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Most people know that Mazda builds sporty cars. But for driving enthusiasts, it's the company's history of building sports cars with lightweight rotary engines that sets it apart from the competition. The Mazda RX-8 was one of these, and it was the only one with a four-door configuration.
The heart of the Mazda RX-8 was its high-revving 1.3-liter rotary engine. Because of the engine's compact size, engineers were able to mount it farther back in the RX-8's chassis, giving the car a coveted 50-50 front-rear weight distribution. This, along with balanced suspension tuning, sharp steering and a svelte 3,000-pound curb weight, made the rear-wheel-drive RX-8 one of the best-handling cars ever made.
Unfortunately, Mazda did little to keep the RX-8 competitive with other sport coupes as the years went on. This was particularly true in terms of power, fuel economy and acceleration. Sales dwindled, which made it less cost-effective for Mazda to upgrade the rotary engine so it could meet more stringent standards for air emissions. Mazda finally pulled the plug for 2012. As a used-car choice, though, the RX-8 still holds plenty of appeal.
Most Recent Mazda RX-8
Produced from 2004 through 2011, the Mazda RX-8 was a four-seat sport coupe with a pair of rear-hinged doors that eased access to the surprisingly roomy rear seats. The RX-8 was powered by a 1.3-liter, twin-rotor Wankel engine. Power output depended on the transmission choice. The version with a six-speed manual produced 232 horsepower at a stratospheric 9,000 rpm, propelling the RX-8 to 60 mph in about 7 seconds flat. The six-speed automatic made 212 hp and had a redline of 7,500 rpm. Either way, the RX-8's rotary delivered a paltry 152 pound-feet of torque, which meant you had to keep the rotary on the boil to keep the car lively.
Trim levels included Sport, Touring, Grand Touring and R3. Even the base car came well equipped, featuring 18-inch wheels, cruise control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and a six-speaker CD stereo with an auxiliary audio jack. The Grand Touring got a limited-slip rear differential, automatic xenon headlights, a power driver seat with memory functions, heated seats, leather upholstery, automatic climate control, keyless ignition and entry, a Bose stereo, Bluetooth and a navigation system. The R3 was a high-performance variant that featured 19-inch wheels, an aggressively tuned suspension, Recaro sport seats, exterior body modifications and some high-tech convenience features.
Although the Mazda RX-8 looks like a race-tuned sports car, its demeanor on the road is considerably more docile. Its ample grip through corners and solid feedback through the steering wheel make it an absolute riot on a serpentine road, yet the car's 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. If you like a smooth engine in feel, sound and power delivery, the RX-8's is second to none.
Inside the cabin, the RX-8's innovative two-person backseat and reverse-opening rear half-doors provide the sort of practicality no other sports car can match. Provided rear-seat passengers are of average size, those seated in the back will find supportive seating and ample room. 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. Just be prepared to pay at the pump because the high-revving rotary swills fuel like an SUV.
Upon its debut for 2004, the Mazda RX-8 heralded the return of the rotary-powered sports car to the United States after a near decadelong hiatus. Styling was mostly unchanged throughout its run, although it received a slight refresh for 2008. Initially, the RX-8's automatic transmission had just four speeds; it was replaced by a better-performing six-speed unit (which featured shift paddles) for '06. The Shinka package (Japanese for "evolution") was offered that year as well and included an aggressively tuned suspension, unique 18-inch wheels, leather and faux suede seating, and a few other luxury niceties. To celebrate 40 years of Mazda's rotary engine in 2008, there was the 40th Anniversary Special Edition RX-8, which featured special gray paint, red leather seats, different 18-inch alloy wheels, a firmer suspension and the obligatory badges. That year also saw the navigation system restricted to the Grand Touring model.
The biggest changes came for 2009. The exterior was given a much wider grille along with some other more subtle changes. The interior also was updated with a revised center stack. The features list expanded at this time, too. The car featured 18-inch wheels at every trim level, and electronic convenience items such as Bluetooth and an auxiliary audio jack were added to the options list. A much-improved touchscreen navigation system replaced the old pop-up unit controlled by console-mounted buttons. This was also the first year for the ultra-performance R3 variant. The following year saw the Touring model axed from the lineup.
For more on past Mazda RX-8 models, view our Mazda RX-8 history page.