It's been 40 years since Mazda released its first rotary-engine production model, a twin-rotor coupe called Cosmo Sport in mid-1967. By the early 1970s, the rotary seemed poised to conquer the automotive world. That never happened for a long list of reasons, but the lightweight rotary engine found a purpose powering a delightful series of light, nimble, high-revving Mazda sports-touring cars. Over the past four decades, Mazda has manufactured more than 1.9 million rotary-engine vehicles. And we're glad it did.
The latest model in this series, the ingeniously engineered Mazda RX-8, drives like a sports car, with a high-revving engine and near perfect weight distribution for balanced handling, and it has garnered motoring award recognition on four continents.
For 2009 RX-8 receives evolutionary styling updates, a more rigid structure and driveshaft, revised rear suspension and gearing, and a new RX-8 R3 aimed at enthusiasts. Although the R3 powertrain is the same as that of the other RX8s, its sports suspension and cosmetic and functional upgrades qualify it as the best sports value in the line for serious enthusiasts.
The Mazda RX-8 is surprisingly practical. It's capable of taking the kids to soccer practice, with passenger space for four full-size adults. There's enough room for a weekend's worth of luggage or two full-size golf bags, and the small rear doors and relatively spacious trunk make trips to the home improvement center possible. It's not as roomy as a sedan, but it can move people and stuff when needed, while offer the driving experience of a two-seat sports car.
In short, the RX-8 is a true four-seat sports car. And it's the small but powerful rotary engine that makes this possible.
The RX-8 was launched as an all-new model for 2004. Its most significant prior update was the six-speed automatic transmission that arrived for 2006, replacing the previously available four-speed. In addition to two more gears, the six-speed automatic also brought steering-wheel mounted paddle controls for semi-manual shifting; and allowed the engine to be tuned closer to its manual-transmission specification, narrowing the performance gap between the auto-shifting and shift-it-yourself versions.
Still, the manual and automatic models are two different cars. The manual benefits from 232 horsepower at 8500 rpm, while the automatic gets 212 hp at 7500 rpm, albeit with the same 159 pound-feet of torque at 5500 rpm. The bottom line is that the manual model is for driving enthusiasts willing to shift for themselves and those seeking maximum efficiency, while the automatic is for drivers more interested in the look and feel of a sports car than in ultimate performance or heavy stop-and-go commuters.
The 2009 Mazda RX-8 comes in four trim levels. All are powered by the 1.3-liter twin-rotor rotary engine.
Sport ($26,435) comes with a choice of six-speed manual or six-speed paddle-shift automatic transmission, both for the same price. Standard equipment includes cloth upholstery; air conditioning; AM/FM/CD stereo with six speakers and steering-wheel mounted controls; cruise control; power windows, mirrors and locks; leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel and shift knob; floor and overhead consoles; rear window defogger; variable-speed intermittent windshield wipers; alarm with immobilizer; and 225/45R18 tires on alloy wheels. Manual-shift models also get aluminum/rubber pedals, torque-sensing limited-slip differential and a rear lip spoiler.
Options include a 6CD in-dash changer ($500), Sirius radio ($430), spare tire kit ($395), rear wing spoiler ($360), plus mats, cargo nets and other accessories.
Touring comes with manual ($27,860) or automatic transmission ($28,560). The Touring adds Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) with traction control; Xenon headlamps; fog lights; auto-dimming inside rearview mirror with HomeLink; and an MP3/six-disc in-dash sound system. Additionally, Touring automatics get the limited-slip differential. Touring options include those above plus a Premium package ($1355) that includes the Bose Centerpoint sound system, Sirius, moonroof.
Grand Touring ($31,000) comes with manual or automatic ($31,700). The GT adds leather seating with matching synthetic leather door panels, heated front seats and outside mirrors, eight-way power and three-position memory for the driver's seat, automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers, Bluetooth, Bose surround sound system, and Mazda's advanced keyless entry and start system. Options include navigation ($2000) and Premium package ($900) with moonroof and Sirius.
R3 ($31,930) is trimmed like a Touring but adds upgraded suspension with Bilstein shock absorbers, forged aluminum 19-inch wheels and 225/40R19 Bridgestone RE050A performance tires, rear wing spoiler, side sills, unique front styling, Bose audio system, leather-wrapped handbrake, keyless entry/start, and leather-edged Recaro sport seats.
Safety features that come standard include frontal and side-impact airbags (for torso protection) for the front passengers, and curtain airbags (for head protection) front and rear. A tire pressure monitor is also standard on all models. Anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution comes standard; DSC stability control is optional on Sport, standard on all others.