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Mazda RX-8 sports car

2003-10-30 11:48

John Oxley

It was a case of total deja vu as I wound up the rotary engine to its 9 000 r/min red line, the unique turbine-like yowl rising rapidly in intensity as the needle whipped around the centre revcounter, the digital speedo flickering ever upwards as I sliced through the slick 6-speed gearbox.

Here I was once again, after a gap of 15 years or so, with 170 kW of rotary engine in front of me, and a superbly balanced chassis that puts the moment of inertia right under the driver's bum, giving handling qualities only a true sports car can offer.

The Mazda RX-8 is an enigma. The size and shape of a conventional two-door 2+2 coupe, it manages to seat four people in comfort, and has exceptionally easy access through the use of barn-style doors, enabling rear seat passengers to slip into their contoured seats without having to clamber over the front seats.

Yet the car is as lithe as my modified RX-7 of many years ago, allowing the sort of commitment to corners one doesn't encounter in a saloon car - except one that's loaded with fast takkies, stiff suspension, and lots of electronic aids.

And even then, cars such as the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class suffer from their sheer bulk, and from a lack of ultimate balance which means they MUST have the traction controls and stability programmes to ensure you don't toss the car off the island when you reach the limits.

The RX-8, on the other hand, doesn't need all the electronic goodies - although it does come with DSC (dynamic stability control) as standard for those who want belt AND braces.

Instead, it has a chassis design that allows such great balance that even when driving REALLY quickly the driver is able to merely turn and point, without having to use either skill or electronics to overcome the natural forces of nature.

The car goes around corners as on rails (if you'll excuse that hackneyed old phrase) and it does it without even the merest whimper of protest from the tyres.

In fact the lack of tyre squeal is the big giveaway, the sure sign that this is a truly balanced car that will give you driving pleasure far beyond any other in its class.

The key, of course, is the rotary engine, in this case refined to the point where it has reliability and good fuel economy on top of its smooth power.

The engine is light and compact, allowing it to be installed low down in the chassis and behind the front axle line, while positioning of the fuel tank under the rear seat has moved that forward of the rear axle line.

Add in an aluminium bonnet and a carbon fibre propshaft to reduce weight, and it's easy to see how Mazda has managed to achieve its very low centre of gravity.

On top of that Mazda has chosen to use a race-car type double wishbone front suspension, and a multi-link rear, plus a limited slip differential in the rear axle, to ensure the wheels stay in contact with the ground.

There are 323 mm ventilated disc brakes up front, with 302 mm vented discs at the back, and ABS with electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD) is standard.

Add in a whole bunch of comfort and safety features - the latter including front, side, and curtain airbags - and it adds up to a package aimed at lifting the Mazda brand image sky high.

Initially there's only one model available - the RX-8 High Power, the car I drove yesterday (Wednesday) - but from next year buyers who want the looks and handling but are prepared to make do with a slightly lower level of trim, as well as slightly less power (141 kW) and a 5-speed gearbox, will be able to get it all for around R50 000 less than the R339 950 of the launch car.

The good news for those who want to wrap this delectable car around themselves is that cars ARE available now - although 170 have been sold in advance - and will be available to order (with about 6 weeks lead time) when the first batch is sold out.


The 1.3-litre rotary engine has been around for some time now, but previous versions suffered from high fuel consumption and a lack of reliability, more specifically on the rotor seals.

One solution we used years ago was to change to a side inlet and exhaust system, and this has now been adopted as standard on the current RENESIS motor. In addition it gets computer controlled fuel injection, lighter rotors, and most importantly, new rotor seal materials.

The result is a power output from the normally aspirated unit of 170 kW at 8 200 r/min, with torque of 211 Nm at 5 500 r/min.

Mazda claims this pushes the car from rest to 100 km/h in just 6.4 seconds, and on to a top speed of 235 km/h, while returning around 11 litres/100 km in a mixture of traffic and open road driving (this latter figure based on testing from US magazine Road & Track).

The engine is surprisingly flexible at low speeds, thanks in part to the car's low weight, and we found it easy to sit in a slow moving traffic queue at below 60 km/h in sixth gear, without having to either change down or slip the clutch.

At higher speeds there's more need to change the gears to get the best out of the engine, but it's less pronounced than one gets in, say, a Honda V-Tec.


Mazda says its design theme called for a "comfortably snug" interior to suit the tastes of sports car drivers, without it being cramped. At the same time the interior is thoroughly modern, with aluminium accents on the centre console, and specially designed sports seats that hug the body while looking good at the same time.

The instrument panel is split into three sections, with the instruments in a cluster right in front of the driver, and comprising a central revcounter with the digital speedo inset into it, flanked by an oil temperature gauge that also combines odometer and trip meter on the left, and a dial with water temperature and fuel on the right.

To assure sufficient headroom, particularly in the back, the designers lowered the cabin floor by carefully considering the location of the exhaust manifold, catalytic converter and related components.

The bonnet and instrument panel were also lowered as much as possible for a less obstructed view, which in turn allowed for a lower seating position, the trademark of a good sports car.

To ensure adequate knee clearance for rear-seat passengers, designers also concentrated on the shape of the front seat backs, reducing cushion thickness and sculpting a form that provides both comfortable seating and a firm lateral support.

Additionally, the front seat slide rails are optimally positioned for fore/aft adjustments, allowing sufficient leg and foot room for rear-seat passengers.

The RX-8's body shell has no centre pillars and features Mazda's Freestyle door system, with the front and rear doors opening from the centre. The front doors fully open to a hinge angle of 67 degrees while the rear doors swing open to 80 degrees.

The absence of centre pillars give a large door opening, making entry and exit easier.

At 290 litres (VDA), the deep boot accommodates two golf bags or two medium-sized suitcases, enough space for a weekend trip with two couples or a family of four.

The cabin also features a number of innovative storage solutions. Cup-holders in the console boxes, large door pockets and other convenient storage receptacles are placed throughout, and, thanks to the door arrangement, access for loading and unloading the rear section of the cabin is exceptionally easy.

There's air conditioning, electric windows and mirrors, and remote entry and immobiliser, and the car comes with massive 18 inch wheels shod with 225/45 R-18 tyres.

The Mazda RX-8 has a 3year / 100 000 km warranty period, 10 000 km' or 12 months service intervals, 5 year / 100,000 km maintenance plan and a 24 hour / 7 days a week roadside assistance programme as standard - the latter including features such as hotel accommodation or free car hire as may be required.

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