Full 2008 Mazda RX-8 Review
What's New for 2008
For 2008, Mazda celebrates the 40th anniversary of the rotary engine with a special edition of the RX-8. Setting the 40th Anniversary RX-8 apart are a gray exterior, red leather interior, unique 18-inch alloy wheels, a firmer suspension, foglamps, a silver engine cover and of course the obligatory badges. Other news this year involves the navigation system -- it's now only available on the top trim level.
Trying to define whether the 2008 Mazda RX-8 is a sports car or a sport coupe is a bit of a challenge, sort of like trying to answer the question, "Is golf a sport or a recreational activity?" This Mazda exists in a gray area somewhere between the two automotive genres, as it has the sleek, close-coupled style and entertaining performance of a sports car along with the true four-passenger capacity of a sport coupe. The RX-8 also features two things not typically seen in either segment -- a pair of reverse-opening rear doors and a rotary engine. In fact, the RX-8 is the only car on the planet currently in production with the latter style of motivation.
The rotary engine, which has been fitted to Mazda's RX-series sports cars since the late 1970s, boasts many advantages over a traditional piston engine, including an impressive power-to-size ratio (the RX-8's engine is just 1.3 liters, yet puts out 232 horsepower), much lighter weight and fewer moving parts. The rotary's diminutive size and weight allow optimal location in the chassis, which provides a low center of gravity and a 50/50 weight balance between the front and rear wheels. In addition to the high-revving engine, the RX-8 provides nimble handling and precise steering that will have driving enthusiasts getting up early on weekends just to run their favorite twisty roads. However, although it makes impressive power for its size, it's rather thirsty for a small engine, and the car's 7-second 0-60-mph time is pretty disappointing in this age of 270-hp family sedans.
Part of the problem here is that Mazda has left the RX-8 pretty much untouched since the car's 2004 model year debut. Meanwhile, its main competitor, the Nissan 350Z, has received continual improvements in regards to performance and refinement. As such, the 350Z, as well as the retro-American Ford Mustang GT, handily beat the Mazda in terms of outright performance. But driving enthusiasts who prize athletic handling and refinement above ripping acceleration will probably be happier with a 2008 Mazda RX-8, especially if they also factor in the car's low price, compliant ride and usable passenger- and cargo-carrying abilities.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2008 Mazda RX-8 is a four-passenger sports car. In addition to the two conventional front doors, the RX-8 offers a pair of small reverse-opening rear doors to ease access to the rear passenger compartment. There are three trim levels: Sport, Touring and Grand Touring. Each is available with a choice of a six-speed automatic transmission (with paddle shifters) or a six-speed manual transmission.
The RX-8 Sport automatic comes standard with 16-inch alloy wheels, air-conditioning, cruise control, a CD player and full power features. The Sport with the six-speed manual transmission, as well as all the other trims, gains more performance via a limited-slip differential, a sport-tuned suspension, larger front brakes and 18-inch alloy wheels. The midlevel Touring adds a sunroof, foglamps, a Bose audio system with six-CD changer, HomeLink, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and xenon headlights. The Grand Touring provides luxuries such as a power driver seat, heated seats, leather upholstery and heated side mirrors. A performance package is available on the Sport that includes xenon headlights and foglamps for the six-speed manual, while the automatic also gets the limited-slip differential, a sport-tuned suspension, larger front brakes and 18-inch wheels and tires. Stand-alone options include a navigation system (Grand Touring only) and an in-dash six-CD changer (Sport).
Later in the model year, a 40th-anniversary edition debuts, celebrating four decades of Mazda's rotary engine via Metropolitan Gray paint, a Cosmo Red leather interior, unique 18-inch alloy wheels, a firmer suspension, foglamps, a silver engine cover and commemorative badges.
Powertrains and Performance
A 1.3-liter rotary engine that sends power to the rear wheels comes on all RX-8s. Output is dependent on the transmission selected. Paired with the six-speed paddle-shift automatic transmission, the rotary makes 212 hp and has its redline set at 7,500 rpm. Those fitted with the six-speed manual produce 232 hp and have a higher redline (9,000 rpm).
There isn't much torque available, meaning you must keep the revs up to exploit the RX-8's performance potential. Thankfully, that's one of the joys of driving the RX-8, as the engine smoothly sings to redline and the shifter is superb. Although generally quick by most measures, acceleration is disappointing for a sports car. In our tests, a manual-equipped RX-8 took 7.0 seconds to reach 60 mph and ran the quarter-mile in 15.4 seconds.
Enjoying the thrill of the high-revving Mazda is going to cost you, as fuel mileage is mediocre. EPA estimates for the 2008 RX-8 are 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway.
Antilock disc brakes, front seat side- and front side curtain airbags are standard on all trims. Stability control is standard on the Touring and Grand Touring and optional via a package for the Sport.
In government crash testing, the 2008 Mazda RX-8 earned a four-star rating (out of a possible five) for driver protection in frontal impacts and five stars for the front passenger. In that agency's side-impact testing, the RX-8 received four stars.
Interior Design and Special Features
The RX-8's cockpit features a circular theme, with three round gauges and a circular central dash control stack that houses the stereo and climate control functions. "Piano black" accents are a classy touch, while an available two-tone black and red upholstery scheme is a nice break from the typically somber sports car interior. Although the gauges are easily read, the same can't be said for the crowded display used for the audio system and climate control, which can also wash out in bright sunlight.
Giving the RX-8 a serious advantage over class rivals is its true four-passenger capacity. The "free style" reverse-opening rear doors make loading people and cargo much easier. Provided they are shorter than 6 feet tall, those seated in the back will find supportive seating and ample room all around. The rear compartment is equally accommodating for luggage or grocery bags, but the trunk opening is small and no flip-down rear seat exists to increase that luggage capacity.
Although the 2008 Mazda RX-8 has the look of a race-tuned sports car, its demeanor on the road is considerably more docile. There's plenty of grip in the corners and solid feedback through the steering wheel, but a compliant ride means that it won't beat you up on the daily commute. The rotary engine requires high engine speeds to make serious power, but the delivery is virtually vibration-free and noise levels are subdued. Overall, the RX-8 is one of the best examples of a car that's both fun to drive and very livable on a day-to-day basis.