In Defense of: The Mazda RX-8

Michael Karesh
by Michael Karesh

A fine-handling car carries on a conversation with the tips of your fingers and the seat of your pants, and not just near the limit of adhesion. Whether the engine’s up front, in the middle or out back; whether the powerplant propels the front, rear or both wheels, a true “driver’s car” is a master of communication and balance. While many cars have been successfully marketed based on their “ultimate driving,” very few are capable of delivering such erudition. Many are downright pigs, offering nothing more than understeer followed by more understeer. As Jonny Lieberman’s review indicates, the Mazda RX-8 is not amongst them. It is an under-appreciated gem.

Only two cars in the RX-8’s price range arguably handle better: the Honda S2000 (in its final year) and Mazda’s own Miata. Neither has a rear seat or is remotely as livable as the RX-8, and the Honda is insanely expensive to insure. And i enjoy driving the RX-8 more.

While I haven’t always been a fan of Motor Trend, the October 2008 issue includes a “giant handling test” that’s well worth reading. They lead off with instrumented testing, where the RX-8 doesn’t fare well against a group that includes the Dodge Viper ACR, BMW M3, Mitsubishi Evo, Porsche 911 Turbo, Nissan GT-R and Audi R8. So I figured they were going to bury the RX-8 in their rankings.

But another part of the comparison test involves a subjective component, where professional road-racer Randy Pobst ranked the RX-8 third, behind only the $120k Audi R8 and $63k BMW M3 (the light steering apparently comes alive on the track). Ahead of even the Porsche— and Pobst races a Porsche.

In the purest sense of a sports car, the rear-drive RX-8 is the most satisfying through corners. I felt like it was a glove on my hand. I could put it right where I wanted. Extremely well balanced, easy to drift, unfettered by weight. The all-wheel-drive cars tend to understeer, and then when they do break loose it’s a big event and a lot happens. In the RX-8, on the other hand, things happen a little bit at a time. It’s just so much fun to drive. The more powerful cars feel like riding a horse. The RX-8 feels like wings bolted right to your arms.

Note that Pobst says “the most satisfying through corners,” not merely “one of the most.” I couldn’t agree more. I’ve driven an RX-8 on WV16 and OH26, two roads packed with challenging curves. It was the most satisfying driving experience I’ve ever had.

I’m aware of the arguments against the RX-8, most of which center around the rotary engine. Yes, the Wankel’s fuel economy is poor. In my experience, the car gets 15 mpg in all-out hooning mode, 17 in typical suburban driving, and 21 when cruising on the freeway. But plenty of vehicles have been sold that do worse. And the recent fuel price spike indicates that it’s not all about frugality. In the first eight months of last year, when gas prices were lower, Mazda still only shifted 4,417 RX-8s.

Next up: the lack of low-end torque. There’s a fix: downshift. Where some engines reward a downshift with a raucous fuss, the rotary begs to be revved. Sure, the RX-8 doesn’t launch strongly, but once underway on a winding road, power is not an issue. I’ll grant that there’s a certain adolescent thrill to rocketing oneself and 3,500+ pounds of metal and plastic forward by merely pressing down on a pedal. But is this really what performance driving has devolved to?

Apparently so. Mazda developed a unique engine and chassis for the RX-8— bits not shared with a midsize sedan. They’re offering a lightweight car with outstanding handling and a livable ride. They even toss a usable rear seat into the deal, AND an amazingly low price for a bespoke low-volume car (under $30k new, under $20k used with low miles). And yet Mazda sold just 2,591 RX-8s in the first eight months of 2008.

The unavoidable implication: handling simply isn’t a high priority for more than a few thousand people a year. When driving enthusiasts have to choose between handling and torque, nearly all of them choose torque. This certainly lets a lot of other manufacturers off the hook; torque is much easier to provide than communicative steering and a finely-balanced chassis. Just drop a powerful engine into a sexy-looking car (e.g. any of the new wave V8 muscle cars), and sales will follow.

In the future, when electric motors drive the wheels and steering is via wire, the torque temptation will only increase. Electric motors can certainly deliver low-end grunt, so few people will mind that any steering feel these vehicles provide will be entirely artificial. My advice to those with limited budgets who really care about handling, whose driving isn’t all in a straight line: buy a Mazda RX-8 while you still can.

Michael Karesh
Michael Karesh

Michael Karesh lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan, with his wife and three children. In 2003 he received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. While in Chicago he worked at the National Opinion Research Center, a leader in the field of survey research. For his doctoral thesis, he spent a year-and-a-half inside an automaker studying how and how well it understood consumers when developing new products. While pursuing the degree he taught consumer behavior and product development at Oakland University. Since 1999, he has contributed auto reviews to Epinions, where he is currently one of two people in charge of the autos section. Since earning the degree he has continued to care for his children (school, gymnastics, tae-kwan-do...) and write reviews for Epinions and, more recently, The Truth About Cars while developing TrueDelta, a vehicle reliability and price comparison site.

More by Michael Karesh

Join the conversation
2 of 58 comments
  • HiFlite999 HiFlite999 on Mar 10, 2011

    I'd say a true sports car is one where you get in the car on a pleasant summer Sunday evening, for no other reason than to drive. I've owned some sweet cars over the years, but by this definition, the only ones that qualified as true sports cars were my Triumph GT-6+, Datsun 260Z and present RX-8.

  • Skih2o Skih2o on Mar 24, 2011

    Owned a 2005 RX8 since new, have also owned numerous fast and well handling cars, boats and motorcycles. RX8 is a great handling and very entertaining car. Don't care about the gas mileage for the pleasure it generates. Not as fast as I originally hoped but the rotary has a lot of turbo boost feel to it after about 4200R. Can be very quick off the line if you know how to drive it, I have the MT 6 speed. The main problem I have is service on the vehicle. It has some inherent intricacies that have caused some problems only to be exacerbated by the dealer. I too, have been taken by the dealer for the flooding and non starting issue, (dealer said it was the starter) brakes that could not be stopped from squealing after dealer installation and 6 trips to the service department which I ended up replacing with a $40 pair that I bought and installed to eliminate the problem. Now I'm told I need a catalytic converter for $ 1800 which I am refusing. My wife and I both love the handling characteristics of this car, acceleration is acceptable but for the hassle, I am removing it from the street and keeping it to play with. Look at the threads of dealers hosing people on this car. By the way, I'm 6'4", could not fit in the Miata, but love driving this car, even on 3000+ mile road trips. But the service, no one else can work on them in my small town in Texas. Guess I'll have to learn to do it myself and forget the dealer..........

  • Zipper69 Current radio ads blare "your local Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram dealer" and the facias read the same. Is the honeymoon with FIAT over now the 500 and big 500 have stopped selling?
  • Kjhkjlhkjhkljh kljhjkhjklhkjh hmmm get rid of the garbage engine in my chevy, and the garbage under class action lawsuit transmission? sounds good to me
  • ToolGuy Personally I have no idea what anyone in this video is talking about, perhaps someone can explain it to me.
  • ToolGuy Friendly reminder of two indisputable facts: A) Winners buy new vehicles (only losers buy used), and B) New vehicle buyers are geniuses (their vehicle choices prove it):
  • Groza George Stellantis live off the back of cheap V8 cars with old technology and suffers from lack of new product development. Now that regulations killed this market, they have to ditch the outdated overhead.They are not ready to face the tsunami of cheap Chinese EVs or ready to even go hybrid and will be left in the dust. I expect most of their US offerings to be made in Mexico in the future for good tariff protection and lower costs of labor instead of overpriced and inflexible union labor.