It drives Britney around in her recent (and indecipherable) music video with Madonna. It drove stalwart motoring rag Wheels magazine to give it their high-falutin’ car-of-the-year gong. And it’s driven by an engine called a Wankel. So does all this mean you should drive the Mazda RX-8 too?
Here’s a quickie Wankel history. This Wankel business has led to tears as well as corporate blindness. Half a century ago a German engineer named Felix Wankel (!) developed a combustion engine that used turbine-smooth rotors instead of conventional pistons to power along cars. Convinced of the Wankel’s (or rotary’s) worth, Bavarian car maker NSU (who says the Germans don’t have a sense of humour?) then gambled everything on the futuristic Ro80 of 1967, the first car to be designed purely for rotary use.
However, a manufacturing flaw soon destroyed the Ro80’s rotary engines, its reputation and, ultimately, NSU. That’s why you may not have heard of it -¦ not as a car company anyway.
Meanwhile, seemingly blind to this mayhem, Mazda’s 1970s models went Wankel too, just as its high thirst and pollution made buyers rotary-wary. Sales plummeted and Mazda almost went the way of NSU, so the rotary was used mostly for the sleek RX-7 sports cars from 1979 to 1999 instead. So now you know why the Wankel is solely in Mazda’s hands, so to speak.
The rotary’s compactness helped determine the RX-8’s uniquely sleek shape, helping it become an automotive Picasso, melding together a menagerie of styles. I can see in the RX-8 some Mazda 6 and MX-5, and even a hint of original RX-7. And I can see Eunos too. And like a Guggenheim on wheels, this Wankelled wonder juts out of the automotive landscape and turns heads.
To drive, the RX-8 sure delivers. Fantastically fluid flow-through corners, an upshot of the brilliant rear-drive chassis, recall the steering and handling finesse and balance of BMWs. Porsche’s Boxster is recalled when rating the firm but supple ride. And it brakes almost as well too.
And then there’s the rev-ecstasy of the twin-rotor Wankel motor, seizing your senses as it spins effortlessly to its 9,000rpm limit, rapidly reeling in the road in a soaring symphony of seamless, sweet-sounding speed. Okay, tootling around town at low revs the RX-8’s performance isn’t quite so mesmerising without the heavy revving, and a keen right foot means weighty V8-like fuel bills, but this motor is still a masterpiece that will simmer deep in your soul.
The RX-8’s interior is just as special. Freestyle doors that flip open to reveal unobstructed entry into the front and rear seats make getting in quite an occasion. Unbelievably, they also help make the Mazda a true adult four-seater (with a roomy boot thrown in).
Comfort is another RX-8 highlight. You sit low on firmly supportive seats ahead of a crisply modern dashboard that is characterised by the deeply hooded instrumentation binnacle. There are lots of stylised rotary symbols peppered throughout (most notably as part of the headrests), as well as lashings of metallic finishes and searing red lighting.
It’s built to be used daily, with flawless ergonomics, perfect practicality, superb quality, and heaps of standard features for the money. Faults are too few to matter really: the fascia is a tad fussy, the centre console armrest is flimsy, and rear vision out isn’t so great.
The RX-8’s interior is as fantastic as its engineering and exterior execution. It says Futuristic Japan in a way that watching 1960s animation like Prince Planet or Speed Racer did when you were a kid.
If you dig design, need four-seater comfort, crave a real sports car, and want to bag a bargain to boot, the RX-8 is for you and your crew. The majestic Mazda bucks convention in a breathtaking package.
Forget Britney. Bj?at her bizarre best should be behind the wheel of this beast.