The product flow from today's automakers has reached a fever pitch. Where you once had three big players and a handful of secondary car companies competing for the American customer's attention, you now have at least 10 large-scale producers and another 30 manufacturers (depending on how you want to group them together) all pumping product into new car showrooms. And not the same old product, either. With the exception of few tired vehicle designs (Chevrolet Cavalier or Acura NSX anyone?), the majority of cars and trucks for sale in the U.S. today have undergone at least one major redesign in the last five years.
What this means to the consumer is an unprecedented amount of fresh, high-quality vehicles from which to choose. What this means to the automakers is that it's never been tougher to create a truly distinct, innovative and overall compelling design that effectively breaks from the pack.
Mazda is well aware of this need to rise above the growing product noise. The company has touted the virtues of driving passion for decades, and when it released the Miata MX-5 in 1990, followed by the redesigned RX-7 in 1993 (not to mention an overall win at Le Mans in 1991), it seemed the company was serious about having fun product. Then came the mid-'90s and a string of not-so-fun vehicles (along with the departure of the RX-7 from American showrooms). Mazda officials now admit to losing their focus during this period. They were trying to build cars for everyone instead of remaining true to the manufacturer's core beliefs.
Zoom-zoom forward to late 2002 and what you'll find is a company in full renaissance mode. The Mazda folks tell us that the plan to reinvent their company, called the "Millennium Plan," began in 1999. The Mazda 6 was the first car to be developed under this new (actually, make that newly rediscovered) philosophy of driving passion. The non-U.S. market Demio model was the second step in the process, while the car presented here, the 2004 RX-8, is the third and, according to company officials, most important.
It would be easy to simply think of the RX-8 as the latest version of Mazda's halo car an heir to the sports car throne left vacant since the last U.S.-spec RX-7 was sold here almost a decade ago. While the RX-8 will be all of those things, its redesigned rotary engine, reverse-opening rear doors and room for four adults make it far more.
Remember, there's an almost deafening automotive din to escape.
Pulling the RX-8 out of that cacophony starts under the car's sloping hood where an all-new rotary engine resides. Mazda remains the one and only automaker willing to invest the resources necessary to develop and sell a rotary engine in a production car. You might remember that it was increasingly stringent emissions standards (along with poor sales) that killed Mazda's last rotary engine in the U.S. This new power plant, dubbed the Renesis (for rotary engine and genesis), addresses not only emission requirements but also power, efficiency and weight concerns all key sports car elements.
The most important Renesis change relates to the location of the intake and exhaust ports. Because a rotary engine has no valve train, the location of these ports is crucial to the engine's performance. In the previous engine, these ports were located on the outer edge of the rotary housing, but in Renesis they are on the side of the rotary chamber. Unlike the previous design, this location allows engineers to completely close the exhaust port before the intake port opens, and vice versa. It also allows them to use 30 percent larger intake ports than before, along with a variable intake system that optimizes air flow.
What this design means to the consumer is better fuel efficiency and increased performance. Mazda estimates the RX-8 will get 20 percent better mileage in the city than the RX-7 did. Exact figures are yet to be determined, but current estimates put the engine at 18-19 mpg in the city and 23-24 mpg on the highway. The new design also means far less emissions (the previous rotary's major bugaboo) because the Renesis allows unburned hydrocarbons to be sent back into the engine and ignited again. Despite the reduction in exhaust gasses and increase in fuel mileage, the new engine will produce 250 peak horsepower and 160 peak pound-feet of torque while offering a redline of 9,000 rpm. Those figures are for the "high-power" rotary that is mated to a six-speed manual transmission, but Mazda told us a 210-horsepower version of the Renesis, mated to a five-speed automatic, would come on line a few months after the RX-8 hits U.S. showrooms in summer 2003.
These numbers may seem disappointing at first (the old twin-turbo RX-7's rotary made 255 peak horsepower and 217 pound-feet of twist while offering an 8,000 rpm redline), but keep in mind that the new engine is not turbocharged at least not yet. Questions about the possibility of one day turbocharging the Renesis were given casual dismissal by Mazda representatives, but it's obvious any company capable of making a rotary work in the 21st century could certainly make it work with forced induction.
In the meantime, the lack of a turbo, and all its associated plumbing, gives the Renesis an 80-pound weight advantage over the previous RX-7's engine. That weight advantage, combined with this rotary's smaller size (approximately two-thirds the size of a comparable inline four cylinder) also allows the engine to be mounted further back and lower than it was in the turbo-topped RX-7. The result is a 50/50-weight balance between each set of wheels, a low center of gravity and a low hoodline that contributes to the car's sporty style and 0.3 coefficient of drag. Total vehicle weight was not disclosed during our advanced drive of the RX-8, but Mazda officials told us it should undercut the new 350Z by around 250 pounds, which should largely negate that car's 37-horsepower advantage.
