Join Date: Nov 2004
Test Drive: 2008 Mazda RX-8,40th Ann.Edition
North Vancouver, British Columbia - It's just over forty years since the introduction of Mazda's first rotary-engined car, the Cosmo Sport, and while other vehicle manufacturers have long since abandoned the rotary engine for more fuel-efficient powertrains, Mazda has refused to give up on Felix Wankel's innovative rotating triangular rotor design, developing and improving upon it over the years in cars like the R100, RX-3, RX-7, and finally the RX-8.
The 2008 40th Anniversary RX-8 Special Edition model then, is not just a celebration of four decades of Mazda rotarys - it's a testament to Mazda's stubborn determination to make this engine work in an increasingly difficult environment of stricter emissions and fuel economy standards. Mazda is even experimenting with a hydrogen-powered rotary RX-8.
As the only rotary-engine sports car on the market - in fact, the only rotary-engined car period - the RX-8 is really in a class of one. And it's not just the RX-8's engine: the RX-8 looks like nothing else on the market - its sculpted front fenders, beak-like nose, bold rear fender flares and wrapover rear window glass create a unmistakable look - and while it appears to be a two-door coupe, it actually has two rear-hinged door panels that open after the front doors have been opened to make it easier for rear passengers to get in and out of the tight back seats.
With its wide stance, low centre of gravity, and 48/52 front/rear weight distribution, the RX-8 has been officially recognized by the NHTSA as the car least likely to roll over in a single vehicle crash - which means of course that its handling limits are extremely high, the Holy Grail of sport car attributes.
The RX-8's two-rotor Renesis rotary engine displaces just 1.3 litres yet puts out 232 horsepower at 8,500 r.p.m. without turbocharging. Because its reciprocating rotary pistons go round and round rather than up and down, it has a higher rev limit than traditional IC engines: in this case 9,000 r.p.m. At high revs, the RX-8's engine sounds like nothing else on the road - sort of like a high-pitched formula racing car or sport bike.
The RX-8 is certainly unique, but if you want to be really unique, you can purchase one of the one hundred 2008 40th Anniversary RX-8 Special Edition models that went on sale in Canada in February. Based on the 2008 RX-8 GT model with six-speed manual transmission, the 40th Anniversary Special Edition (herein referred to as the SE) comes in one colour, a unique Metropolitan Grey and features "40th Anniversary Rotary Engine" badges mounted on both front fenders, unique 18-inch alloy wheels and blue-tint foglamps.
The SE's interior evokes memories of the Cosmo Sport with black and copper red leather sport seats and door inserts. The steering wheel, shift knob and parking brake handle are also leather covered. Performance enhancements are relatively minor: special Bilstein shocks and a urethane foam-filled front suspension cross member for improved ride and performance. The manufacturer's suggested retail price of the 2008 RX-8 40th Anniversary RX-8 Special Edition is $42,145, $1,650 more than a top-of-the-line 2008 RX-8 GT with leather.
The RX-8 SE's interior is visually impressive. Striking copper-coloured seats and door inserts coordinate well with the black leather upholstery, aluminum console trim, black instrument panel with glossy black trim and racy aluminum pedals. To enhance the rotary theme, the RX-8's cabin includes a couple of design elements that are shaped like rotors, notably the holes below the fixed head restraints, and the top of the shift knob.
The RX-8 is a four-seater, but the two rear seats are separated by a central divider, and are rather cramped for adults. However, the two rear door panels make getting in and out of them much easier than it would have been in a two-door coupe - with one exception - when the RX-8 is parked next to another car. Here's why: when the front door is opened followed by the rear door, both doors form a barrier to the front and rear.
When a car is parked beside the RX-8, it acts as another barrier, trapping the passengers in a sort of a box. This sounds silly, but when it happens to you, it's no laughing matter. One good thing about the rear panel door on the driver's side is that the driver can toss items like briefcases, laptop bags, and store purchases into the back seat.
In fact, I'd bet that the RX-8's rear seats are used more for this purpose than for transporting passengers. The front sport seats not only look impressive, but they are very comfortable as well. Large side and thigh bolsters and upper body "wings" keep the driver comfortably in place during aggressive cornering.
The driver's seat has a cushion that's height adjustable at the front and rear and a power recline function, power lumbar adjustment, and both front seats have electric heaters.
The RX-8's large easy-to-read gauges with illuminated white on black letters can be read at a glance, but there is no traditional analogue speedometer: the large tachometer in the centre contains a digital speed readout. The SE's meaty, three-spoke steering wheel tilts up and down but doesn't telescope in and out.
