Road and Track Article
Charles Darwin once summed up his theory regarding evolution in one simple phrase: Only the strong survive. If that's so, then the RX-8 is one tough automobile. The odds of this car being produced about a half decade ago were longer than the Chicago Bulls winning this year's NBA title.
It was 1995, and the Mazda RX-7 had just been discontinued in the U.S. market. Nevertheless, Mazda was feverishly working on a new sports car — one that could take the place of the RX-7 in the U.S. — equipped with a new type of engine dubbed the MSP-RE, a naturally-aspirated 2-rotor Wankel with side exhaust ports that resulted in cleaner emissions (see R&T, February 1996).
The car was called the RX-01 and the company was hoping to introduce the 220-bhp 2-seater for about half the price of its flagship sports car. But just as Mazda's management was going into the final decision-making phases regarding the future of the car, Ford took controlling interest of the Hiroshima-based company, and all plans regarding the RX-01 and its engine were put on hold. "Upscale sports cars and rotary engines don't make sense in today's marketplace," Ford's top brass reportedly told Mazda employees.
Many within the company thought that Mazda's days of the rotary engine were over. "We believed that the first thing Ford would do was stop us from making rotaries," a Mazda engineer said. "In financial terms, continuing with the rotary made little sense, but for us, well, it's what made us Mazda. The odds were against us, but we were set on making Ford understand that."
And they succeeded. The engineers passionately continued work on the development of the MSP-RE, many on their own time. Finally the new execs got the message and gave the green light to produce a rotary-powered sports-car concept. Called the RX-Evolv, the new Mazda showpiece looked nothing like any of its predecessors. For starters, it had four doors.
The rear doors were virtually hidden when closed and swung out in suicide fashion. And when both the front and rears were fully open, you were treated to an uncluttered view of the interior because the car had no B-pillars. I easily slipped into the back seat and found plenty of knee space and head room, while a 6-footer sat up front. This was no disguised 2+2; it was a genuine 4-seater. The RX-Evolv was the talk of the 1999 Tokyo Motor Show where everyone took notice of the car's unique door system — many criticized it, saying such a concept would never work. But Mazda did not flinch.
The following year, we had our first glimpse of the production version of the Evolv. It went by a new name, RX-8, and while the car's overall character remained intact, it wore a significantly prettier face. At about this time, I was invited to drive a mechanical prototype of the car, equipped with the new rotary engine, which also went by a new name, the Renesis (see cover story, March 2001 and Technology Update, June 2001).
The Renesis was impressive indeed. Without the aid of a supercharger or turbocharger, it pumped out about 250 bhp. In a brief test drive, I found that this powerplant, much like the Honda S2000's VTEC inline-4, produced most of its power in the upper rev range, which is fun and rewarding on a racetrack but quite cumbersome during real-world driving. I told Mazda's head of product planning, Phil Martens, that the Renesis needed more pop down low.
Apparently, he was working on much more than the engine. The finalized version of the RX-8 bowed at the 2001 Tokyo Motor Show, where its styling, particularly at the front end, had undergone another significant transformation. At first glance the yellow sports car didn't look Japanese at all, but rather, Italian with its aggressive face, elegant contours and flowing lines. If it weren't for the big "M" on the hood, I would have mistaken it for a Ferrari or Maserati. In fact, I believe this RX-8 is the prettiest car to have come out of Japan, ever. Kudos to Mazda's design team for achieving such a shape in a 4-seat, 4-door package.
The car's exterior dimensions are roughly those of an Acura NSX, only taller, measuring 174.2 in. from bumper to bumper, with an overall width and height of 69.7 and 52.8 in., respectively. But its wheelbase is longer than anything in its class at 106.3 in. (longer than the company's midsize sedan, the 626, by more than an inch). This means there's plenty of leg room inside for both front and rear passengers, as well as space for two golf bags in the trunk.
"The car looks great," I told Martens at the motor show. "When can I drive it?"
A couple of months later, I was in Hiroshima, Japan, sliding into the driver's seat of a close-to-final prototype of the RX-8.
