Mazda - RX8
[August 01 2003]
Sitting in the late afternoon sun, Mazda's new RX-8 looks fantastic. It doesn't have the same air of sophistication as, say, an Audi TT, but with bold curves, wide wheelarches and glitzy details it makes for a brash alternative from a country proud to be different with its sports cars.
At the heart of it all is an equally unique rotary engine, developed from the ideas of Dr Felix Wankel. Mazda was one of the first mainstream manufacturers to realise the benefits of a good Wankel. It introduced the rotary engined Cosmo Sport 110S in 1967 and has been developing the technology ever since.
The latest generation RENESIS engine is a twin rotary unit with a combined displacement of 1.3 litres. Unlike its RX-7 predecessor, it doesn't rely on turbo-charging, yet manages to produce 189bhp or 228bhp depending on the state of tune.
Climbing aboard for the first time is quite an event. Behind each of the front doors is another mini door with no exterior handle. When the front doors are open, these open rearwards and leave a large pillarless hole to allow rear-seat passengers easy access. This makes the RX-8 surprisingly practical for up to four adults.
The interior is suitably performance-oriented, with a high transmission tunnel running between the front and rear sports seats. The dashboard is a bit plasticky, but it's nicely laid out and has a quality feel.
One of the main benefits of that RENESIS engine is its incredibly compact size. It has allowed Mazda's engineers to position it very close to the centre of the car, giving the RX-8 a mid-engined layout and perfect 50/50 weight distribution.
What this means in practice is well-balanced handling with little understeer. The RX-8 attacks corners with relish; feeling taut and controlled, and giving you the confidence to make the most of that rev-happy engine. Even in the less powerful 189bhp version, the pace builds swiftly and the snappy five-speed 'box and sharp steering don't say 'slow down'.
On the downside, a serious lack of low-end torque means you really need to work the gearbox, even when you're not in a playful mood. The more powerful 228bhp version actually has less torque, with 156lb ft at 5,500rpm instead of 162lb ft at 5,000. But you do get a six-speed gearbox to compensate.
In an attempt to woo fleet buyers, Mazda has offset the RX-8's high carbon dioxide figure and resulting tax percentage by keeping the list price of both models as low as possible. So what's good news for fleet managers is absolutely fantastic news for private buyers. Consequently, it makes a very serious case for itself on all fronts. It's so much more attention-grabbing than a BMW 3-Series coupe and costing from £20,000 to £22,000 it's a good deal cheaper and more practical than any of the latest crop of coupes.
If it were my money, I'd go for the visually identical and two grand cheaper 189bhp model. You only notice the power deficit when you're pushing it really hard and the extra torque comes in handy around town.