Mazda refines its radically-different coupe
What you get Specifications Pricing
You either love the way Mazda’s RX-8 four-door sports car looks or you hate it.
Its radically different styling, with pronounced cycle guard-like front wheelarches and a muscular rear end that evokes a big cat ready to spring, polarises opinion.
It’s also the purest and starkest expression of the family look which permeates all current Mazdas from the MX-5 through to the Mazda2.
For the freshened 2009 model year RX-8, Mazda designers re-drew the front fenders to accommodate new-design 18-inch alloy wheels, and gave the car new front and rear bumper fascias.
The intention was to refine the shape without sacrificing the design’s inherent athleticism and aggressiveness.
They’ve succeeded and in the four carefully-selected colours in which the coupe is offered here – black, blue mica, red mica and grey metallic – the car has a more refined look than the original model. If you think it’s too refined, the factory offers a bodykit to lift the bling factor.
The designers have made other exterior changes, resizing the under-floor covers and deflectors which, with the reprofiled bumpers, fenders and rear lights, improve aerodynamics and straight-line stability.
The heart of the RX-8 is the Mazda rotary engine, here in twin-rotor form and dubbed the Renesis.
The delight of a Mazda rotary is its delicious shriek at high revs – and the Renesis will run out to 9000rpm so there’s plenty of scope for aural pleasure – and the burble at idle, though in the factory car the latter is well muted.
The engine sits low in the chassis giving a low centre of gravity which benefits handling. The engine is mounted far back, achieving an ideal 50:50 front/rear weight distribution.
The engine in the test car, a six-speed manual finished in Aurora Blue Mica, was the 170kW version of the Renesis which delivers maximum power at a heady 8200rpm. The six-speed auto’s engine is detuned to 158kW at 7500rpm.
Torque is 211Nm in both versions, peaking at 5500rpm. It’s adequate but at city speeds, fifth is effectively the manual’s top gear. Sixth comes into its own on the motorway or in speed zones above 70km/h.
Mazda has lowered the final drive ratio to 4.77:1 which gives the RX-8 better bite off the line and out of second gear corners.
Acceleration is vivid enough – expect 0-100km/h in around seven seconds – and the top speed is near 240km/h.
Driving the car hard on demanding open roads is a delight, the engine gloriously vocal as you shift up and down through the gears.
And the gearshift and gearbox, borrowed from the MX-5 with ratios adjusted to suit the rotary engine, is superb.
Manual gearboxes are always a Mazda strong suit, and the RX-8’s is sublime, the stubby short-throw lever snicking between the ratios like the proverbial knife through butter.
Handling is pleasantly biased towards neutral, with virtually no detectable understeer until you push hard into very slow corners and a rear end that is kept well in check by stability and traction controls.
You can switch the DSC stability control off, but I’ll leave that for people who fancy they have powers of car control to equal Michael Schumacher.
I came to appreciate DSC twice when I braked hard and charged into tight corners, and the rear end thought for a nano-second that it might like to become the front end as the rear tyres bit. The DSC gathered it all up with just a little wiggle and a woggle.
The RX-8 has a supple ride and is fun to drive, but it lacks the complete composure that characterises the MX-5. The feel is more long-legged grand tourer than mountain-taming sports car. It doesn’t quite have the rider-and-horse-working-as-one feel of the less powerful, open-topped Mazda.
The seating position, though, is excellent. It can sometimes be hard to read unfamiliar roads from the driver’s seat of low-slung cars like the RX-8, but the Mazda provides as good a view of the road ahead as most sedans, without sacrificing the cockpit-like feel of the driver’s compartment.
Mazda has redesigned the front seats to improve comfort and lateral support, and the driver’s seat has eight-way power adjustment and a three-position seat memory.
The front seats are easy to get into and out of. This is not a sporting car where you seem to drop for metres before you hit the seat cushion, nor one where clambering out is difficult.
This is a sporting car which is very friendly to the over-50s, an age group which is an important consumer of coupes, but which can be left with a car that is literally a pain to get into and out of.
Changes to the seat sliding mechanisms make the rear cabin easier to access through the rear-hinged back doors (for safety reasons they can’t be opened before the front doors), and there’s a good-sized boot.
The 90-litre luggage capacity is helped by the absence of a spare wheel. Mazda instead gives you a puncture repair kit and an air compressor to re-inflate the tyre. I hope it works better than the rubber and glue patch kits and hand pumps that were de rigueur for baby boomer cyclists.
