Pros: Handling, ride quality, engine note, usable rear seat
Cons: Seats could be better, shifts could be smoother, fuel economy
Flying up a tight uphill turn on WV-16 with the RX-8's rotary engine shrieking like a superbike's through 8000 RPM in second, the car sinking ever lower to the road as the lateral g's climbed, it hit me: this is the most amazing car I've ever driven. And I've driven a lot of cars.
I wrote a comprehensive review of the 2004 RX-8 a couple of years ago. That review can be read here. This review focused on my experiences during a recent extended road trip.
I've long toyed with the idea of having a sports car as a second car. But, with three kids to cart around much of the time, one just didn't make sense. In two of my favorites, the Honda S2000
and BMW Z3, not even one child can come along as the passenger airbag cannot be turned off.
Or can it? A few months ago I came across a used 2004 Honda S2000 in which the original owner had installed a cut-off switch for the passenger airbag. Not only this, but the car was my favorite combination, titanium with a red/black interior. Suddenly I was no longer merely toying with the idea of a sports car. I was trying to figure out how one might make sense.
My wife was the one who "solved" the puzzle. She's long wanted me in something larger and more practical than my Mazda Protege5. Her offer: if I got a three-row something-or-other, then I could also get a sports car.
Now, a Honda S2000 is pretty much useless in the Michigan winters. So I figured maybe I'd share the car with my father, so it could winter in the more temperate climes of Virginia. Now, I hadn't driven an S2000 in a while, and never with the revisions made for 2004.
Now, my father isn't crazy about rough, loud cars. A
only accumulated 6,000 miles in the year-and-a-half that he owned it. So the S2000 plan didn't have a high probability of working out.
On the other hand, even before he sold the Z I'd been telling him how much more he'd like the Mazda RX-8. In my fall 2003 test drive I'd been surprised by how smoothly and quietly it rode for a sports car.
To evaluate the tradeoffs between the two cars, we took them both for a test drive, I in Michigan and he in Virginia. I called him afterwards: "So what did you think?"
"I actually enjoyed driving the Mazda more."
Normally I'd have chalked this up to an old man rationalizing away the Honda's superior handling because he wanted the Mazda's cushier ride. But I had also driven both cars back-to-back along my favorite set of local curvy roads, and had separately come away with the same impressions. Despite its longer wheelbase, the Mazda responded to its steering more quickly and proved far easier and more intuitive to drive quickly. Especially through bumpy turns, as these tended to upset the Honda's composure. The RX-8, in contrast, handled the rough stuff almost as well as the new BMW 3-Series, the current ride-handling benchmark in my book.
At some point I'd realized that the same aftermarket switch that would enable the Honda to carry one of my children would enable the Mazda to carry all three. So while I might be able to drive the Honda ten percent of the time, I'd be able to drive the Mazda about two-thirds of the time. The test drives told me that this additional capability would cost me nothing in terms of driving enjoyment.
I've only had my Protege5 for a year-and-a-half. Also, if the Z was any indication my father wouldn't want the Mazda for long. When he found a 2005 with Sport Package and 4,000 miles for only $20,500, the last piece fell into place. I advised him to jump on it, and he did. The car was a few hours away. He thoroughly enjoyed driving it home.
My children visit my parents for two weeks each summer. This time I flew them down and drove the RX-8 back up. MapQuest gives the distance as 740 miles. But I didn't take that route. Instead, I pieced together a 1070-mile route that included generous stretches of the Blue Ridge Parkway, WV-16, and, the best of them all, OH-26. I returned a week later along a similarly entertaining route.
The last two roads are about as challenging as roads get, with tight turns, many of them heading steeply up a hill or down one, and no shoulders. How tight were these turns? Tight enough that in left-handers I often viewed the road ahead by looking to the left of the (blessedly thin) A-pillar. The pavement can be patchy, to boot.
On the Road
The RX-8 handled WV-16 and OH-26 amazingly well. It went like this...
Note the rated speed of the turn. Downshift into second for very tight and/or uphill turns, third (a very flexible gear given the rotary's 5,000 RPM powerband) for most. Just ahead of the turn, hit the powerful brakes to cut the speedometer's readily legible big digits (no needle) to an appropriate number.
Braking into the turn a bit (trail braking) helps rotate the chassis, but such help, while it adds to the enjoyment of driving the car, is hardly necessary. The RX-8 goes precisely where it is pointed, with no slop and no delay. Steering just doesn't get more intuitive or more immediate. I guess some might find the steering too quick, but I like it this way. Interestingly, despite the ultra-quick turn-in the RX-8 tracks very steadily on the highway. Steering effort is a touch on the heavy side for the most challenging roads, so I can only imagine how a Corvette's or 350Z's significantly heavier steering would feel.