Cradling this high-tech drivetrain is an all-new chassis and suspension that uses a double-wishbone system up front and a multilink design for the rear wheels. Mazda's goal was to provide the handling characteristics of the RX-7 with the fine ride quality and road noise isolation of a premium sedan. The company also wanted to meet current and future safety standards. High-strength crossmembers are strategically located in the engine compartment and along the frame's primary backbone to add chassis stiffness, enhance suspension tuning and improve crash protection. According to Mazda, the RX-8 has already received excellent safety scores in U.S., European and Japanese crash testing, including an upcoming test standard, due in approximately 2005, for rear-impact protection. Items like seat-mounted side airbags, head curtain airbags and crushable pedals contribute to passenger protection, as do "built-in" B-pillars within the reverse-opening rear doors. Much like traditional B-pillars, these beams dissipate side-impact crash energy and contribute to body rigidity.
It's these reverse-opening rear doors that differentiate the RX-8 from other sports cars (as much or more than the rotary engine under its hood). The idea of a "four-door sports car" has been bandied about for decades, but Mazda's efforts are likely to set a new benchmark in this area. The key is the near seamless integration of these rear doors into an otherwise lithe and lean vehicle. With the exception of its slightly elongated wheelbase and subtly truncated rear window angle, there is little indication that the RX-8 is anything other than a dedicated supercar. Casual observers will likely notice neither characteristic and simply wonder how fast this sexy, low-slung machine is.
When said observers learn that the RX-8 will hold four full-size adults comfortably, they will further appreciate the car's exterior shape. Similar to the design of Saturn's new Ion coupe, or any noncrew-cab four-door truck, the RX-8's rear doors open only after the front doors are released, and they must be closed before the fronts are shut. Amazingly, a full-size adult can be situated in the front driver or passenger seat while another full-size adult hops in back (no front-seat sliding required). That same full-size adult will fit comfortably in either of the rear seats, which are just as heavily bolstered and supportive as the front chairs. That's not to say that the interior feels large or roomy. The RX-8's designers told us they wanted the cabin to fit four comfortably while still having a "cozy" feel. Put four adults in the RX-8 and the word cozy will certainly apply.
From the driver seat the RX-8 offers an attractive combination of design cues and logical control placement. The seats are low and heavily bolstered with contrasting inserts that match the exterior color (this same contrasting color is also found on the steering wheel rim). The gauge cluster uses three pods, with the larger central pod housing a tachometer and a digital speedometer. Fuel level and engine temperature information are housed in the left pod while oil pressure and the odometer/tripmeter are on the right. We liked the optitronic gauge cluster lighting that changes from white to red when the headlights are switched on, but we were disappointed that an analog speedometer was nowhere to be found. We also liked the circular theme that makes up the center stack controls, but we still aren't sold on having the radio display at the top of the center stack, which is a considerable distance from the audio controls (similar to the Mazda 6's setup). However, should you ever forget what type of engine powers the RX-8 you need only glance at the six-speed shift knob or upper seat back design to be reminded that a rotary motor sits under the hood.
Another way to confirm what the RX-8 is all about involves flogging it on a closed course. Mazda let us do just that at the company's Miyoshi Proving Grounds in Japan. Miyoshi comes fully equipped with a long straightaway, sweeping corners and fast transitions. Several of the facility's curves include midcorner bumps that test even the most advanced suspension's ability to sort things out.
After almost a dozen laps around Miyoshi, it was clear that Mazda has again mastered the art of driving passion. The RX-8 features powerful and progressive braking, sublime steering and accurate shift action. It tends to understeer slightly when driven at the limit, but it's nothing a bit of throttle can't fix. We should also note that the steering uses an electric assist system, an increasingly popular design found on such cars as the Honda S2000, BMW Z4 and the Mini Cooper.
The engine will spin to 9,000-rpm faster than you can say "rev limiter" and feels more willing at high rpm than even Honda's S2000 because of the rotary's phenomenal smoothness. Midrange torque is fully adequate and a second burst of power comes on at about 7,000 rpm, giving the RX-8 a larger "sweet zone" than that offered by Honda's roadster or the Toyota Celica GT-S.
But perhaps the Mazda's most impressive characteristic was how stable it felt during fast sweepers and through quick transitions, even when the pavement was of "Detroit quality." Driving the RX-8 at its limit took several laps simply because that limit was quite high and, when it was finally surpassed, the car proved very predictable and easy to reel back in.
Pricing for the RX-8 has yet to be announced, but we were assured by company representatives that it would be "competitive." That sounds fine, but begs the question "Competitive with what?" There is nothing like the RX-8 currently available, so when they say competitive we aren't sure where to look for pricing (which, going back to the idea of creating a unique and compelling vehicle, is great for Mazda). We'll assume that the new 350Z is among the car's potential competitors simply because Mazda's own people were quoting curb weight comparisons. The Z sells for between $26,000 and $34,000, but doesn't have a rotary engine, room for four adults or enough trunk capacity to hold two sets of golf clubs.
It's these characteristics that will distinguish the RX-8 from the mass of new product hitting showrooms in the coming year. We expect the car to appeal to a wide array of customers, including both sports car fans and family folks looking for something different.
If you fit into either (or both) of these segments, you'll want to give the latest zoom-zoom car a spin.