Turn the ignition key, and the 2-rotor Wankel comes to life with a familiar, melodious zing. Depress the accelerator pedal and you'll find that the 2970-lb. sports car leaves the line in appropriate sports-car fashion, chirping its rear 225/45ZR-18 tires before leaping forward. (Standard models will come with 16-in. wheels.) It was immediately evident that this latest version of the Renesis had significantly more low-end punch than before, but its sweet spot remained in the middle of the rpm spectrum.
With 90 percent of peak torque available at 3250 rpm, the RX-8 seems to find its true stride when the tachometer needle sweeps past the 3000-rpm mark, surging forward with alacrity. And the acceleration keeps building all the way to its 9000-rpm redline. Sixty miles per hour comes and goes in roughly 6 seconds; the quarter-mile mark in about 14.5.
The Renesis engine has been tuned to produce 250 bhp at 8500 rpm and 162 lb.-ft. of torque at 7500, the highest output ever from a naturally-aspirated 2-rotor Wankel. While the rotor housings are similar to those of the 13B RX-7 engine's, a new 3-stage, 6-port induction system gives the Renesis improved breathing, eliminating the need for turbochargers. Also, it's more economical than the RX-7's 13B, getting up to 30 percent better fuel economy in certain driving situations.
The 1.3-liter engine comes mated to a new 6-speed manual transmission that features short flick-of-the-wrist throws and well-defined gates, very similar in feel to the one in the Mazda Miata — understandable when you consider both are manufactured by the same company, Aisin.
The RX-8's straight-line performance was impressive indeed, but my biggest concern was how the car would perform through corners. Having four doors without B-pillars to provide structural support introduces numerous problems in a car, most notably chassis flex. How stiff would the RX-8's body feel through turns?
Amazingly, around Mazda proving ground's tricky assortment of corners, the RX-8 chassis exhibited rock-solid rigidity, with no sign of flex whatsoever. And the harder I drove, the more solid the car felt. "I'll let you in on something," one of the engineers told me after my drive. "We made the body of this thing stiffer than that of the RX-7."
Their secret, I was later told, was in the numerous structural reinforcements that branch out from the RX-8's backbone chassis. With so much of its support located on or near the floor, one can only assume a convertible version is on the way. There's even talk that the next Miata will be built on this platform.
Combine this rigid chassis with the RX-8's 50/50 front/rear weight distribution and compliant suspension, and you have an automobile that has the cornering manners of a pure-blooded sports car. Although turn-in response through tight hairpins was a bit on the soft side (Mazda engineers say they are still in the midst of fine-tuning the suspension), the steering felt precise and the car behaved predictably through all types of corners with minimal body roll. The RX-8's front suspension system — upper and lower A-arms — is basically the same as that in the RX-7, but the rear 5-link setup is completely new. Six separate mounting points provide the foundation for a maze of bars and links, a la Porsche 911, to ensure an optimal balance of performance and ride quality.
And the RX-8's open-road manners are exceptional, exhibiting a smooth ride while appropriately absorbing potholes and other road irregularities. Also the Mazda's cabin remains quiet, with wind noise creeping in at about 70 mph.
So far so good, but there was one more subject that needed addressing: safety, particularly regarding side impact. So how well does a B-pillarless RX-8 handle a side collision? According to Mazda, it rates better than most of today's midsize sedans. The key here is a metal beam that runs down the forward edge of the rear door (top to bottom) that actually doubles as a pillar. When the door is closed, this beam latches at two points to the body, the roof and floor. In a computer simulation of a side impact at 38.5 mph, the door beam effectively absorbed the impact of the blow and redirected the force throughout the rest of the frame. Side airbags and safety curtains will be offered as optional equipment.
Although prices have not yet been announced, it's no secret that Mazda is aiming at the 20- or 30-something customer who needs the flexibility of 4-passenger seating, but isn't necessarily ready to sacrifice his soul to a sport-utility or minivan. Therefore, Mazda admits it will keep the price of the RX-8 as "competitive as possible." I played a sneaky game of process of elimination with different members of the Mazda team and came up with this figure: $26,000. A fully-equipped, top-of-the-line model, with a 4- or 5-speed automatic could come below or at the $30,000 mark. If my guess is right, Mazda's new sports-car species will not only survive our fickle automobile environment, but may soon become a dominant entity in the below-$30,000 market.