Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Test Drive: 2009 Mazda RX-8

I knew when I started with this whole test driving shtick that there was a chance I'd run across a car which I enjoyed to the point of actually wanting to go out and buy one. I didn't, however, expect to come across such a car so soon. Enter the 2009/2010 Mazda RX-8.

Mazda RX-8 Front

The exterior styling has been refreshed from the 2008 model year, with Mazda opting for a slightly more aggressive happy face to greet 2009+ car buyers. Thankfully, though, the massive dose of Prozac fed to the RX-8 hasn't resulted in the same sorts of adverse side effects seen in the Mazda 3... which could now probably pass as an automotive rendition of the Joker. On the mechanical end of things, the RX-8's suspension geometry has been tweaked, horsepower bumped up to 232hp, a moving redline added, and a few other issues addressed (I recall coming across something about an additional oil injector having been thrown in to better lubricate the center of the rotors' apex seals).

Mazda RX-8 Interior

Once inside of the RX-8, you're greeted almost entirely by hard plastics. Mind you, not all of which are particularly bad hard plastics... but it's still pretty disappointing. The cheap, 'tech gadget' gloss black plastic which runs down the center stack collects fingerprints quickly enough to cause an obsessive-compulsive to gouge their own eyes out rather than wipe it down again. This same plastic is found on the steering wheel inserts, the steering wheel center, top of the gearshift, around the center HVAC vents (which, oddly, are rectangular while the outermost vents are circular), on a push-to-open door just below the HVAC controls, and even on the door-mounted lock/window controls. Mercifully, none of the iPod flesh was placed around the gearshift or storage console which runs the length of the interior. The fitment of interior pieces was quite good, except for the doors covering the storage compartments in the tunnel console which I was able to wobble left and right while closed. Additionally, many of the controls that one would interface with while in the car (including the stalks mounted to the steering column, the parking brake lever, and every storage compartment) felt cheap and flimsy.

Mazda RX-8 Back Seats

Moving away from detail work, I found both the front and back seats to be quite comfortable and reasonably supportive, with the front seats in the Sport/Touring model losing points due to the lack of adjustable lumbar support (something which is included in the Grand Touring model). The problem, however, with the more comfortable seats only being available as part of the Grand Touring trim is that you're forced to cough up an extra $6000 for a bunch of junk you don't want just to get some decent seats (and stability/traction control).

By now you're probably wondering why I'd present the RX-8 as a car that I'd actually like to purchase, yet complain about it so much. Well, that's the real kicker with the RX-8... once you get in and start the engine, you completely forget about everything I was complaining about and are totally overcome by the desire to just drive until you run out of road. Yes, the handling characteristics, driving feel, and engine are that good.

Let's start with the engine... The 2009+ RX-8 comes equipped with a 1.3L, twin-rotor, Wankel rotary engine, producing 232hp at 8.5k RPM (redline at 9k) and 159ft-lb of torque at 5.5k RPM. Some consider Mazda's obsession with the Wankel rotary engine to be an unhealthy one; however, after doing a little research, I have developed an appreciation for the deceptive simplicity of the design. Check out the brief video below to get a general feel for how the Wankel rotary works.

Seems simple, right, with only a few moving parts and no vavletrain? That's because the challenges with the Wankel design are in lubrication, cooling, and sealing. With those challenges, however, come benefits like a high rev ceiling, amazing power to displacement ratio, incredible smoothness, and a sound that could make some sportbikes blush.

Now, the horsepower and torque numbers that I mentioned may not sound all that impressive until you factor in the RX-8's weight: a mere 3064lb (21lb lighter than my '00 BMW M Roadster). Three thousand pounds plus the weight of a small child isn't exactly mid-90's Miata light, but it's a far cry from the likes of modern American “muscle cars” and practically anything mainstream coming out of the Vaterland. Combine that with a chassis/suspension setup which begs to be thrown into corners and slid around, one part beautifully smooth transmission, three parts fantastic engine note, two parts precise, crisp steering, five parts poor fuel economy, and you have yourself a recipe for huge smiles and endless fun... with up to three terrified passengers.

Excuse me while I go and figure out how to pay for one of these things.