In Japan there is an old saying, “A nail that sticks up is a nail that is knocked down.” Mazda boss Tuneji Matsuda didn’t care much for this expression back in 1961 when he broke away from his piston-preferring peers and brought the fascinating but (at that stage) flawed Wankel Rotary engine to Japan. Matsuda was thirsty for the success of the rotary engine, so he solved its problems, put it into production and let it dominate the Mazda range in the Cosmo. When the 1973 global oil crisis hit it was the rotary’s thirst that forced Mazda back into conventional engines.
Matsuda’s desperate grasp at individuality within a conformist industry within a conformist society was an act of rebellion that enriched the motoring world. Now, over forty years after the first mass-produced rotary vehicle and numerous generations of Mazda models later there is only a single currently produced survivor of Matsuda’s rebellious rotary legacy, the Mazda RX-8.
In 2003 the most advanced version of the rotary engine, the 13B Renesis, was dropped into the then new RX-8. For this year’s 2008 model tweaks have been made to the Renesis engine, but Mazda has chosen to focus on improving low-rev engine response and torque delivery rather than increasing raw power. The engine remains strong, producing 170kW@8200rpm of power with 211Nm of torque, and will rocket the RX-8 to 100km in 6.4 seconds. These figures don’t tell the whole story of how rapid the RX-8 can be. The Renesis engine is a high revving temptress that draws the driver into the renegade rotary attitude. To get the most from the RX-8 you need the tacho up around a totally unsociable 8,500rpm but this smile-inducing fun comes at a price.
Poor fuel economy almost killed the rotary during the ‘70s and although now improved it still remains the RX-8’s Achilles’ heel. An average consumption figure of 12.5L/100km isn’t great, but get those rotors spinning around the 9,000rpm redline and the RX-8 will drink like an arts major on student loans day. Despite Mazda’s work on low-end torque, getting caught in the wrong gear remains frustrating. However, gear changes are a pleasure using the RX-8’s 6-speed manual transmission, shifts are short, neat and have a fulfilling mechanical feel. The revised model’s gearbox offers closer-ratio lower gears and a higher sixth-gear for motorway cruising. The RX-8 is perfectly capable running the straight line of the motorway, but get it on some twisty roads and it will groove to its own beat.
Handling is exceptional, the rear-wheel-drive RX-8 grips the road with flawless balance and poise, proving that much of the magic from Mazda’s MX-5 has found its way into the RX-8. This is largely helped by a perfect 50/50 front/rear weight distribution that allows the tail end to be lively on request, but ultimately controllable. The already sharp steering has been further improved in the 2008 RX-8 and underbody aerodynamics has also received treatment reducing high-speed lift and aiding stability. So Mazda’s outsider knows how to sprint and knows how to dance, but how does it look?
The rotary spirit has smashed its way out of the engine bay and exploded all over the rest of the vehicle. The RX-8 has interior and exterior aesthetic tributes to its rotary motor starting with a rotor shape set into the bonnet line. The car’s oversize front fenders have been toned down but still pull away from the rest of the vehicle and follow a low line underneath the rounded doors over widened rear guards to link up with a bulging rear bumper. New 18-inch rims add to the bling and twin exhausts sitting below intricate rear-light clusters finish the look. Overall the RX-8 sits sleek and flat with more curves than Nikki Watson holding a beach ball and a flagrant disregard for any so-called styling rules.
The RX-8’s rear-hinged suicide doors work equally for form and function, helping any unlucky passenger who needs to shoehorn into the small back seat. Symbolic rotor-shape cues are continued on the inside with a custom gear knob and plastic inserts in the front seats headrests. The interior has been improved for the 2008 model with modified seating and harder wearing materials used on high impact surfaces. Grand piano glossy black plastics and contrasting silver surrounds give the rogue rotary a touch of class, but the plastics seemed to scratch easily. Seats are well bolstered and comfortable with eight-way power adjustment for the driver. An electric sunroof, a 6-disc CD player with 300-Watt amplifier, and side airbags are standard fare on the 2008 RX-8.
The RX-8 deserves some credibility as a hard-nuts sports car, but it can also be quite docile in unsporting scenarios; a light clutch makes stop-start commuting bearable, and while it’s low-slung and low-roofed, all round visibility is good.
In 1961 Tuneji Matsuda had greater plans for the future of the rotary engine than just a single Mazda model, but the RX-8 remains the final disobedient outpost of his vision. Now the RX-8 is a unique prospect, not just to those who crave the alternative, but also to anyone who enjoys exciting motoring. The RX-8 sticks out with its style, engine sound and pace, if you want to knock it back inline, you better be coming with a large hammer and even then you won’t catch it.
Click through to the next page for a list of specifications.
What we like:
- Exciting driving experience
- Unique vehicle
- Exceptional balance and handling
- Affordable sports car
What we don’t like:
- Low-end torque
- Poor fuel economy
- Platform could handle more power and speed
- Auto is slower
Mazda RX-8 (2008) – Specifications
Front midship Renesis
2 rotors in-line, naturally aspirated, multi-sideport
Engine capacity cc: 1,308 (654 x 2)
Compression ratio: 10.0:1
Maximum power kW: 170 @ 8,200rpm
Maximum torque Nm: 211 @ 5,500rpm
Fuel system: Multipoint electronic injection
Fuel tank capacity L: 65
Fuel consumption L/100km: 12.9
Recommended fuel: Premium unleaded (min. 95 RON)
Chassis and Suspension
Weight distribution Front:Rear: 50:50
Brake type – Front and Rear: Ventilated disc
Brake diameter Front mm: 323 Rear mm: 302
Suspension Front: Double wishbone with mono-tube shock absorbers and torsion bar stabilisers
Rear: Multi-link (five links per side) with mono-tube shock absorbers and torsion bar stabiliers
Steering: Rack drive electric power assisted (engine revolution sensing) rack and pinion
Turning circle – Kerb to kerb m: 10.6
Tyres: 225/45R18 91W
Wheels: 18 x 8.0 JJ (alloy)
Overall length mm: 4,470
Overall width mm: 1,770
Overall height mm: 1,340
Wheelbase mm: 2,700
Ground clearance – Laden mm: 101
Track Front mm: 1,500
Rear mm: 1,505
Cargo room Volume L: 290
Kerb weight kg: 1,402
Words and Photos, Adam Mamo