For those who love their sports cars, Mazda has managed to charm a few generations around the world with its compact rotary engines. Mazda means wisdom in Japanese, and the company had its roots in the 1920s. After a shaky start, they started to see success when making tools, autorickshaws and weapons. Their first car was the R360 Coupe which was introduced in Japan in 1960. The company name was officially changed to Mazda in 1984, after using it for several of their vehicles. The RX-8 debuted at the International Car Show in '01 and saw production from 2003 to 2012.
In the Beginning
While the specific lay-out of the RX-8 may have been conceived in the time of the Backstreet Boys and William Jefferson Clinton, the engine inside it was born in the time of the Beatles and Lyndon Johnson. The RX-8's distinctive rotary engine was first conceived for another Mazda
model in 1967, and it was in the previous RX models as well. The RX cars enjoyed relative success across the globe as well as in Japan. While US consumers were lukewarm towards sports cars during the early to mid 1990s (and definitely weren't interested in paying a lot for them), public opinion shifted as the years rolled by as Americans realized just how much fun it was to drive a performance car that could take those sharper turns in style. Mazda rebranded itself with the help of an automaker who had plenty of experience selling to Americans: Ford. Their new line had more convenience features packed in, a more distinct and sexy style and the driving dynamics that has helped them sustain popularity.
The original RX-01 was a concept car and came out in 1995 with a 13B-MSP engine at 210 horsepower with side exhaust ports.While the project didn't go much further than that, the team who built the car wasn't ready to put their efforts to bed just yet.With a little nagging and perseverance, they were able to make improvements to the engine which eventually led to Renesis (the engine used in the RX-8.) Skipping ahead to the new millennium, the RX-8 was basically a mash-up of the RX-7 and the Cosmo.The RX-7 saw barely any promotion in America (mainly because it didn't quite meet our emission standards), and the Cosmo was strictly sold in Japan. The RX-8 was unveiled in 2001 at an auto show, even though it wouldn't come out in Japan until 2003 and America until 2004.
The Japanese culture puts a heavy value on being the absolute best at any task they attempt. It's why if you travel there, you'll find some of the best whiskey, spaghetti sauce, electronics, etc. It's a true talent to be able to engineer and reverse engineer their way to perfection, and while they don't always hit the 'perfect' mark, they do manage to make the execution of an idea better.
The way the RX-8 was styled was by having a competition among Mazda's studios in Japan, the US and Europe to see who could do it best. The style was more or less kept the same from its first showing to its first sale in Japan. The car did well enough at the auto show to spur production onward.
The First Generation (2003 - 2008)
The doors might be the most distinctive features on the RX-8, as both front and rear doors open from the middle (quad coupe) of the car. It was meant to facilitate getting in and out of the car, but safety standards discourage these types of seats today. There is no physical structure in the middle of these doors, and the rear doors could only be open if the front doors were open. While snug on the inside, you could definitely fit four adults into the vehicle, which also makes this different from regular sports cars. The RX-8 featured rear-wheel drive and an even distribution of weight in front and back. The 1.3 liter rotary engine was located behind the front axle with a carbon fiber driveshaft to ensure a low moment of inertia, in an effort to improve the acceleration rate. Double wishbone front suspension and limited slip differential gave drivers the handling they were looking for.It came in both standard and high-powered versions for US buyers in 2004. The RX-8 had better fuel efficiency than the RX-7,which allowed it to be both sold in the US and marketed better to environmentally-conscious buyers everywhere. In 2006, there was a 6-speed manual version which had 250 horsepower, and a 6-speed automatic option with manual paddle-shifting. Racing was not recommended on the earlier models because it was likely to overheat due to having only one engine cooler. Special editions were made for different countries around the world to better cater to the specific demographics. For example, in the US, the Shinka model was introduced in 2005 with Parchment leather and better shock absorbers and suspension while the UK got the PZ and Evolve that were designed to the utmost precision to reduce drag on the car's speed. Those cars were also made to
look a little flashier (because a mid-life crisis simply demands alloy wheels.) During this time, Mazda focused a lot of their efforts on the Aussies and the Brits to get them more interested in being in the Mazda business, and their efforts paid off with plenty of awards and loyalty.
The Next Generation (2008 - 2012)
The original cars in the first generation did not do particularly well in cold weather, and the seals (i.e.., rotor, water) tended to be worn down quickly. The engine had several problems, from overheating to oversensitivity when driven with too much aggression. The second generation was fine-tuned to include a more stable structure to the body, and better rear suspension. The Renesis II added a third oil injection port, as the first generation's rotors were found to have trouble getting sufficient lubrication. The electronics and engine were re-engineered to better improve power, and saw the addition of a high-pressure fuel pump and bigger radiators for better cooling. The air intake was increased for both safety and a more consistent driving experience. So if you let a cousin borrow it who thought he was Steve McQueen, you wouldn't necessarily have to pick him up off the side of the road after 20 minutes. The body style was slightly different than the original, and had redesigned bumpers, headlights and wheels. It was in 2009 that the RX-8 R3 version came out, further minimizing shocks and structure stability as well as adding a few more frills like keyless entry, Bluetooth and a sound system guaranteed to get you pulled over by a cop with lots of time on their hands. For those who like the rarest of the car models, the Spirit R was introduced in Japan with only 1000 models made. With such limited numbers, it's popularity rose. If you had purchased one when they came out and let it sit in a garage for a while, then you would have made a pretty good investment. After seeing its sales drop off some and demands change during the later years, Mazda decided to go back to the proverbial drawing board after 2012 (with the last US model being the 2011.) The RX-9 is set to come out in 2019 and still features the rotary engine.
Rotary Engine Controversy
No matter what a car company does to their products, the fact of the matter is that some models survive while others can't. For the fuel economy this car had and the rising cost of gas in the 2000s, it just didn't have the extreme power perks to make up for its shortcomings. The Wankel (rotary) engine has some advantages in that it is compact, relatively powerful and reliable, but it also means that your oil and gas won't go very far. It's clear that Mazda is not ready to abandon this idea though, and perhaps they've come up with a way to increase its efficiency. Despite all their adjustments, Mazda realized there needed to be further work completed to reach their desired audience.
Ultimately, drivers care about upgrades and adjustments, but a large list of them will not necessarily swing someone to the other side of the fence. They need to feel the difference in the performance behind those upgrades, and it was noted at the tail end of the car's run that it simply wasn't keeping pace with the markets.
Fire It Up
We can't talk about Zoom, Zoom Mazda without addressing its racing heritage. In 2008 and 2010, the RX-8 won the 24 Hours of Daytona race, proving its value by going the distance under pressure. It was also raced in the touring car class in the Mid-Ohio Grand Prix and came in first under the driving of Ryan Eversley. It raced in the UK for both endurance and speed as well, and brang in some titles for their drivers too.
Specs (2011 Model)
- MSRP: Starts at $26,795
- Horsepower: Up to 232
- MPG: 16 city / 22 highway
- Engine: 1.3 L rotary
- Doors: Rear-hinged
- Weight: up to 3,111 lbs
- Tank Capacity: 16.9 gal
Because the Mazda RX-8 enjoyed international success, it won many awards for both its engine and overall car design. Named Car of the Year in Japan and Singapore, and taking first prize in a competition staged by Car and Driver, this car was also given accolades by Grassroots Motorsports in American and numerous publications throughout the world.