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2006 Mazda RX-8
By James Riswick

Click for detail photo. Unique. It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, but in reality, very few things can truly be described as being one of a kind. “Napoleon Dynamite,” the Finnish language and the duck-billed platypus are some of the very few examples.

The Mazda RX-8 can easily be added to that short list. It has a twin-rotor Wankel engine instead of that quaint old reciprocating cylinder variety found in, oh, just every other fuel-burning car on the planet. Looks-wise, nothing comes close, and its rear-hinged back doors make it the only sports car that comfortably fits four.

In fact, the RX-8 is the perfect compromise for the person who wants a sports car, but needs four doors and a back seat. A vehicle with four doors can’t be deemed a true sports car, and getting into the back seat of a small two-door is really only easy for that Chinese contortionist fellow from “Ocean’s Eleven.”

With rotors spinning rather than cylinders pumping, 1.3-liters of engine are able to churn out a staggering 238 horsepower. How impressively efficient is that? Well, 1.6-liters in the four-cylinder Kia Rio make only 104 horses.

What’s most impressive about the rotary, however, is how happily this engine goes about revving to its peak power at 8500 rpm. The word “smooth” is used to describe the RX-8 so frequently because unlike low displacement, high horsepower vehicles like the Acura RSX Type-S, you hear more of a ferocious whirring than a shrill scream under hood. I felt like I was breaking the RSX – not so with the RX-8. It just loves to be driven fast.

In terms of handling, with most of its weight situated between the axles, the RX-8’s near-balanced weight distribution and typical Mazda steering perfection translate into a car that becomes a symbiotic extension of the driver. The 6-speed manual transmission is a treat to use, with its mechanically direct feel and short throws reminiscent of the excellent Miata. Opting for the 5-speed automatic and depowered rotary is like telling a willing Angelina Jolie you’d rather be just friends.

Inside, all occupants are held in place by comfortably supportive seats, a high beltline and elevated tunnel. Space is snug – particularly for those taller than six feet – but the RX-8 really can comfortably fit four people. Materials are top-notch and there’s enough circular and rounded triangle details to assure you never forget there’s a rotary engine up front. Starting at $26,995, the RX-8 comes well equipped, with leather and other common niceties like heated seats and a 6-CD player bringing the total to just a hair over 30 grand.

The downsides to the RX-8 are few, but mostly regard the engine. Rotaries, like Americans apparently, are addicted to gobbling up oil at an abnormal rate. Fuel economy has also been a sore spot for almost every single owner – Road & Track’s long-term tester returned an SUV-like 15.9 mpg. And despite lots of horsepower, the engine has only a meager 159 lb-ft of low-end grunt on hand, that along with its high-revving nature, makes it a bit of a chore to drive in every day use.

These negative attributes betray the RX-8’s goal to be an everyday runabout as well as a sports car. Recently, CAR magazine commented that a more conventional six-cylinder option would have complimented the car’s packaging better and made it far more livable. I agree, even though that would take away some of the sports car quotient. So the rotary engine prevents the RX-8 from being a true 50-50 hybrid of sports car thrills and four-door practicality. But the fact remains that it’s still an extremely innovative and fun, quick-handling, well-equipped car for not a lot of money. It’s also one of the few things on Earth that truly lives up to the term “unique.”

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Pictures of the Mazda RX-8
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Posted March 9, 2006
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