Oh, joy! The 2006 Mazda RX-8 is in the fleet, and all is right with the world. One of our perennial favorites, it’s a serious sports-car with soul to spare. Mazda has done a lot right with this car–and it all starts with balance.
Round it up a couple of tenths, and the RX-8’s weight distribution ratio ranks at an optimal 50:50 front to rear. A few other stars in the sports-car field come close, but nothing approximates the balance of the RX-8, at least for this kind of dough. Arcane though it may sound, you really can feel the perfection in this Mazda’s personality; it seems perpetually centered no matter how precarious a position the pilot has put it in. We’d go so far as to state that in this price range–affordable for the common man, that is–there is no better-handling car, bar perhaps the impractical Lotus Elise. Hustle the RX-8 through the hairiest of routes, and even a moderately-skilled driver will find heretofore unrealized confidence, skill, and enjoyment in the act.
There’s nothing magical about the Mazda RX-8’s on-road prowess. No magnetic fluid to stiffen the shocks every second, and no motorized sway bars tilting the chassis against G-forces. It’s all standard suspension stuff, just done well. Double wishbones up front and a multi-link setup in back form the basis for the suspension, with stabilizer bars and a strut tower brace for refined response. The hood is formed from aluminum for weight savings. And a limited-slip differential augments traction under throttle, while a direct-drive steering system, electrically assisted, imparts that inspirational road feedback.
Even the rolling stock is straightforward. 18-inch rims and 225/45 rubber are really commonplace by now, but the RX-8 never runs out of grip. Even the brakes are typical for this type of car; all discs with ABS and EBD. A tire pressure monitoring system is standard, but Dynamic Stability Control is optional–in our time with the RX-8, Mazda’s DSC proved generally noninvasive; it only triggered once or twice when pit-like potholes pulled traction from a wheel.
Lest you begin to think Mazda’s got a plain-vanilla road-runner here, there is one area where the RX-8 differs hugely from the pack. Under that lightweight hood is a Wankel-design rotary engine, unique to Mazda and a couple of other obscure marques. Essentially a large, triangular rotor in a tube, there are no conventional pistons or cylinders. Combustion takes place in the spaces on each side; intake and exhaust valves are arrayed around the tube, turning the rotor.
Mazda calls their latest version of this type of engine (last seen in the third-generation RX-7) the RENESIS, for obvious reasons. It’s a twin-rotor design, displacing a mere 1.3 liters. Despite the small size, 232 horsepower and 159 lb.-ft. of torque are on tap. Rotaries also allow for freer revving; the RX-8 redlines at 9,000 rpm. It’s a hoot to drive, and easily motivates the 3,029 lb. Mazda.
The rotary’s basic advantage over standard internal-combustion engine is compactness and low height. The small size and low height of the RENESIS is mostly responsible for the RX-8’s balance; mounting low and rearward (toward the center) makes for an excellent center of gravity. You’d expect such a diminutive motor to make good fuel economy, but you’d be wrong. EPA figures are 18/24 mpg city/highway, although at least ours, averaging 17.6, didn’t prove a whole lot thirstier than rated (as many sporty-cars do).
Unless you lost your left leg in the war, you shouldn’t buy a car like this with an automatic. That’s doubly true in the RX-8, where the automatic earns you a penalty of 20hp below the superb stick-shift. Detuned though it is, at least 2006 models now get 212hp, instead of the 197 of the first year, and the old 4-speed slushbox is replaced by a paddle-shifted 6-speed.
Realistically, the RX-8 is distinctive not only for what’s under the hood; this Mazda’s styling and layout still turn heads even after 2 years on the market. The exterior is bold, even brash–a testament to the individual. The interior, trite as it may sound, fits like a glove. It’s not tight or uncomfortable; contemporary and cozy would be more apt. Bold red accents set off the black background, and circular and triangular motifs recall the motor’s rotor shapes.
Actually, it’s the layout which is likely responsible for a lot of RX-8 sales. Of course, RX-7s were traditionally 2-door coupes, with pretend rear seats thrown in apparently as a joke (unless you regularly carry around a couple legless people, in which case you could maybe use them). The new-for-2005 design eschewed impracticality, however, but hung on to style. Popularly called a “suicide door” setup, the RX-8 features four hatches; two of which are small, rear-hinged, and accessible only when the fronts are open. Small, sure, but they swing wide, opening onto two supplementary seats with actual legroom. Sized for a standard teen, adults can squeeze in back behind even six-plus-footers for short sprints. Officially, head room is almost equal, at 38/37 cubic feet front/rear; legroom is tighter but still useable at 43/32. Pack lightly, though–trunk space is a sparse 7.6′.
Priced at just over $26,400 to start, the Mazda RX-8 merits serious consideration from motoring enthusiasts. Quick and incredibly agile, it’s easily the most fun to be had at that cost. Options, like our tester’s Grand Touring package’s power, heated, leather-trimmed seats; 300-watt Bose sound system; moonroof; stability control; xenon HID headlamps and “smart key” system with the credit card-sized fob that stays in your wallet are relatively inexpensive and well-executed as well. Still, that stuff’s superfluous; speed and sportiness come standard.