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Sunday, 30 November 2008

Mazda RX-8

2009 Mazda RX-8
Mazda's great new RX-8 offers plenty of affordable driving fun at a time when, with luck, gas prices will be staying down
The Good: Price, handling, four-person capacity

The Bad: Lousy fuel economy, small trunk

The Bottom Line: A hot little sports car gets even better for '09

Up Front

The new R3 version of Mazda's 2009 RX-8 sports car is destined to be a classic. It's an upgraded version of the RX-8 that's even sportier than the original yet still relatively inexpensive. It's also far more practical than most sports cars: There is also enough in back to handle a pair of children's car seats, as well as little reverse-opening back doors that provides easy access to the rear. The RX-8 is an ideal choice for shoppers with a family who don't want to settle for a boring econobox as a second car, and the R3 is the best RX-8 ever.

There's just one catch. The RX-8 is the last remaining car on the U.S. market still powered by a rotary engine&and the big downside of the rotary engine is lousy fuel efficiency. The RX-8 is only rated to get 16 mpg in the city and 22 on the highway, matching the turbocharged Mitsubishi Motors' (MMTOF.PK) Lancer Evolution (BusinessWeek.com, 7/10/07) in its gas-guzzling tendencies. In 204 miles of mixed driving, I only got 16.4 mpg in the RX-8 R3. By contrast, Nissan's (NSANY) rival 350Z (BusinessWeek.com, 7/8/08) gets 18 mpg in the city and 25 on the highway.

But, hey, gasoline prices have been plunging lately, and the RX-8 is a marvelous little machine. My test car came in a color Mazda has dubbed "Velocity Red," a metallic crimson flecked with gold that sparkles beautifully in the sun. Add in the bulging front fenders, the big rear spoiler on the trunk lid, and the piano-black highlights in the gray-and-black interior, and the RX-8 is a great-looking car that's sure to cause a stir in the neighborhood when you park in your driveway.

The R-8 now comes in four trim levels: Sport, Touring, Grand Touring and R3. List prices start at $27,305 for the base model with either a stick shift or automatic transmission, rising to $32,600 for the R3 (which only comes with a stick shift). The R3 is basically a Touring model with attitude: It has a sport-tuned suspension with Bilstein shock absorbers, 19-inch (instead of 18-inch) forged alloy wheels, a modified front grille, fog lights, heavily bolstered sport seats, an upgraded Bose sound system, keyless entry, and Bluetooth capability. It's the version you want if you like to drive for fun.

The horsepower of the R-8's 1.3-liter rotary engine varies depending on which transmission you choose. With the six-speed automatic, which comes with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters, the engine is rated only at 212 hp and redlines at a mere 7,500 rpm. But why choose the automatic when the alternative is a six-speed manual shift? In that configuration, the engine is rated at 232 hp and redlines at an incredible 9,000 rpm. As Mazda likes to say in its ads, zoom zoom.

Unfortunately, one reason the RX-8 seems destined to be a classic is that it may not be around much longer. Mazda, like other carmakers, is getting killed in the slumping auto marketplace right now, and parent company Ford (F) is in desperate shape. There are persistent rumors that Ford is trying to sell its stake in Mazda (BusinessWeek.com, 8/4/08) to raise cash.

Mazda's North American sales fell 35.6% in September, to 16,169 vehicles, and were off 5.7% to 215, 408 during the first nine months of the year. By those dismal standards, the RX-8 is doing reasonably well. Its sales fell by nearly one-third, to just 274 units, in September, and were off 40.6%, to 2,865 units, in the first nine months of the year. But maintaining a model with such tiny sales through the current financial crisis is going to be tough. At very least, I wouldn't be surprised if Mazda eventually replaced the rotary engine with a conventional one that gets better mileage.

Behind the Wheel

I took the RX-8 out for a spin up the west branch of the Lackawaxen River in northeastern Pennsylvania on a glorious autumn day when the foliage was at peak color. I was immediately sold on the car's capabilities.

The rotary engine doesn't have a lot of low-end torque, so acceleration from a full stop isn't great. I clocked my test car at a little under seven seconds in accelerating from 0 to 60. But once you get rolling, the high-revving engine performs marvelously. There's a lot more oomph than I expected, even at relatively high speeds, and it seems to run out endlessly in each gear. The engine has a mechanical whine a little like a giant sewing machine that grows on you as you get used to the car.

The rotary engine's small size also allowed Mazda's engineers to position it further toward the middle than in most cars, giving the RX-8 perfect 50/50 front/rear weight distribution. That, plus the sporty suspension, gives the R3 the quick reflexes of a more expensive car sports car.

However, this isn't the car for you if you want a soft, boaty ride. The suspension is relatively hard, so you feel every imperfection in the road. The RX-8's floor is also set very low to the ground. You're seated down low, so if it frightens you to be looking way up in the air at SUVs and 18-wheelers as you zip past them on the freeway, you won't like the feel of the RX-8. It's a little like driving down the road in an old-fashioned claw-foot bathtub—and being almost as exposed.

The sporty front and bucket-style rear seats have the feel of being situated in a cockpit. The driver's seat is not only heavily bolstered on the sides but has a little hump on the front between your legs to keep the occupant from sliding around during hard driving. There are many appealing and distinctive design touches in the interior, such as a saber-style handle on the emergency brake and aluminum foot pedals.

Another plus for the RX-8 as a family car is that it has excellent four- and five-star government crash test ratings in frontal and side collisions. All versions of the car except the Sport also come with stability and traction control. Side and side-curtain air bags are standard.

The trunk is roomy by sports car standards but only has 7.6 cu. ft. of space.

Buy It or Bag It?

If you don't want to pay up for the new R3, this is a great time to get a deal on a more basic R-8: Mazda is offering $3,500 rebates on the remaining 2008 models on dealers' lots. The '09 RX-8 sells for an average of $29,303, according to the Power Information Network (PIN)—about $2,000 more than the '08. But, given the state of the economy, dealers are giving deals on the '09s. too. PIN estimates that the average buyer is getting about $1,500 off on the '09 RX-8. (PIN, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies.)

The RX-8 is priced lower than most competing models (though there's nothing else exactly like it on the market). For instance, Volkswagen's (VOWG.DE) '09 R32 (BusinessWeek.com, 4/11/08) sells for an average of $31,888, $2,555 more than the Mazda, according to PIN. Other alternatives, such as the '09 Nissan 350Z (average price: $32,235), the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution ($36,181) and BMW's (BMWG.DE) 128i (BusinessWeek.com, 4/18/08) ($37,273), are even pricier.

To my mind, the RX-8 is a bargain. The 2009 R3 version, in particular, is so much fun to drive that you almost forget about its poor fuel economy.

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