the least expensive package that will get you one is $2,800.
My $31,200 test car included the $4,000 grand touring package, the only way to get a leather interior. A navigation system is also offered, for $2,000. Clearly, Mazda arrived at the reasonable base price — $27,200 for the six-speed model — by being stingy with the standard equipment.
Would you like a spare tire? The scrooges at Mazda give you only a can of flat-tire sealant goo unless you pay an extra $395 for the fifth wheel and additional rubber.
Mazda explains that the spare was left out because it takes up much of the trunk. But the company’s Miata roadster, an even smaller car, has always had a standard trunk-mounted spare that owners could choose to leave in the garage to increase luggage capacity.
Inside the RX-8’s cozy cockpit, the driver is greeted by a low instrument panel fitted with nicely illuminated gauges, including a large center tachometer with integrated digital speedometer. Visibility to the front and side is excellent, and an over-the-shoulder glance finds the right rear door’s small window perfect for checking blind spots before darting into the adjoining lane.
As a whole, the interior is rather plain and functional, well assembled from plastic materials of average quality — though those who judge sports cars based on interior trim are probably not driving enough. One oddity is the parking brake, shaped like a right triangle and resembling a heavy-duty stapler. Even when it’s down, it looks as if it’s still up.
The center console runs from the dashboard clear back to the cover of the small pass-through to the trunk. Despite this intrusion on the occupants’ personal space, the rear buckets do not feel as cramped as they do in many coupes with vestigial back seats. The second row is fairly comfortable for adults, provided they are not tall. Mazda includes rear safety-seat anchors so you can teach your children heel-and-toe downshifts from an early age.
While you wouldn’t necessarily want to travel cross-country in the back of an RX-8, it could be done, and the rear doors would make it a lot easier to get out and stretch. It is possible to slide into the rear seats without forcing the front seat occupants to get out first, or to tilt their seats forward, provided no one involved is of large build. Alas, regardless of where they might plan to sit, the big and tall might do well to just pass on the RX-8, as even Mazda calls the interior ”comfortably snug.”
Which brings us back to Tony and the inevitable question: Is this four-door design the right selling point to put guys like him back in a sports car, or is it just a gimmick?
I would say it is neither. The back seat is a nice feature, though its practicality might have been enhanced if the car were designed to be a hatchback. Regardless, Mazda did an excellent job of packaging, even including a reasonably large trunk.
But while extra doors, seats and trunk space may make the RX-8 easier to live with, they don’t necessarily make it cool. After all, practicality is not what sells sports cars — or even, often, trucks.
The RX-8 works because it drives better than competitors like the 350Z and the Audi TT. In the RX-8, Mazda has created a wonderful sports car and a worthy successor to the RX-7. If this doesn’t cause the Tonys to take notice, nothing will.