Heading for the turn's apex, the RX-8 feels wonderfully balanced. Front tire scrub just didn't happen. No plowing. And no noise. I've heard far more complaints from tires in ten-mile test drives of family sedans than I heard from the Mazda's tires during this whole twenty-five-hundred-mile trip.
The tires did bark a few times--all due to errors on my part. Twice I entered a turn a bit fast, had to hit the brakes mid-turn (very, very bad), and the tires chirped for a moment while the stability control (highly recommended) unobtrusively intervened.
More often I found second while searching for fourth. The RX-8's shifter has moderately short throws and has a nice direct feel to it, but could provide a better sense of which gear you're heading toward. When seeking an instant downshift I sometimes found the wrong gear. Initially third coming from any gear but second was most elusive. I couldn't "feel" where the shifter was heading, and hesitated. I learned to aim in its general direction and push. Getting second instead of fourth was a more lingering issue. When this happened, the tires would bark and I'd heard a warning tone as the tach passed 8500 RPM. Actually, the sequence was the other way around, tone then tires. LOVE THAT TONE. As soon as I heard it, I knew what had happened, and put my left foot to the floorboard.
Bear in mind that these were extreme conditions that demanded instantaneous downshifts. In less challenging situations I had much different issues with the RX-8's shift quality. At first I had trouble getting the car to shift smoothly. My father gave me a helpful tip: shift it really fast. Don't lollygag through neutral. This way the revs can't fall off too far. Not the ideal solution, as sometimes you just want to relax. And the shifts are rarely ultra-smooth no matter what. This is perhaps the most tiresome aspect of the car around town.
Back to that turn. Moving through the apex, I eased deeper into the throttle. In response, the RX-8 just seemed to grasp the road all the tighter. There was very little lean, and the balance felt just a touch tail-heavy--which is to say perfect. The tires are not wide, just a 225 cross-section, but they provide plenty of grip. It helps that, at about 3000 pounds, the RX-8 is hundreds of pounds lighter than most competitors.
It's no news that rotaries lack low-end torque. But with 4,000 RPM for sweepers, 5,000 RPM for level or descending hairpins, and 6,000 RPM for the tight uphill monsters, the Renesis engine pulled plenty fine for me. I generally only found the time to glance at the speedometer once out of the turn, and was often surprised to find the car moving much faster than I thought it was. Many times I was surprised by the tone, which informed me that I was hitting the mid-sixties in a turn rated at 25 or 30. Even with the pedal about halfway down I'd accelerated twenty MPH in the course of a few seconds. My #1 recommendation to Mazda: please make a Corvette-like head-up display (HUD) available on the car.
On roads like these more power would be of very limited use. Sure, you need higher engine speeds with the rotary, but it revs so quickly and smoothly, and it sings such a thrilling song high up, that lofty RPM are pure joy. A benefit of the rotary's torque-free nature: while it's easy (and fun) to kick the rear end out with a heavy foot at low speeds, at higher speeds this just isn't a risk.
Some of these turns were bumpy. The RX-8's suspension took the edges off beautifully. The car just sailed through. It did less well when pointed straight ahead on some highways. When large cracks or heavy patchwork on such cracks extended clear across the lane, the Mazda sometimes annoyingly dipped with each one, dip, dip, dip, dip, dip... The 350Z and S2000 perform even worse in this regard, but that doesn't make it any less annoying.
When cruising, noise levels are low for a sports car. Tires might make a difference. The RX-8s tested by the magazines had Bridgestone Potenza RE040s. My father's car has Dunlop SP Sport 8090s, which proved very quiet and smooth-riding for a high performance tire.
I found myself doubting that any car would have handled these roads better. A Lotus Elise could no doubt be faster, but would leave the driver bruised and deafened within ten miles, much less a thousand. Ditto for the Honda S2000, which tosses a propensity for sudden oversteer into the mix. (It needs stability control badly.) A Corvette feels far larger (even though it isn't), and isn't nearly as easy to see out of. An Infiniti G35 simply feels heavier, and isn't as involving. A Porsche Boxster comes closer, but it feels less alive than the Mazda, and doesn't inspire nearly as much confidence, at least not with me. Closest of all is probably the latest BMW 3-Series. BMW's tend to feel better the harder they are pushed, and the new 3 is no exception. Its ride is superior to the Mazda's, but its responses aren't as immediate, it leans more in turns, and there is simply no substitute for the lower driving position of a sports car.
Now for the not-so-good news: fuel economy. In straight highway driving the RX-8 goes at best 23 miles per gallon of premium. In aggressive mountain driving it goes at most 15. Figure about 17 or 18 in mixed driving around town. The reason: the combustion chamber in a rotary isn't efficiently shaped.
Luckily, you buy a large number of benefits with this pitiful fuel economy. Because the engine is very compact, it can be positioned entirely behind the front axle without yielding a very long hood. So a very usable rear seat can be included in a car the length of a Corvette without harming the weight distribution. An Infiniti G35 has a less usable rear seat despite eight inches more length and a more nose-heavy weight distribution. Result: the Mazda feels very balanced in turns. Supposedly it understeers at the limit, but this limit is so high I rarely approached it even when driving aggressively on very challenging roads.
