Mazda’s 2004 RX-8 is ready for four on the go

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

For the uninitiated it sounds like a very odd sports car.

It has very un-sports-car-like four doors and the engine doesn’t have cylinders, it has rotors.

And to boot, the engine is smaller than those found in virtually every economy car on the road with only 1.3 liters of displacement.

Is this a mistake? Is this some kind of joke foisted off on the American public in the name of conservation?

No, it’s the new and somewhat quirky Mazda RX-8. Quirkiness aside, the RX-8 just might be the best sports car on the market for the money.

Mazda has always had a bent for building unconventional vehicles and the RX-8 is just a continuation of its unconventionality. It is different, but it’s different in a very desirable way.

The RX-8 is the first Mazda vehicle powered by a rotary engine since the departure of the RX-7 in 1995. You could say the RX-8 is the successor to the RX-7, although Mazda officials say they are two different breeds of sports car.
While the rotary RX-7 featured twin turbochargers to gain 250 horsepower, the new RX-8 accomplishes almost as much power - 238 horses with a 6-speed manual transmission - without turbocharging and with better gas mileage.

Rotary engines differ from conventional engines in that they make power via triangular rotors spinning in oval chambers, instead of from pistons moving up and down in cylinders.

Notoriously, rotary engines make only a fraction of the torque produced by conventional engines. Torque is what moves a car from a standstill, and this rotary’s rather meager 159 pound-feet makes the RX-8 a bit sluggish from stoplight-to-stoplight.

But get the engine wound up and it will rocket ahead, much like the high-revving 4-cylinder in Honda’s S2000 roadster. Peak torque comes at about 5,500 rpm and you must be willing to wind it out close to its 9,000 rpm redline to get the full benefit of the engine.

Achieving that feat will result in a 0 to 60 time of around 6 seconds. And with that comes the adrenaline-rush whine of the rotary engine.

As noted all this performance comes through a 6-speed manual transmission. Opt for the less-expensive 5-speed automatic and horsepower drops to 197 and performance falls off accordingly.

But to those who seek everything automated, be advised that this is a sports car that begs to be shifted manually, that loves to run into the red in second gear and wind back toward the upper reaches in third.

This is accomplished with a short-throw slick-shifting transmission that falls neatly from gear to gear.

Put the RX-8 on a winding road and you will soon get the impression that its 18-inch Bridgestone Potenza REO40 tires are coated with some kind of adhesive.

Use the gears and the brakes in harmony and the sports car will respond fluidly and precisely through the sweeps. It’s a joy to drive close to the limit. What a way to spend a calorie-and-carb-free lunch hour.

Somewhat surprisingly, the RX-8 does not offer the bone-jarring suspension stiffness you might expect from a sports machine this capable. It offers a ride that while firm is not upsetting. It exhibits a nice balance.

If you need to stop fast, the vented disc brakes are capable of pulling you down from 60 miles per hour in a back-snapping 114 feet. Pedal feel is excellent feeding the driver the right amount of information.

This car’s quirkiness doesn’t stop with the engine. Its edgy and attractive styling with bulging wheel arches, a long hood and flowing roofline includes those suspect four doors.

You might not realize at first glance that the RX-8 has a small backseat and an extra set of doors. The rear half-doors, much akin to those in an extended cab pickup truck, create a cavernous opening to reveal a two-place rear seating area that is actually useable for two adults for short jaunts. It¹s a great place for a family to stow two young kids. And the trunk is big enough for some luggage or a full compliment of groceries.

For us, the half doors allowed for the storage of a set of golf clubs that didn’t quite fit into the narrow trunk opening.

Mazda says there is no stability or side-impact crash problems because of the pillar-less doors. They have incorporated a “virtual B-pillar” of tubular steel inside the doors to give it strength.

The RX-8 features a classy interior of leather and chrome. The seats in our red test car came in a pleasing two-tone black and red. Even the leather-clad steering wheel continued the red and black theme. Similar color themes are applied to match other exterior colors as well.

The seats are well bolstered with good support.

The gauge package is clear and easy to read and includes a large tachometer with an inset digital speedometer. An oil pressure gauge is to the right and gas and temperature gauges to the left.

The center stack with climate and stereo controls is pulled together with a large chrome ring that gives it an artsy appearance. At first glance, the stereo controls seem perhaps overly difficult while under way. But, actually, the controls are very intuitive and easy to use.
The only problem we encountered with the layout is that the horizontal readout at the top of the center stack, which includes a clock and outside temperature gauge, washes out in bright sunlight.

The RX-8 is loaded with safety gear including front side airbags, side curtain airbags, antilock brakes with brake force distribution and reinforced structural bracing.

The price is more than right. The automatic version begins at $25,700 and the manual version starts at $27,200. Our test car priced out for $28,460. The most popular models will sell for around $31,000, according to

It makes us wonder why people are paying 10-to-20 grand more for machines that don’t seem to have as much pizzazz.

The RX-8 not only looks good enough to induce smiles, it is a performance champ as well. And that makes the new Mazda an exceptional machine for day-to-day driving or just for weekend fun, especially when price is factored in.