Mazda's Unconventional RX-8

The RX-8 is a true sports car but its rotary engine makes it too inconvenient to appeal to most drivers

Up Front

I was really looking forward to driving the Mazda RX-8, the only production car that comes with a rotary engine rather than a conventional piston-driven engine. The RX-8 has a reputation for being a bit of a sleeper, a great-handling, reasonably priced sports car that has never gotten the sales it deserves because of doubts about its unusual technology.

After driving the RX-8 for a week, I'm not a huge fan. Yes, yes, I know the RX-8 has made Car and Driver magazine's 10 Best list for three years in a row as the best sports coupe. I'm just not certain its attractions offset its inconveniences.

For sure, the RX-8 has a lot going for it, starting with a reasonable price. It comes in three trim levels, each of which can be had either with a 232-horsepower engine and a six-speed stick shift or 212 hp and a six-speed automatic transmission (which has cool, steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters). The Sport version starts at $27,030 in either configuration, and comes with Xenon headlamps, 18-inch aluminum alloy wheels, side and side curtain airbags, a limited slip differential, and antilock brakes.

The Touring package starts at $30,130 and adds a moonroof and an upgraded Bose sound system. Top-of-the-line is the Grand Touring RX-8, which starts at $31,665 and adds a power driver's seat, leather upholstery, heated outside mirrors, and front seats.

Fact is, though, you can get the car at well under list price right now. To make room for the incoming 2007 models, Mazda is offering $2,500 cash back on the virtually identical '06. The Power Information Network figures the average customer rebate on the car is $1,725, much more than the rebates on competing models. Like, J.D. Power & Associates is a division of McGraw-Hill (MHP).

According to Power, the current average selling price of the RX-8 is only $27,937. That puts it in the same range as such rivals as the Ford (F) Mustang ($27,093) and the Toyota (TM) Camry Solara ($27,044)—and well under the average price of the Nissan 350Z ($32,741) (see, 7/19/06, "Z As In Zoom"). The only cheaper rival model with anything like the RX-8's features and pizzazz is the Mitsubishi Eclipse, at $22,818. That's not much, considering the RX-8's features and performance.

However, I figure there has to be a reason the RX-8 is selling so poorly. U.S. sales are off 35% in the first nine months of this year, to just 7,540 units. And the average RX-8 spends 82 days on a dealer's lot before selling, according to the Power Information Network. That's a long time. The comparable figures are 65 days for the Mustang, 63 for the Eclipse, 62 for the 350Z, and just 44 for the Camry Solara.

My hunch is that many buyers don't want to take a chance on a car with a rotary engine. Mazda has been trying for four decades to create a market for the engine, which generates power via a triangular rotor that spins in a cocoon-like combustion chamber. The RX-8, which hit the U.S. market five years ago, has an innovative new rotary power plant called the Renesis that generates more power and less pollution, and is more fuel-efficient than rotary engines of yore.

The drawback is that the Renesis is relatively high maintenance. For instance, the car steadily burns a small amount of oil during regular use. Mazda recommends that you check the oil every other time you gas up.

According to an advisory that comes with the car, you also should take precautions to keep the RX-8's spark plugs from fouling and the engine from running rough. For instance, if you drive a short distance—say, out of the garage out into the driveway—you're supposed to turn the ignition to start for 10 seconds with the pedal on the floor, then let the engine idle for 10 seconds. Once you've moved the car, you're supposed let the engine idle for five minutes, rev it up to 3,000 rpm, then let it idle again before shutting it off.

Mazda also warns that you may have to periodically "dechoke" the engine by cranking the engine for seven or eight seconds with the pedal on the floor. This cleans unburned fuel out of the engine's combustion chamber. (I'd be interested in hearing from owners if all this is really necessary. I didn't do any of it and didn't have problems, but I only drove the car about 450 miles.)

The RX-8's fuel efficiency isn't great, either. The car is rated at 18 miles per gallon in the city and 25 on the highway with the small engine, 18 and 24 with the big engine. In a stretch of 426 miles of mainly highway driving in my test car with the big engine, I only got 18.2 miles per gallon. That's not much, considering that the RX-8 uses expensive premium gasoline.