At the top of the centre stack is a bright, illuminated red display with useful information such as time, radio/CD functions, heating/ventilation indicators, and outside temperature display. The centre instrument panel has a stylized circular design with piano-black trim and aluminum trim. It contains a powerful Bose AM/FM stereo with six-disc in-dash CD changer (which includes nine speakers).
Underneath that are straightforward controls for the heater and air conditioner. At the bottom of the centre stack is a panel which opens to reveal a 12-volt power outlet and storage slot. The centre divider is low enough that it doesn't interfere with the driver's right arm when changing gears, a wise design feature.
The unusual loop hand brake lever to the right of the shifter doesn't interfere with shifting either, but it looks funny. Behind the shift lever are two cupholders covered by a sliding panel, and further back is a shallow storage compartment, also covered. The centre divider extends all the way to the rear seats, separating them and making it a true "2+2". The RX-8's trunk is rather small and oddly shaped, but it is fully lined and includes a pass-through between the rear seats.
The 40th Anniversary Special Edition model has Mazda's "Intelligent Key" system which consists of a flat card-shaped key which you can leave in your pocket or purse while you lock or unlock the doors with a button or start the car with the plastic knob where the key would normally go. I really liked this system because I never had to take the key out of my pocket.
The driver's door can be unlocked or locked simply by touching a black button near the door handle, and the ignition does not require inserting a key. The only drawback is the size of the remote key fob, which is much larger than most. The RX-8 driver sits very low, but outward visibility is surprisingly good thanks to the low hood and wrapover rear window.
The only blind spot is caused by the thick 'C' pillar when shoulder checking. The RX-8 SE's 1.3-litre two-rotor Renesis engine develops 232 horsepower at a very high 8500 rpm and a relatively modest 159 lb-ft of torque at 5,500 r.p.m. Compare this to a Mitsubishi Eclipse coupe with a traditional 3.8-litre V6 engine which makes 260 hp at 5,750 r.p.m. and 258 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 r.p.m.
With the rotary engine, all of the RX-8's power is in the upper end of the rev band while its low-speed torque is comparatively weak when compared to traditional piston engines. Still, I didn't find the RX-8 underpowered in normal city and highway driving, and its quoted 0 to 100 km/h time of just over six seconds is very quick.
Cruising on the freeway, the RX-8's rotary engine does about 3,200 r.p.m. at 100 km/h in sixth gear. That might seem high, but it's actually less than half of the engine's redline of 8,500 r.p.m. The engine hums along quietly at
One of the drawbacks of rotary engines is higher fuel consumption. The RX-8's official fuel consumption figures, with the six-speed manual transmission, are 12.8/9.2 city/hwy, but in a week of driving I averaged only 13.5 L/100 km - and the rotary engine uses Premium grade gasoline.
Another quirk of rotary engines is their thirst for oil - Mazda recommends checking the oil every second fill-up! Still, people who buy the RX-8 for its exciting high-revving engine and awesome handling probably won't be bothered by the cost of fuel and oil.
The RX-8 is a thrilling car to drive, with point and shoot steering, unbelievably stable high-speed handling, fantastic braking ability, a quick, short throw six-speed transmission, and a wonderfully free-revving engine.
The RX-8's monocoque body feels very tight, due in part to a front strut tower brace and Mazda's unique powerplant frame which surrounds the engine, transmission and driveline thereby reducing twisting and vibrations.
As a rear-wheel drive car, the RX-8 doesn't offer the same kind of traction in winter as a front-wheel drive car, but all RX-8 SEs include a standard limited slip rear differential, and electronic stability and traction control for those times when the rear wheels start to spin or the rear-end swings out unexpectedly.
The standard manual six-speed shifter (the six-speed automatic is not offered in the SE) has a short, stubby shift lever and shifts are quick with a direct shift feel. Clutch pedal effort is light and clutch engagement is smooth on take-off if engine revs don't drop too low.
The RX-8's ride is firm but not harsh: you will feel bumps and expansion cracks, but they don't punish your buttocks in any meaningful way. A tight turning diameter of 10.6 metres (34.8 ft.) allows tight turns and easy parking manoeuvres. At night, the RX-8 SE's standard xenon HID headlamps provide plenty of illumination, and SE models include headlight washers and additional fog lights.
The 2008 RX-8 40th Anniversary Special Edition's cosmetic improvements add a unique look to this already unique, rotary-engined sports car.