There's a definite buzz about the RX-8, fuelled in part by its sleek styling, innovative four-door layout and the fact it is powered by rotary engine technology which is unique in the motor industry.
Instead of pistons going up and down, as in a traditional engine, the piston spins in a circle. Such an engine has a comparable power output to a conventional motor but is smaller. I won't get technical, but the rotary engine is just 1,308cc although it equates to a 2.6-litre engine when spinning.
Its size means it can be mounted lower and further back in the car, allowing for an ideal 50/50 weight distribution over the front and rear axles, ideal for a sporting drive. The RX-8 comes in two variants, one with 189bhp and a higher power version with 228bhp.
Both offer strong performance although they suffer from relatively poor fuel economy – a trait inherent in rotary engine design. The Standard power model records 26.2mpg on the combined cycle, while the Hi power model returns 24.8mpg.
Standard specification on both models includes a Bose audio system with CD autochanger, 18-inch alloy wheels, six airbags, climate control, dynamic stability control, traction control and ABS brakes.
In the more powerful model, you also get xenon headlights with washer jets, a six-speed gearbox and an alloy pedal set.
Only four optional extras will be available: metallic paint at £300, a sunroof at £500, leather seats at £1,200 and satellite navigation at £1,500.
At the car's launch in Italy, Mazda marketing director Jeremy Thomson said: 'This is Mazda's most iconic car and will provide the sports halo for us alongside the MX5. But it is a sports car with fleet aspirations.
'It has a great benefit-in-kind tax story to tell and although its carbon dioxide emissions put it in the 35% tax band, this is off-set by an attractive list price. It will sit comfortably in a user-chooser list. As a result of that market positioning and the ultra-competitive price of both models, the RX-8 is a tax winner.
'Not only are drivers reducing their tax bill by choosing it but the fleet manager will be saving their company money. I expect the RX-8 to be both aspirational and desirable in the company car parc where image counts. Its design includes room for four adults and plenty of luggage. Unlike traditional coupes there is no compromise on space.'
A 40% tax-paying company car driver choosing the 189bhp Mazda RX-8 for 2003/04 will pay £231 a month in benefit-in-kind tax.
Mazda points out that a 40% tax-paying company car driver in a BMW 325 Ci Sport, also with 189bhp, carries a CO2 tax liability of 27% (217 g/km). But with a P11D value of £27,730 the higher rate tax-payer will pay £250 a month, an extra £18 a month or £221 a year more than the RX-8.
A 40% tax-payer opting for the 228bhp RX-8, also in the 35% tax bracket, will pay £254 a month in benefit-in-kind tax.
Compared with the Honda S2000, which costs £5,000 more, the tax bill is £23 a month or £271 less per year. And the tax bill is £36 a month or £429 a year less than the Audi A4 3.0 quattro Sport.
So despite its high CO2 emissions placing it in the highest BIK tax bracket, it proves highly competitive in comparison with other coupes and saloons in its class. Due to go on sale in October or November, Mazda expects to sell 2,060 models in the UK this year, increasing to 5,880 units in its first full year of sales.
The majority of these sales – about 80% – are likely to be the more powerful model. Customers will predominantly be male and aged between 25 and 55. Mazda's UK executives hope to achieve conquest sales from brands including BMW and Audi.
So far, it has 1,000 pre-orders from the likes of lawyers, bankers and doctors, mostly males, but Thomson was keen to point out that the car is also aimed at women.
In fact, the manufacturer has supplied a number of RX-8 models and is sponsoring a new reality TV show currently being filmed called Formula Woman.
Both fleet and retail customers of the new car will receive professional driving tuition from Prodrive, worth £500.
Speaking at the launch presentation, Mazda Motor Europe sales director Nigel Brackenbury said: 'The new RX-8 is another example of how far we've come in reshaping and strengthening Mazda's European presence, which began with the Mazda6 last year.'
Behind the wheel
THE first thing that strikes you about the RX-8 once you climb inside is its snug cabin. You could be forgiven for thinking you are sitting in a two-seater.
It's not until you look behind that you see the extra seats – and notice they are some distance away – that you realise there is a considerable degree of practicality hidden beneath the sleek skin.
You get into the rear seats through a set of backwards-hinged rear doors, making it a unique proposition in the sector in design terms, as well as for its engine.
At the car's launch in the Rimini area of Italy we drove the more powerful model which produces 228bhp and has a red line set at 9,000rpm. The less powerful model redlines at 7,500rpm yet produces a little more torque.
This was the first chance to drive versions of the RX-8 with the engine in UK specification. Japanese and US specification vehicles driven by Fleet News in California in January were slightly more powerful than the ones we're having in Europe.
Our test route was a mixture of motorway and incredibly twisty mountain roads. The RX-8 devoured tight corners, and occasionally when speed exceeded the level of grip offered by the tyres, it went off line with very slow, safe and progressive drifting. The steering is direct and responds quickly to your input, while the brakes are powerful without being grabby.
And then there's the typical whine of the rotary engine. As you accelerate it sounds like a washing machine on fast spin – but this is not a criticism. It sounds great. There are a couple of annoying things. Like the Mazda6 there's a beep when you adjust the stereo volume using the steering wheel-mounted control button.
If this is to show you have successfully raised or reduced the volume using this device, it is unnecessary. Surely the resulting change in volume will let you know. And there is a lump that sticks out into the passenger seat compartment foot well. It is an irritation that passengers won't welcome.
The RX-8 is a joy to drive, will seat four people and will look fabulous in any company car park. And it's great value for money.
|RX-8 fact file|
|Model||Standard power||Hi power|
|Engine (cc):||1,308 rotary||1,308 rotary|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||189/7,000||228/8,500|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||162/5,000||156/5,500|
|Max speed (mph):||139||146|
CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.