Behind the Wheel

The guys at Car and Driver love the RX-8 because most of them are, well, guys, and this is pretty much a guy's car. Only about 30% of RX-8's buyers are women, about the same as for the 350Z and Mustang. By contrast, about half Mitsubishi Eclipse buyers and 54% of Camry Solara buyers are women, the Power Information Network calculates.

The RX-8 is also a driving enthusiast's car. Steering is extremely responsive: The car's reaction to the slightest flick of the steering wheel is almost instantaneous. The RX-8 also feels very solid and hugs the road in any even remotely street-legal maneuver you can come up with. That's partly because the engine is positioned relatively far back and the gas tank relatively far forward, giving the RX-8 almost perfect 50/50 front/rear weight distribution. The RX-8 is also quite light for a four-seater, weighing in at barely 3,000 lbs.

The RX-8 is fairly quick, though my test car was no speed demon. The fastest time I got accelerating from 0 to 60 was 7.5 seconds. However, my test car only had about 9,000 miles on it, and apparently RX-8 gets faster as the engine wears in. Car and Driver got times as low as 5.9 seconds in an '04 RX-8 with upward of 40,000 miles on it.

What's unusual about the driving experience is the way rotary engine unwinds during acceleration. You can cruise along on the highway at 70 miles per hour in fourth gear with the engine turning at less than 4,500 rpm. That would be high for some engines, but Mazda's rotary doesn't redline until 9,000 rpm. I didn't risk my driver's license to test the theory, but it seemed to me you'd have to be well over 100 mph before you hit the redline in fourth gear. You almost wonder why Mazda bothered to put a six-speed transmission in the car.

Remarkably, all this speed and power comes from a tiny 1.3 liter engine that Mazda says is 60% smaller and lighter than a comparable V6 and 40% smaller and lighter than a comparable four-cylinder engine.

The downside is that the engine has a high-pitched whine (a little like a motorcycle engine's) that can be annoying. Also, if you're looking for a cushy ride, this isn't the car for you. The RX-8 makes no apologies for being a sports car. You feel the bumps and rough patches on the highway, and every bump on back roads.

Buy It or Bag It?

You have to answer two basic questions when considering this car. First and foremost, are you willing to risk upward of 30 grand on a car with a rotary engine? Second, how do you feel about the RX-8's unusual styling?

J.D. Power says it doesn't have quality and reliability ratings on the RX-8 because sales are so low. But given the precautions you're supposed to take (and the fact that many people won't bother), you have to wonder if the rotary engine can match the long-term reliability of a conventional engine. After all, many piston engines don't even require a tune-up in the first 100,000 miles. Also, depending on where you live, it may be hard to find a mechanic experienced in servicing rotary engines.

The RX-8's exterior design is a bit busy for my taste. There are bulges around the wheel-wells, a jutting rear end, and an odd triangular crease in the hood (meant to echo the shape of the engine's rotor). It also has unusual reverse-opening rear doors like the ones in some club-cab pickup trucks.

You can really jazz up the exterior, too, if you want to. A rear spoiler goes for $360, and front and rear splash guards cost $200. There's also an appearance package that adds a front air dam and side and rear flares for an extra $1,100.

The big advantage of the RX-8's interior is that it has rear seats at all. Sure, they're small, cramped ones that the narrow reverse-opening doors make it hard to get in and out of. But they still give the RX-8 a big advantage over, say, the Nissan 350Z because they give you extra cargo space and allow you to travel with kids.

The disadvantage of the interior is its tight cockpit-like feel. There's a high hump running down the middle of the car to accommodate the rear-wheel drive that creates a pronounced barrier between the left and right seats. There's plenty of legroom up front with the seats back, but that makes rear leg space very tight. The tunnel-like leg space up front also felt a little claustrophobic to me.

You can upgrade the car's interior, too. My test car had a striking, almost garish black and red leather interior (available with the Grand Touring package), and bold racing-style aluminum pedals. It also had metal-lined triangular open spaces in the headrests— again, meant to echo the shape of the engine rotors.

The bottom line is that this is an unconventional, almost eccentric car. It isn't for everyone. But if you're looking for a sweet-handling sports car with distinctive styling, it might be worth taking a chance on the RX-8.
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