People buy sports cars for many reasons, but at least one is to own something more distinctive than a family car. If uniqueness is a priority, then you’ll find that Mazda’s 2011 RX-8 is a breed apart.
The RX-8 is the only production car to use the rotary engine, a design initiated by German Felix Wankel that’s kept Mazda engineers peculiarly fascinated since the company’s rotary-powered Cosmo Sport debuted in 1967. Mazda has remained the auto industry’s sole true believer in this wickedly smooth and high-revving engine.
Our 2011 RX-8 Grand Touring was fitted with Mazda’s direct and gratifying 6-speed manual transmission, which means you get the higher-performing version of the rotary, which develops 232 horsepower — not necessarily a big number judged by today’s sport-coupe standards — but an impressive figure based on the fact this engine, although it can’t be directly compared to a piston engine, is only 1.3 liters.
The horsepower peak of 8,500 rpm is your clue this is no conventional powerplant. The unseemly reciprocating forces of most piston engines would be working to tear the engine apart at those speeds. The RX-8’s rotary feels right at home at racecar revs and offers a fiendishly enticing wail all the while. But the power peak is a little too close to the redline at 9,000 rpm to allow you to feel you’re always exploiting the most this firecracker engine has to give.
One of the rotary’s two key design deficiencies is highlighted by the torque output of just 159 lb.-ft. The engine just doesn’t pull very hard until it’s revving like a dervish and that blunts the ultimate performance to robustly sporty rather than borderline frightening.
The rotary’s other foible is headlined by the fuel gauge. Despite the compact size of the rotary and the 2011 RX-8 Grand Touring’s feathery 3,065-pound weight, the rotary slurps premium unleaded in a way that would shame an engine quadruple its size. There actually are four-times-larger V-8s that deliver better fuel economy – in coupes larger and heavier than the subcompact RX-8 whose EPA is 16/22 mpg.
The rear-wheel-drive RX-8 is the choice for those who prize nimble handling and wired-to-your-brain steering response. The RX-8’s comparatively long wheelbase is a delightful compliment to what is one of the most brilliantly tuned and criminally responsive chassis the whole of the car business. You think it; the RX-8’s double-wishbone front suspension, zeroed-in electric power steering and balanced rear-wheel-drive make it happen.
There’s almost a retro enjoyment these days in driving a car whose chassis is the almost ideal companion for its engine, expertly metering everything the engine has to give. If you can’t have fun using the RX-8 to carve every corner you can find, then you really shouldn’t be in the market for a sport coupe.
The 2011 RX-8 starts at $26,645. Our Grand Touring tester has a $32,260 base price and is comprehensively equipped, too, without getting out of hand. This is, after all, a performance car, and Mazda takes that seriously. So while there is all the safety equipment and features such as supremely enveloping leather seats, xenon headlights and an obvious high level of quality, there’s not a fluffy options list. The only option is a navigation system.
The sheer joy of the RX-8 isn’t just about the screaming rotary, its provocative body lines or the rarity — although all that’s still enough to make those in the know stare, many giving a thumbs up in acknowledgement of the discerning taste the RX-8 evidences.
The defining feature in the Mazda’s RX-8’s portfolio is the marvelous rotary engine, but the brilliance of the RX-8 is as much about balance and responsiveness and tactility. Those are the attributes we (and Mazda, undoubtedly) wish more buyers prized over sheer horsepower or a premium badge. — Bill Visnic, Motor Matters
Manufacturer photo: RX-8 was designed with an athletically sculpted exterior that provides a sense of originality. Key design elements include aggressive front and rear bumpers and front fascia, sporty, high quality finish front headlights and rear LED taillights and larger exhaust pipes. The RX-8 also offers a new 10-spoke wheel design featuring a symbolic and sporty design in the motif of a rotary engine with different arrangements for each wheel size.
2011 MAZDA RX-8 GT
VEHICLE TYPE_________________ 4-passenger RWD subcompact coupe
BASE PRICE___________________ $32,260 (as tested: $33,055)
MOTOR TYPE___________________ 2-rotor side-port rotary
HORSEPOWER (net)_____________ 232 at 8500 rpm
TORQUE (lb.-ft.)_____________ 159 at 5500 rpm
TRANSMISSION_________________ 6-speed manual
WHEELBASE____________________ 106.3 in.
OVERALL LENGTH_______________ 175.6 in.
TURNING CIRCLE (curb-to-curb) 34.8 ft.
FUEL CAPACITY________________ 16.9 gal.
EPA MILEAGE RATING___________ 16 mpg city, 22 mpg highway
Copyright, AutoWriters Associates Inc., 2011