Mazda is known as the zoom-zoom company for a reason. They make mainstream sedans, hatchbacks and crossovers that are genuinely fun to drive. What happens when they decide to forget about the mainstream and design a serious sports car? There's the MX-5 Miata and this, the RX-8. With a low curb weight and an impeccably tuned suspension, the RX-8 is the definition of nimble. The placement of its tiny but powerful rotary engine - more on that later - means it is technically a mid-engined car, making it a very neutral and responsive handler. Though it has an electric assist steering system, which is the kiss of death in terms of steering feedback for many other models, Mazda managed to tune the setup in such a way that you know exactly what the front wheels are up to at all times. Overall, the RX-8 can hold its own in terms of handling against nearly any model short of an exotic.
V8? V6? inline-four? Nope, forget about cylinders, the RX-8 is one of the few cars on the road with a rotary engine. Able to do more with less, the RX-8's mill displaces just 1.3 liters yet produces 232 horsepower. That does come at a stratospheric 8,500 rpm - redline is a racecar-like 8,000 rpm - so you need to be willing to wind the engine out for best performance. Give it the stick, and the RX-8 can hit 60 mph in a respectable 6 seconds. Torque, at 159 lb-ft at 5,500 rpm, is nothing to write home about. However, there isn't much mass to move around, and as long as you keep the RX-8 in the right gear - easy to do with the smooth-shifting, short-throw six-speed manual - you'll be up to speed in no time.
Given its rev-happy engine, Mazda set up the instrument panel perfectly by putting an oversized tachometer front and center with an easy-to-read inset digital speedometer. It facilities spirited driving and also signals that this is most certainly a driver's car. Seating position, it should be noted, is excellent, although some might be bothered by the lack of reach adjustment on the steering wheel. The wheel itself, a small diamater, three-spoke unit, falls easily to hand and has strategically-placed, user-friendly audio and cruise control buttons. On a side note, the inset triangular metal trim in the headrests - modeled after the shape of the rotary engine - are a very cool touch.
Given the RX-8's compact dimensions, you wouldn't expect rear seat space to be a strength. But thanks to clever packaging and a subtly high roofline, there is actually space for real adults in back, provided those up front are short or move their seats up somewhat. With a pair of pickup-like rear-opening "half" rear doors, ingress and egress for rear seat passengers is a snap. For those who want a sports car but have children or need to transport a few friends occassionally, the RX-8 fits the bill nicely.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but for some, the RX-8 is a model is subtle aggression. The flared fenders and narrowed headlights signal the car's sporting intentions, while the "smiley face" grille that afflicts other Mazdas of this vintage is mercifully absent here. Many of the arguably less successful stylistic elements of the series one RX-8 - the cheesy vertical fender vents and triangular, rotary-inspired front adn rear trim pieces - have been eliminated or reworked, making for a cleaner design. Tasty 18-inch wheels and a handsome rear lip spoiler round out the package.