2011 Mazda RX-8 Road Test Review

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Mazda's RX-8 is the unabashed iconoclast of the sports car market. You either get it, or you don't.  Some enthusiasts don't consider it a sports car, because it's got back seats; others don't take it seriously because of the dare-to-be-different rotary engine and its distinct performance profile. Still others simply forget about it, because it's been on the market without a major redesign since 2003.

A freshening in 2009 resulted in a round of evolutionary changes to the RX-8, but otherwise the wasp-like four-door sports coupe soldiers into 2011 firmly on its own path, as it's always been. The RX-8 doesn't need to seat four, but it does. It doesn't need to have a rotary engine, either, but there you go. This is a speedster that's all about being different.

Personally, it's been too long since I got to play with an RX-8, so I was glad for the chance to take the wheel. The styling refresh has exaggerated the RX-8's narrow nose and distinct front and rear fender lines. From some angles the passenger cabin looks bulbous, but mostly it's purposeful and attractive. Funky suicide-style rear doors blend nicely into the body and many onlookers don't realize until they're opened up that this is a four-door. LED taillights are used.  

Slip inside, and the RX-8 feels like an exotic car, thanks to its low seating position and weirdly uncomfortable seats. There's a hard bar just below where the lumbar support should be, and no amount of adjusting makes it any less uncomfortable. The RX-8 has been like this since 2003. The incongruous back seats are large enough for full-sized adults to squeeze into for short trips, and the smallish trunk will hold just over seven cubic feet -- enough for a couple of suitcases.   The interior is dominated by a rotary motif -- whatever can be shaped like the rounded-triangle of the rotary engine's distinctive single piston, has been. The seats, console, emergency brake and shifter knob are all decorated with the distinctive motif. A navigation system is available, as are Mazda's keyless-start system, a moonroof and satellite radio.

Styling excesses aside, the RX-8 doesn't need to go out of its way remind you that it's different.  Strap in -- the RX-8 feels like an ultralight and wraps around you like a racing glove -- and there's a sensation of becoming one with the car. The double-wishbone front suspension uses aluminum components, and electronic power steering further reduces weight. Anti-lock brakes and stability control are standard equipment on the Touring model.

The heart of the RX-8 is its high-revving 1.3-litre RENESIS rotary engine. Output is determined by transmission choice; the RENESIS engine produces 232 horsepower when equipped with the six-speed manual transmission, or 212 when connected to the six-speed automatic. Why did Mazda choose to install a rotary engine, besides it being a trademark? It's all about weight. The rotary is considerably smaller and lighter than a conventional piston engine. This engine is a performance device through and through, and it's most comfortable with race-car revving -- in fact, the RX-8's rotary needs to be kept spinning, because the powerband is extremely narrow and there isn't much torque. It's got to be turning about 5000 rpm to be any fun -- below that, and there's an embarrassing lack of oomph. Once I got used to letting it scream though, the RX-8 proved to be an entertaining track companion, even if I missed a couple of heel/toe attempts. In regular traffic, the engine is much more usable, and it's well-suited to spirited around-town driving. A limited-slip differential is standard in manual transmission-equipped models.

It's a highly evolved machine, the Mazda RX-8. It's a familiar face that still stands out from the crowd, and unlike some automotive iconoclasts, the RX-8's weirdness is driven mostly by engineering. The results are appealing as well; this is a car that's fun to wring out on a twisty road as well as being rewarding as an everyday driver.  

©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: Sports Coupe, Mazda, 2011, RX-8, $30,000 - $39,999,

Organizations: Mazda

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