Another benefit: the compact engine enables the car's weight to be concentrated near its center of rotation. This yields the lightning-quick responses I experienced. The RX-8 might have an adult-worthy rear seat, but you'd never guess this based on how the car drives. Usually only cars weighing well under 3,000 pounds change directions so swiftly. Conversely, the more weight a car has in its nose and tail, the less readily it rotates.
A third benefit: the rotary engine is especially compact vertically, so it can be positioned very low in the chassis, lowering the center of gravity. With a low center of gravity, the suspension does not have to be ultra-stiff to minimize lean in hard turns. So the rotary also enables the RX-8's exemplary composure and (for a sports car) ride quality.
The RX-8 is not without a few weaknesses. I've already mentioned fuel economy and my desire for a HUD. The lack of low-end torque matters much more in typical around-town driving than on twisty mountain roads. I still didn't mind it, but for commuting many people will probably be happier in an Infiniti G35. The exterior styling has grown on me over time, but I still prefer that of a Corvette or G35 coupe. It is at least unique: no one mistake's the car for anything else. The front seats are fairly comfortable (even on long drives) and supportive, but could be even better on both counts. I prefer the seats in the S2000. Finally, build quality is adequate for a $30,000 car, but many other cars in this price range look and feel more solid.
The rear half-doors, very useful for accessing the rear seat, are a factor. As in similarly configured pickups, they don't provide a solidly mounted latch for the front doors, so the sound and feel when the latter are closed isn't confidence-inspiring. This isn't an actual safety issue, as the RX-8's structure has been engineered to withstand a side impact well, but perceptions do count.
Mazda RX-8 Price Comparisons and Pricing
In terms of price and performance, a 350Z is the closest match. With a $1,000 rebate the Mazda runs about $1,500 less. But if you want stability control, Mazda makes it a lot easier to get: along with Xenon headlights and fog lights, it's in the least expensive option package, the "Sport Package." I definitely would not get an RX-8 without at least this package. A limited-slip differential is standard on all six-speed RX-8s.
If you want the same features on a 350Z, you need the "Performance" trim level, and you're spending $4,000 more than for the Mazda.
Want a rear seat? Then it's the related Infiniti G35 coupe. Though the Infiniti costs about $6,500 more, it also includes about $4,000 more "stuff," bringing the adjusted difference to about $2,500. Yes, you inferred correctly: the Infiniti is a better value than the Z.
The RX-8's low price is especially surprising since it uses a unique engine and, at least until the new Miata arrives, a unique platform. In contrast, the Nissan products use a widely-shared V6 and platform.
Most other RX-8 options are included in two other packages. The "Touring" includes all Sport features, plus a sunroof and Bose audio system. The latter, with three times the wattage and superior speakers, would no doubt be an improvement over the stock system. But I'm wary of the sunroof's impact on the car's center of gravity. The "Grand Touring" further adds power seats and heated leather. I don't care for the appearance of the leather seats. If you want leather, I'd advise higher-quality aftermarket upholstery.
Prices change frequently, and differences will vary based on feature level. To quickly generate these and other comparisons with the specific features you want, visit my Web site, www.truedelta.com. (It's the only site that provides true "apples-to-apples" price comparisons.)
TrueDelta's page for the RX-8:
So, is this the car for you? Well, as much as I like it, I must say "that depends." Would you drive it regularly on twisty mountain roads? Do you enjoy ultra-responsive steering more than an ultra-responsive engine? Do you need a usable rear seat in your sports car?
If three yeses, then this is definitely the car for you. Two? Still quite likely. But if one or none, then probably not.
A Note on Mazda RX-8 Reliability
I cannot practically cover reliability within the context of this review. However, many people are interested in such information, so I've started collecting my own data. Results, once they are available, will be posted to my site, www.truedelta.com, with updates every three months.
Unlike other sources, TrueDelta will clearly identify what difference it will make if you buy an RX-8 rather than another vehicle by providing "times in the shop" and "days in the shop" stats (among others). You will be able to specify the number of years, annual miles, and types of repairs to include in Mazda RX-8 reliability comparisons.
Before I can report results, I need data on all cars--not just the RX-8--from people like you. To encourage participation, those who help provide the data will receive free access to the site's reliability information. Non-participants will have to pay an access fee.
For the details, and to sign up, visit www.truedelta.com.
A link to this website and alphabetized links to my other vehicle reviews can be found on my profile page.
In the case of my father's car, he's had no problems with it whatsoever in the year-and-a-half he's now had it.
Some of my reviews of related vehicles:
My more comprehensive review of the 2004 RX-8.
Nissan 350Z review