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On the market since 2003, the Mazda RX-8 returns for what could be a final model year in 2011 with no changes.
The four-door sports car has an unusual look to go with its unusual set of doors and its unusual powertrain. The arched wheels, relatively long wheelbase and stubby side rear windows give it a distinctively Japanese look that's polarizing, and it's not growing more handsome with age. The cabin is one of Mazda's nicer efforts, with a flowing, low-slung design.
The sports-car stance wraps around a 2+2 cabin that's just barely roomy for adults in front, and very tight in back for anyone but children. Making that rear seat a touch more accessible are rear-hinged doors that can open once the front-hinged front doors are open. The arrangement mimics the old Saturn Ion and the Honda Element, and it seems to make more visual and conceptual sense on the SUV instead of a sporty car. There's simply not enough usable back-seat room to make the exercise worthwhile.
Mazda's trademark rotary engine tries to engage drivers as best it can. It's a compact powerplant--a 1.3-liter, twin-rotor Wankel engine that provides 232 horsepower with the standard six-speed manual transmission, though it's detuned to 212 horsepower with the available six-speed Sport A/T automatic transmission. And it feels most engaging with the manual gearbox, but rotary engines aren't as rev-happy as the best four-cylinders can be--and the RX-8 gets meager city fuel economy of just 16 mpg.
The RX-8 has nimble handling, with a confident feel at cruising speeds. The ride quality can go jittery on some surfaces, and abrupt changes of road cambering reveal some twitchy responses, but the typical Mazda lightness and vivacity is here.
Crash tests have been calibrated by the NHTSA for the new model year, and the RX-8 hasn't yet been rated on the new scale. In past years, the RX-8 has received mostly four and five star scores. One disappointment is that electronic stability control—a standard feature on nearly every other sports car now isn't available on the base Sport model, though it's included in the other Touring, Grand Touring, and R3 models.
That R3 edition is the weekend racer's target model, and possibly the reason to buy the RX-8. It gets a sport-tuned suspension, Bilstein shocks, and high-performance tires on 19-inch wheels. It's also endowed with a 300-watt Bose Centerpoint audio system, Bluetooth interface, and smoky forged-alloy wheels.
If you're interested in more details on this distinctive sports car, read our most recent full review of the Mazda RX-8.