2011 Mazda RX-8 car review road test: Light fantastic

2011 Mazda RX-8 Grand Touring

2011 Mazda RX-8 Grand Touring © John Matras Media LLC

Everyone seems to have a trick instrument panel these days. With the new Mazda RX-8, it’s a faint blue light that illuminates the tachometer. But that’s not the trick. And it’s not that the tach is centered on the instrument panel. The trick is the 9000 rpm redline. Engines that spin that fast aren’t unheard of—Formula 1 engines go around twice that fast—but in the case of the RX-8, it signifies something important: It’s the only rotary engine-powered car in the world. And it’s a sports car.

The RX-8 makes no pretense of being anything but a sports car. It has all the outward hallmarks, sleek and purposeful. It has a long, low hood and a rounded greenhouse with a semi-fastback roofline. Prominent fender flares cover chunky tires. Twin exhaust pipes poke from under the rear bumper.

From the side, however, the RX-8 has an extra cut line. There’s a rear door on the RX-8 because, well, there’s a back seat. That rear door (one on each side) is hinged at the rear edge. It’s not particularly ground breaking. Saturn introduced it on a coupe a handful of years back and pickup trucks have had them longer than that. Regardless, it does provide access to what Mazda calls the back seat of the RX-8.

Yes, there is a back seat of sorts, but the back seat of the Mazda RX-8 makes about as much sense as a flannel thong, which won’t keep you warm and isn’t very sexy. The rear seat too snug to work well for its ostensible purpose and its bum-shaped contour isn’t that great as in-cabin cargo space. It’s the very definition of compromise: Something that makes no one happy. The cargo area is only 7.8 cubic feet, too. That back seat will be needed for anything more than an overnight jaunt.

All that as preface, what is this thing called RX-8? Go back to the instrument panel. Mazda put the tachometer right in the center of the dash for a reason: It’s more important to know when to shift rather than be worried about how fast, at least in numbers, we’re going. The speedometer is merely as a digital readout in the center of the tach.

This thing is all about engine, however, and like the tachometer, the engine is right in the middle of everything. Literally. The rotary engine, which is too complex to describe here, is remarkably compact, not much bigger than a beer keg, at least until you hang all the accessories on it, and that allows Mazda to drop it behind the front axle line (most conventional piston engines overlap the front axle line to at least some extent), giving it a true “front mid-engine” layout. It also permits the low hood line and provides roomy footwells for the driver and front passenger.

And there’s nothing like a rotary engine. It’s almost vibration free and its low rotating mass lets it rev like crazy. It zings while it zooms. Despite Mazda’s claim that its new sideport design boosts low end torque, the RX-8 has less punch down low than an entire kindergarten boxing team. The obvious solution, of course, is the keep the rotary on a high rolling boil. You’ll know when you’re doing it right: Anyone with a taste for the superbike sound will be in pure rapture. It power output (manual transmission only) of 238 hp isn’t headline material, and max torque of a mere 159 lb-ft would be embarrassing were it not for RX-8’s relatively light 3,000 lb curb weight and the compensation of remarkable handling.

The stubby shifter comes from the same people who make the Miata. Need we say more? OK. Little more than a flick of the wrist delivers the next gear with a solid pattern and a positive pop.

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