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Taking the Measure of the RX-8

August 18, 2011 by Matt

Mazda RX-8

As production of Mazda’s aging RX-8 sports coupe winds down and with it, production of the automaker’s signature rotary engine, I think it’s worthwhile to pause and scrutinize the car’s 8-year model run.

Introduced in 2004 in the US, the RX-8 represented the long-awaited reintroduction of the rotary engine to our market after the too-hasty departure of the 3rd generation RX-7 in 1995. Rumors had been swirling for years about which form the return would take, and after a series of teaser concept cars like the RX-01 and RX-EVOLV, it’s fair to say no one really knew how Mazda would package the engine, if indeed it did return. Would it be a fire-breathing road-eater like the 3rd-gen RX-7? A cheap and tossable sports car like like the 1st-gen? Or something completely different? More than anything, speaking as a Mazda fan and rotary buff, we just hoped Mazda wouldn’t compromise in the fun-to-drive department.

Mazda RX-8

We got something of a mixed bag. Jeremy Clarkson remarked in his review that the car looked like it had been “styled by suggestion box,” and that statement could have held true for the engineering as well. To summarize the pros and cons of the then-new RX-8, the good points:

  • Low weight. Mazda admirably kept the car around 3000 lbs for the entirety of its model run.
  • Excellent handling. Review after review praised the responsiveness of the chassis, and in their recent comparo, Car and Driver ranked the 7-year-old RX-8 an astonishing third, beating out even the M3.
  • Some measure of practicality. Stung by criticism of the late 3rd-gen RX-7’s single-minded focus on performance at the expense of everyday livability, Mazda added a pair of so-called “freestyle doors” to enhance rear seat access. They might well have been added to assuage the bean-counters’ fears, but they’re undeniably practical.

And the negatives:

  • Uneven styling. Compared to its arch-rival Nissan 350Z, released shortly before the RX-8, the Mazda’s design is much less coherent. The concession to a more practical roof line is partly to blame (the 350Z is a pure 2-seater), but no one can claim the added rear seat volume is responsible for the mess of lines called the nose. The smiley face grille (exacerbated with the styling refresh in ’09, shown below) and headlights are cartoonish when they should be sleek and serious, and the profile is bulbous instead of tapered and focused. And the clear taillights and other details represent, yet again, the worst tendency of Japanese designers to chintz up the outside of their cars.
  • Low power. I won’t take Mazda to task for the inherent high-revving nature of the rotary engine. The power’s at the top of the rev range, and you have to spin it—there’s no getting around that (good thing the engine makes the task so effortless). That said, what power was available wasn’t competitive in its class, and Mazda committed the cardinal sin of over-promising and under-delivering just as the car was released: They quoted a power figure of 250 hp; reality was closer to 232, and after independent dyno tests called Mazda’s bluff, they embarrassingly re-rated the car and offered to buy back those of any who were dissatisfied. At least they did damage control, but it happened at the worst possible time and to the ambassador of Mazda’s key technology. Stupid, dumb, unfortunate.

Mazda RX-8

Overall, I was a huge fan of the car’s dynamics, could have lived with the power (I don’t mind winding out my cars’ engines), but had real issues with the styling, especially the ’09 refresh. I don’t think the car hurt Mazda’s or the rotary’s image—public perception is still that it’s a gas-guzzling, oil-burning hamster wheel—but the RX-8 didn’t help matters either. Basically, it dutifully carried the “halo car” torch for Mazda for 8 long years, but didn’t broadcast itself to a wider audience in any capacity other than pleasant placeholder.

Does this mean I wish Mazda had “mainstreamed” the rotary, incorporating it into a more mass-market sedan or GT bodystyle, like the automaker did in the early ’70s? Not necessarily, but the RX-8 at least could certainly have benefited from a larger dose of conviction—the amalgam of roles and compromises bundled into the car spoke of an automaker that may have soldiered on with their signature technology as a matter of duty, but not necessarily as a matter of pride. As good as it was in many ways, the RX-8 simply wasn’t focused or stunning enough. Here’s hoping that whatever form the the next wrapper for the rotary takes, it at least has a strong identity—buyers can relate to that, and respond to it; witness what Mazda itself accomplished with the Miata. As for me, I’ll be eager to see what they come up with next.

Filed under: Mazda, News, Rotary

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