Car Test   R0348
 
July 2003
First Drive Mazda RX-8
Printer Friendly Page Featured model: 231bhp
Unique is probably the best word to describe Mazda’s shapely new sports coupé. Not only does it have four seats and four centre-opening doors, it’s also powered by a remarkable rotary engine of which Herr Doktor Wankel would be proud.
  
   Instead of using ‘up-and-down’ reciprocating parts, such as pistons, con rods and valves, this 1.3-litre ‘Renesis’ engine employs two eccentrically spinning rotors, almost triangular in shape, within ported chambers in which the combustion process takes place. The result is super-smooth running and the sort of free revving normally associated with motorcycle engines. For example, the higher-powered version of this engine that we drove revs to a heady 9000rpm, developing its top torque (156lb ft) at 5600rpm and maximum power (231bhp) at 8200rpm on the way. We rarely get to quote revs this high.
  
   The car is fast from the word go, but so ‘top-endy’ is the engine that the real accelerative urge is up beyond 5000 revs, where the engine’s muted yowl is at its most glorious. This means that when exploiting this six-speed car’s fun factor to the fullest on winding roads, you’re in fourth gear for most of the time; no bad thing, really, because the shift can be a bit baulky. The engine is, in fact, willing to pull (lethargically) from about 1200rpm in the upper ratios, and though running at a short-striding 20mph or so per 1000rpm in sixth, it doesn’t sound or feel fussy when on a motorway. The downside, however, is an overall fuel thirst in the low 20s and a high CO2 rating.
  
   Cleverly, the RX-8’s ride is firm enough to be sporty, yet compliant enough to smooth away serious shocks. This allows a smidgen of cornering lean, but such is the tyre trip and 50/50 weight distribution that the car can be hurried through tight turns and open sweepers with great enthusiasm. It’s a pity, though, that a hint of mushiness about the straight-ahead position blots the electric steering’s otherwise clean copybook.
  
   The steering wheel adjusts only for height, but our ‘about average’ wheelman found the driving position excellent, thanks to the shapely, electrically adjustable seat. An incongruous digital speedometer sits within the tachometer that dominates the instrument pod, and the controls are instantly handy. There’s a perfect symmetry to the centre console’s switchgear, but it’s all a bit confusing at first. The wrap-round rear window aids vision within the safety-conscious cockpit that feels so comfortably snug that you tend to forget there are another two seats behind.
  
   Access to these is via a pair of rear-hinged ‘half-doors’ with no centre pillar, but although it’s quite easy to slide in, it’s a bit tricky to make a graceful exit. If the front seats had a tilt-and-slide mechanism it would help the less agile. There isn’t a surfeit of space in the somewhat claustrophobic back, but the seats are well shaped and most adults can be adequately accommodated over reasonable distances. It’s a sort of 2+2-and-a-bit.
  
   There’s no spare wheel, so the deep boot is pretty roomy – it will take a couple of suitcases and a bag or two.
  
AT A GLANCE
  considering size, price and rivals
Controls/displays
Handling/steering
Comfort
Space/practicality
LIKES ...
  • clear, backlit instruments
  • well-sited, pop-up satnav (optional)
  • downlighters in door mirrors
  • neat audio controls on leather-rimmed wheel
and GRIPES
  • some driveline shunt on torque reversal
  • red central info graphics hard to read in daylight
  • slot-like boot opening and high sill
  • boot lid release switch tucked under facia
VERDICT
Congratulations to Mazda for producing a niche-market car with a big wow! factor, yet one that’s profoundly different without being outrageous or impractical. Rev-happy and startlingly swift, with a wonderful howling soundtrack, the RX-8 is both exhilarating to drive fast and a comfortable long-distance cruiser – and all at an affordable price. It will be no stranger to filling stations, though.


BRIEF SPECIFICATION
engine 1308cc, twin-chamber, water-cooled rotary - normally aspirated; 231bhp at 8200rpm, 156 lb ft at 5500rpm
drive rear-wheel drive, six-speed manual; dynamic stability and traction controls
suspension front: double wishbones and coil springs, telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar
rear: multi-link, coil springs, telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar
wheels/tyres 8in alloy with 225/45R18 tyres; no spare (aerosol sealant and pump)
brakes ventilated discs front and rear with ABS and electronic brake force distribution (EBD)
0-62mph 6.4sec*
official mpg§ 17.9/31.7/24.8
maximum speed* 146mph
CO2 emissions 284g/km
* maker's figures  § urban/extra urban/combined

THE RX-8 RANGE
size and type four-door, four-seater (mid-priced) sports coupé   trim levels one only
engines petrol: twin rotor/1.3 litre/192 or 231bhp
diesel: none
  drive rear-wheel drive. 192bhp: five speed manual, 231bhp: six-speed manual
notable features twin-rotor Wankel engine, centre-opening 'Freestyle' door system, digital speedometer, electric power steering curtain, airbags, drilled alloy pedals


SPACE AND PRACTICALITY
  in centimetres (x)
  steering
   
  easy to park/garage?
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