Fuel economy is scarcely a phrase that goes with a rotary-engined car, but Mazda has worked hard to cut the RX-8’s fuel use at a time when petrol pump prices are in sharp focus.
It quotes a combined city/highway usage of 12.9 litres/100km (12.1 for the milder-tune automatic) which equates to about 22mpg in baby boomer-speak.
You might have to exercise some restraint – and refrain from high-rev, exhaust-snarling, full-throttle exits from second gear corners – but that’s really not too bad, given the car’s performance potential.
Standard equipment levels are generous and include a sliding glass sunroof which always strikes me as an unnecessary extra in an air-conditioned car.
The Bose sound system is excellent, has a six-disc CD changer/player, nine speakers, is MP3-compatible and has an AUX jack for i-pods.
With a $55,395 sticker price regardless of model, the 2009 RX-8 is attractive value for money.
It has a nice blend of performance, handling and comfort wrapped up in a package that is decidedly different, both in terms of the rotary engine and the radically-different styling. One for the individualist.
autotrader.co.nz rating: four out of five.
What your money buys
External gear includes front foglights and automatically-levelling headlights with xenon low beam.
There are power mirrors (body coloured and heated), power-operated sliding glass sunroof, power windows and flip-type rear quarter window.
Inside the cabin there are climate-control air-conditioning, race car-style aluminium pedals and footrest, and a blackout instrument cluster.
Front and rear cabins have centre armrest consoles.
The RX-8 has cruise-control, cupholders, sunglasses storage compartment, lockable and illuminated glovebox, map reading lights, and leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearlever knob. The steering wheel also houses the paddle shifters for the auto gearbox version's manual gearshift function. There's no spare wheel but the RX-8 has a puncture repair kit and air compressor.
The four seats are upholstered in black leather. The driver's seat is eight-way power-adjustable and can be adjusted for height. All four seats have integral head restraints.
The MP3-compatible sound system has a dash-mounted six-disc stacker for the CD player. A premium Bose 300-watt amplifier pumps the sound through nine speakers, including a sub-woofer. Extra controls for the sound system are on the steering wheel.
Safety kit includes front and side airbags for the driver and front passenger, and side curtain airbags run the length of the cabin.
The front seatbelts have pretensioners and load-limiters, and all seats have lap/sash belts.
There are side impact anti-intrusion beams in the doors, and child seat anchor points.
The security system includes remote control door and bootlid locking and a double-lock door deadlock and engine immobiliser.
Active safety gear includes Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD) and traction control (TCS).
Specifications of the 2009 Mazda RX-8
Type. Four-door fixed head coupe.
Engine. Front mid-mounted 1308cc twin-rotor Renesis rotary. Multipoint electronic fuel injection. Maximum power: 170kW at 8200rpm with six-speed manual gearbox; 158kW at 7500rpm with six-speed Activematic automatic gearbox. Peak torque: 211Nm at 5500rpm on both. Redline: 9000rpm.
Transmission. Rear-wheel drive. Choice of six-speed manual adapted from MX-5 with ratios revised to better suit engine characteristics or six-speed electronically-controlled automatic with manual shift function.
Suspension. Sports-tuned. Double wishbone in-wheel type front suspension. Multi-link rear suspension. Trapezoidal front strut brace (manual only) and urethane-foam-filled front suspension crossmember. Traction Control System (TCS) and Dynamic Stability Control (DSC).
Brakes. Ventilated discs front (323mm) and rear (302mm). ABS anti-lock system (ABS) with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD).
Wheels. 18-inch alloy.
Tyres. 225/45 R18 91W.
Steering. Electrically power assisted rack and pinion.
Fuel consumption. Combined cycle: 12.9 litres/100km (manual); 12.1 litres/100km (auto).
Dimensions. Length, 4470mm. Width, 1770mm. Height, 1340mm. Wheelbase, 2700mm.Front track, 1500mm. Rear, 1505mm. Kerb weight: manual, 1402kg; automatic, 1412kg. Weight distribution, 50:50, front/rear. Fuel tank capacity, 65 litres of 95 octane. Boot capacity, 90 litres. Turning circle, 10.6 metres.
One price for both RX-8s
Mazda offers mirror pricing on the RX-8 with the manual and automatic versions each costing $55,395.
An added attraction is the mazdacare package which gives Mazda customers Genuine Mazda Factory Warranty and Mazda On Call Roadside Assistance for three years and unlimited kilometres, and paid-for scheduled servicing for three years or 100,000km (whichever comes first). That means no servicing costs during that period.