For 2006, the Mazda RX-8 offers a six-speed automatic transmission in place of 2005’s four-speed. That means a horsepower increase to 212, from 197 in 2005, while torque drops to 159 lb-ft from 164 when the automatic transmission is ordered. There’s also an Intelligent Key System, featuring keyless entry and start on the GT model; and Galaxy Grey exterior colour is added, while Nordic Green and Titanium Grey have been retired.
The heart of the RX-8 is its unique 1.3-litre RENESIS (for Rotary Engine Genesis) rotary powerplant. Developed in the 1950s, the compact rotary (or “Wankel”, for its German inventor Felix Wankel) uses triangular rotors turning in a chamber to spin the driveshaft. Its main advantage is horsepower that’s well beyond its displacement. Although a number of companies originally pursued it, Mazda – which first used it in its 1967 Cosmo Sport -- offers the only production rotary today. The recent RENESIS design reduces emissions and increases fuel economy, although it’s still not a gas miser.
The transmission affects horsepower, largely due to different intake port configuration. With a six-speed manual, the car makes 238, while the new six-speed produces 212 hp. Redline also jumps from 7500 rpm with the automatic, to 9000 rpm with the manual transmission.
The GS includes four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, 18-inch alloy wheels, heated power mirrors, halogen headlights with cleaners, fog lights, variable intermittent windshield wipers, six-disc CD with nine speakers and wheel-mounted controls, cruise control, air conditioning, power locks with keyless entry, and leather-wrapped wheel.
The GT adds dynamic stability control, self-levelling xenon headlights, auto-dimming mirror with integrated garage door opener, leather interior with heated seats and eight-way power driver’s seat, and anti-theft alarm.
It’s impossible to drive the RX-8 without being impressed by it. With its small engine set back, it has almost 50/50 weight distribution, with a double-wishbone front suspension, multilink rear and large brake rotors. Steering is direct and cornering is precise. Because there’s no reciprocating piston movement, the rotary engine is eerily smooth, and its acceleration will glue your shoulders to the seat.
The rear seat is accessed through two small, rear-hinged doors that give this quad coupe the look of a two-door. A full-length console runs the length of the cabin, neatly dividing the rear seat; its elegance is marred by an ugly handbrake lever that sticks up even when the brake is off. Rotary emblems are scattered throughout the car, including a circular panel on the stereo and in the seats. The six-speed comes with aluminum foot pedals that look great but are slippery with wet shoes.
Drawbacks to the RX-8 include high fuel consumption, even with the RENESIS’ improvements, and a tendency to use a lot of oil, which is inherent to the engine’s design. You’ll need to check it on a regular basis; the owner’s manual recommends every second fill-up. Some owners complain that its relatively lightweight design doesn’t perform well on snowy roads, and that it doesn’t always start right away in very cold weather, another tendency of the rotary design. Rear seat room is wide, but legroom is very tight. Styling is subjective, but the low-slung body and muscular wheel flares give the RX-8 a commanding presence on the road, no matter whether you love or hate it.
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