With the Mazda6 being marketed as a 'saloon with the soul of a sportscar', the new RX-8 - on sale here in July - is possibly the sportscar with the conscience of a saloon. It brings the latest development of Mazda's Le Mans-winning rotary engine technology (previously used in the RX-7) to a car combining the lithe appearance of an exotic coupe with some of the practicality of a family saloon.
Add to that a sub-£20,000 price tag for the entry-level car and user-choosers will be casting a keen eye in the RX-8's direction.
The main advantage of a rotary engine over a conventional one is that it can develop comparable power outputs while being smaller and more compact.
This allows it to be mounted lower and further back, resulting in a lower centre of gravity and improved handling characteristics.
Two different power outputs will be offered with the new Renesis rotary engine in the RX-8 – 189bhp and 237bhp. Provisional estimates show that while improved, fuel consumption figures for the RX-8 are expected to be in the mid-20s mpg range on the combined cycle.
It also means that carbon dioxide emissions are likely to be in the highest band for benefit-in-kind tax, but with such aggressive pricing there should not be a gulf in liability between the RX-8 and its rivals.
Standard features on both RX-8 models include 18-inch alloy wheels, driver, passenger, side and curtain airbags, climate control, BOSE audio system with nine speakers and a six-CD autochanger, dynamic stability control and traction control, while the high-power version also adds xenon gas headlamps and alloy pedals.
Only four options will be offered: metallic paint at £300, electric sunroof at £500, leather seats (electric and heated in the front) at £1,200 and satellite navigation at £1,500.
But where the RX-8 really differs from cars such as the Audi TT is by offering reasonable comfort for four adults. There are four doors – the rear ones are hinged at the back allowing easier access without folding the front seats forward.
Its 300 litres of luggage space also indicates that boot space has not been affected by the generous rear seating compartment.
Mazda expects considerable demand for the RX-8 in the UK and has been allocated 3,500 units for the second half of the year – effectively the first six months of sales. An online pre-ordering facility has been set up with this in mind so customers can be at the front of the queue.
From February 1, customers can access the secure website at www.mazdaRX8.co.uk, place a deposit of £1,000 by credit card and secure a vehicle that will then be allocated to a dealer of their choice.
Behind the wheel
WE have seen the evolution of the RX-8 over the last few years at various motor shows around the world, and the production versions that began to appear in 2002 are a little narrower than the original concept car.
Although this means the RX-8 loses some road presence, it still has some defining features to make it stand out from the crowd. There is the prominent grille, bulbous wheel arches with vents in the rear and indicator repeaters in the front, and stylish five-spoke alloys.
The three-point motif of the rotary engine is repeated in the design of the front seat head restraints, the gear knob and the rear fog lamp.
'Freestyle' doors, similar in operation to those found on the new Rolls Royce Phantom, ensure access to the rear without the need to move the front seats forward, but it is still a challenge to get in and out gracefully. And the B-pillar built into the front of the rear door means the side glass is small. Rear passengers might feel a little claustrophobic on a long journey, although complaints could be quelled by telling them it is in the interests of side impact protection.
We were given the opportunity to drive the car at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, in Monterey, California, allowing us to drive it harder than public roads allow, with additional time on scenic roads along the American west coast.
A short second-gear handling circuit marked out with cones gave an indication of how the car would feel on the limit, while the track with its undulating characteristics provided a test of the RX-8's responsiveness and torque curve.
Steering feels as sharp as anything else in this class, and Mazda already has a proven track record in this department with the MX-5 and Mazda6.
The RX-8 will change direction quickly with a flick of the wrists, while the six-speed gearbox on the high-power version tested is as rapid and precise as the MX-5. The dynamic stability control is progressive, allowing a degree of oversteer, before gently reining in the back end.
Although there is a perceptible amount of body roll, the RX-8 never feels anything less than sure-footed. Perhaps the greatest challenge for the suspension and damping of any car is the infamous 'Corkscrew' downhill left-right corner at Laguna Seca. The Mazda took it in its stride, leaving a broad grin on my face at the exit.
Mazda's engineers were after class-leading braking performance from the RX-8 and the severe demands of the race track proved they were up to the job. As for 'class-leading', the jury is out until we get it in the UK.
Despite its handling prowess, the RX-8 does not punish the passengers with a jarring ride. The suspension feels firm, but keeps to itself the worst of the bumps and poor surfaces on badly maintained roads.
As for the peculiar engine, the high-power version we tested will spin up to 9,000rpm before a warning beep suggests changing up a gear. And the unique sound: imagine a washing machine on its final spin — manic and very entertaining. It seems keener than the Honda S2000, although the power and torque characteristics of both engines are similar, almost urging you to keep you foot down to ensure you get the best out of it.
THE RX-8 provides immense driving enjoyment without the traditional packaging compromises of a sleek sportscar. And at this bargain price, it is likely to be in great demand.
|Mazda RX-8 fact file|
|Engine (cc):||1,308 rotary engine|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||189/7,000||228/8,500|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||162/5,000||156/5,500|
|Max speed (mph):||n/a||150 (estimated)|
|0-62mph (sec):||n/a||6.5 estimated|
|Fuel consumption (mpg):||26.2||24.8|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||267||284||Transmission:||5-sp man||6-sp man|
|Fuel tank capacity (l/gal):||61/13.4|
|Service interval (miles):||n/a|
|On sale:||July 2003|
|Prices:||£19,995 - £21,995|