The automotive world will be a poorer place without the Mazda RX-8. That’s a fact. Which is different from saying that the RX-8 is a great sports car in contemporary terms. But we’ll be very sad when it’s gone.
Make no mistake, it is going. Nine years is an astonishingly long run for a niche model, but the rotary-powered RX-8 is about to breathe (spin?) its last: a victim of waning sales (partly) and tougher exhaust-emission standards (especially).
The RX-8 Spirit R is a last hurrah, then. If ‘Spirit R’ sounds familiar, that’s because it was the name attached to last-ever RX-7 model as well. Rotary tradition. Nice.
The $56,995 RX-8 Spirit R does not look as elegant as the standard RX-8 because it has an ungainly body kit attached. But it does proffer some snazzy gold alloy wheels, Bilstein suspension and snug Recaro seats. So very much worth having, I think. It’s available in any colour you want, as long as it’s black, silver or white.
The RX-8 looks its age and feels it in some respects. It’s completely out of step with Mazda’s latest-generation styling ethos (actually, Mazda’s last two generations of styling) and the cabin is resplendent with gauche detailing and cheap plastics. No Bluetooth. Nowhere to plug in your iPod. Huh?
But what a cracking thing to drive. Not fast, with 170kW/211Nm in total and almost nothing to offer in the first half of the rev range. But the rotary spins with uncanny smoothness to 9000rpm and sounds barking mad; with a snick-snick six-speed manual gearbox it’s a pleasure getting there as well.
It’s embarrassingly thirsty of course, as rotaries always are. The Combined fuel economy figure of 12.1 litres per 100km is fantasy. It might have been achieved in a laboratory with a strictly controlled test procedure (as all official Combined figures are), but I’ve driven the RX-8 a lot in the real world. Trust me, 12.1 litres is fantasy.
The RX-8’s steering and chassis manage to combine a light touch with uncanny accuracy. The wheel does not offer much in the way of feedback but remains an extremely precise instrument. The rear-drive chassis can be used hard and often: it’s beautifully balanced and there isn’t enough torque to upset the rear end under power, unless you’re doing something really silly. Or it’s very wet. Or both. So usually, you just press on.
The Mazda had a lot of novel features in 2003 that seem a bit ho-hum now. The bodywork and cabin were originally a riot of rotary shapes, but a 2008-facelift cleaned up a lot of that design detail. Probably best.
And did you know the RX-8 has rear-hinged doors at the back? Oh, of course you did. Not an idea that really caught on and while there’s plenty of legroom back there, it’s still a pretty claustrophobic experience to travel in the rear.
The RX-8 seemed radical when it was launched, but as it turns out this oddball Mazda did not change the automotive world. Perhaps it wasn’t supposed to. Really, it’s just another expression of Mazda’s solitary obsession with rotary sports cars.
It was fun, though. Still is.