There I was, barreling down Japan's Chuo Expressway in a 2004 RX-8, Mazda's supercool new sports car. I was on my way to join my family at a hot-springs resort in Nagano, but my real mission was figuring out whether this RX-8 hot rod, Mazda Motor's bid to get some sizzle back into the brand, lives up to the hype. My first impression: Hell, yes. But in Japan, Mazda is promoting its latest rotary-engine beauty, with its unusual four-seat layout, as a muscle car the whole family can enjoy. Let's just say that the return trip, with my wife and two young children in tow, was a snug enough fit to lay bare that myth.
BRAVURA PERFORMANCE. Back in its glory days in the 1970s and early '80s, Mazda enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for brilliant engineering and design, culminating in the RX-7, a rotary engine-powered two-seater that rivaled the old Nissan 240Z as Japan's most bodacious fun car. The $27,200 RX-8 is a much better vehicle. With 250 horsepower in Japan (238 on U.S. models because of emissions limits), there's oomph aplenty. Its new rotary engine is lighter, cleaner, and more fuel-efficient, getting 25 miles per gallon on the highway.
It's that very engine, in fact, that makes the existence of a four-door sports car possible. Because the engine is 30% lighter and 20% smaller than the RX-7's, Mazda engineers were able to free up enough interior space for four seats and enough trunk room to carry two medium suitcases or two sets of golf clubs.
In terms of raw performance, the RX-8 doesn't disappoint. Even the four-speed automatic I drove, which is tuned down to 207 hp and sells for $1,500 less than the six-speed manual version, chewed up the road on command. Clocking 100 mph or so, the suspension and handling were world-class. The instrument panel is accessible and well-lit, with soft blue lighting when you open the door. The center console is stylish, in black with a circular motif and big knobs and buttons for audio and air controls.
But is the RX-8 really a family car? To make this work, Mazda designers removed the middle beam of the typical four-door and hinged the rear doors at the back. So the rear doors open from front to back and only when the front doors are open. A low-slung floor provides more room but makes getting access to the backseat an acrobatic maneuver. Sports car buffs will love the RX-8; I did. But for families, it makes more sense as an extra car than as a practical compromise. By Brian Bremner