Sunday, January 13, 2008

Mazda RX-8 - For Sporting Nonconformists

Lots of people buy four-door sedans. They want practicality, reliability, and value. They are not RX-8 customers.

The RX-8 is a sports car. But, amazingly, it is not an irresponsible, gas guzzling, heavily polluting two-seater. On the contrary, the RX-8 offers a unique way of enjoying driving, bringing some friends along, and not breaking the bank at the fuel pump or at purchase time.

The RX-8 is the only mass market car that comes with a rotary engine. This tiny, 1.3-liter displacement powerplant generates 232 horsepower, with 159 lb.-ft. or torque, enough to drive the 3,053-pound vehicle down the road at a thrilling clip.

Using a triangular rotor instead of pistons, the RENESIS rotary engine is smooth and quiet, and surprisingly tiny compared to a normal six-cylinder or even four-cylinder engine. It sports an incredible 9,000-rpm redline—you can rev the rotary up till it howls to get maximum power out of it. With the low-mounted engine and rear-wheel drive, the RX-8 boasts a perfect 50/50 balance front to rear.

The EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide gives the RX-8 scores of 6 on the Air Pollution score and 5 on the Greenhouse Gas score. That’s about average for all cars, but the RX-8 is much more fun to drive.

My test car, in bright Velocity Red, came with the standard six-speed manual transmission, but you can order up a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters as well. I’d rather shift my own gears with a sports car, thank you very much, but that’s me. The engine horsepower drops to 212 with the automatic transmission.

With four-wheel ventilated disc brakes with anti-lock, stopping power arrives quickly and smoothly. The car also has a limited slip differential to transfer power effectively. All RX-8s have a tire pressure monitor to help you keep the inflation at its optimum level for performance and safety.

With its set of rear-hinged “suicide” doors in back, you can open up a wide space for rear passengers to enter and exit. I fit my son’s teenage friends in back with no problem. Even though there’s no center pillar, the doors lock in using pins so the structure is rugged and safe for impact protection.

Mazda loves to flaunt its triangular rotary design, so you will see it as a “goatee” under the front grille, at the top of the shift knob, in the headrests, on center console, and on the emergency brake. Two design elements are surprising inside the RX-8. The circle theme on the center console looks like a CD. However, CDs actually slip into a slot, just as in any other car. The brake handle features an additional lower section that seems unnecessary.

The RX-8’s firm suspension makes the car handle like a real road athlete, but every surface variation is broadcast throughout the car. A sports-minded driver won’t care—just pump up the stereo—but for day-to-day cruising it’s not ideal.

One handy feature is the car’s flat card-shaped key. It never has to leave your pocket when approaching, opening, or starting the car. Pull it out to lock the doors when you park and that’s it.

Like the beloved Mazda Miata (now known as the MX-5), the RX-8 is fun to toss around and feels like an extension of your body. The electric power steering adds assistance when you need it and drops it off when you don’t. It’s easy to get used to pointing and shooting through traffic.

The RX-8 comes in three trim levels for 2008. The Sport is the first level, with a generous list of standard equipment, including a six-speaker 100-watt audio system, 18-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, and power windows, locks, and mirrors. The Touring model adds Xenon high-intensity-discharge headlamps with fog lights, an upgrade to a nine-speaker 300-watt audio system, a power sunroof, an automatically dimming rearview mirror, and dynamic stability control with traction control.

The Grand Touring model, like my test car, further sweetens the pot with heated, leather-trimmed seats. The driver’s seat has eight-way power adjustment. The Grand Touring also receives the aforementioned automatic keyless entry and start system.

Pricing runs from $27,705 for the Sport to $31,705 for the Grand Touring model—those numbers include destination charges. For this level of entertainment, uniqueness, and content, that’s easy to take.

If you want to be extraordinarily entertained, your car is waiting for you now!