The Miata, Mazda's most popular sports car, sold in huge quantities. You'd be forgiven for thinking that it's the best sports car Mazda has made, since it sells so well. Well, popularity doesn't always indicate a fantastic actual experience. Instead, sometimes the driving experience of some of the best cars ever made has been prioritized over the comfort, reliability and practicality. The rotary engine is known for having prioritized the driver experience over the reliability and practicality of it. Thus, some people assume that the RX-8 is not the Mazda sports car to buy. Those people might just be wrong. Very wrong.
You see, on April 16th, I went to a track day at the Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (Seriously, can we go back to calling it Mosport yet? There's a sign just outside the track that still says Mosport. Oh, and it's located on Mosport Rd.) Upon arrival, I met a gentleman with a Mazda RX-8. He wanted me to show him the best lines through the track, and I could tell that this client was familiar with the limits of his car as I rode with him, showing him the lines around the new track he had never visited before.
What took me back more than anything, was the agility of the platform we were riding in. The nose tucked in towards the apex with very little effort. It didn't need any of the weight transfer of the average FWD car, or even some RWD cars. The nose darted in so effortlessly, it kinda felt like a Porsche. That makes sense, given that the car has a nearly perfect 50/50 weight distribution, with only slightly more weight at the rear of the car, and a very low polar inertia, with the engine tucked far back in the engine bay behind the front axle, and the fuel tank tucked in ahead of the rear axle, the car's weight is largely centered between the axles, making it highly nimble. These are the same engineers who built the Miata, after all. Long held as the staple of "best handling car," the Miata is merely a good benchmark for a comparison for the RX-8.
The 13B-MSP Renesis screamed up to 8000 RPM, with the driver getting the engine up to temperature before really letting the revs scream. The noise is a remarkably smooth sound; a great indicator for the smoothness of the engine. This isn't an engine you can feel running. To ride in this car, you'd think it was propelled by magic. There is no vibration from the engine in the cabin. It barely even makes a noise until you get on the throttle hard. But, to reiterate the most noteworthy thing about the RX-8, is the smoothness of the engine's sound. It doesn't sound like a normal engine with a series of several controlled burns inside the cylinders. Instead, the combustion chamber is set alight permanently, with a permanent noise, which never seems to burble or anything of that sort, like a normal ICE. Instead, lifting off of the throttle is met with the burbles on off-throttle only, but the throttle sound is the sound of effortless acceleration. It just spins faster and makes more noise, without the quality of the noise largely differentiating itself from the lower end of the tachometer until the higher end of the tachometer. It's one distinct engine note across the entire powerband. Sorry, VTEC kids. This one doesn't change its power output randomly. It's a silken sound with a lovely predictability.
After some decently skillful laps of the client driving, and some discussion of ideal racing lines, I wanted to discuss the way that the fastest racing lap times will differentiate from the client's racing lines. So, we discussed ways to go slightly faster without risking the car too much. More emphasis on understanding the sacrifice corners and an attempt to make more speed on corner exits and vital corner entries was placed. So, the client asked me to drive the car to show him the faster lines.
The first thing to notice about driving the RX-8, is how gently the gearbox and transmission work together. Every shift is subtle. The spinning noise of the engine drops; that's how to tell that the RX-8 changed gear. There is no jerking, no matter how aggressive the gear change. The engine changes speed, not the entire car. The tires propelled me into Turn 1 as I gently set out to acclimatize with the car with minimal issue. I rolled onto the throttle. The revs climbed quickly up to 6000, I barely even noticed that we were approaching the redline on most of the other cars I've driven. The car let me know that there was more to have.
With the series of second-gear corners at the first sector of the DDC dispatched, the car brought me to the more high-speed sections of the track. I gently fed in throttle, curious about how much rear wheel traction I had. Plenty, was the answer I was greeted with. So, I fed in throttle until the throttle was at the floor. The buzz filled the cabin and the car began to accelerate towards its redline. At about 8500 RPM, there was a chime to remind you to shift. A red light came on, on the dash to further remind you to shift... You know, in case the chime, or the apocalyptic wailing of the engine weren't enough.
Approaching the corner, I brake hard, and the brake pads (aftermarket, as they are, the brakes were still impressive) oblige. I turn into the corner. I realize then, that I've slowed down way too much. The car had way more grip to offer for turn-in. I'm getting warmed up to the car, but the car's already ready for me. I gently accelerate out of the apex, through the full-throttle switchback chicane that forms the last corner, finding that the car's grip is way outperforming my expectations. The next lap, I note, I can carry 10 km/h through the corner without worry. I brake later into the fast-approaching turn one, and go for the heel-toe downshift. The pedals are placed perfectly and the engine revs up quickly - almost too quickly. I have to let the engine wind down a little before slotting into second gear. Dispatching the first corner sees me accelerating back into third gear. The shift is flawless. I stay in third gear, allowing the car to glide into the long sweeping corner where the remnants of the oval are still there. The steering neutrality in this corner is perfect, for a rear-wheel-drive car. It's just a slight hint of understeer which left the car predictable enough for a beginner to really drive spiritedly. The slight understeer is probably the best setup a beginning track day enthusiast could ask for.
We approach into the fairly sharp double-apex hairpin that follows the long banked corner. The nose responds beautifully to the turn-in there. The weight management of this car is impressive. Mazda's engineers did a great job of setting the car up. It is so responsive and agile that you can really carry a lot of speed through the apex, because the momentum of the car is maintained through the corner. The torque going up the hill after the corner left some to be desired; it didn't even feel like the car was able to accelerate up the slight bank. But, it did and the following left-hander is very tight. The car's poise over the curb on the inside (with fully independent suspension, front and rear, and multilink double wishbone setup) was remarkable. I had no doubts about the contact patch of the tires being maintained, despite the bumps that the car was faced with.
I built up pace until I was comfortable with the car. As I grew comfortable, I tried to get on the throttle sooner, and harder, on corner exits. Eventually, I found that I was getting close to the limit of adhesion of the rear tires. They didn't let go. I had to drive the car "stupidly" to spin the rear tires. And, only then would the traction control get involved to tell you to take it down a notch. There's barely any fuss. Smart throttle control will allow you the opportunity to steer the car with the right foot a little, but without any of the anxiety of other cars. (Like the Scion FR-S, with a review of the FR-S coming in the next few days.)
Halfway around a lap, the car rang. The car's Bluetooth was informing us about a phone call that the client had gotten. He muted his phone. That was the first time I had ever had Bluetooth involved in a track day. It wasn't to be the last, either, but the stereo system's sound quality impressed me, even with the phone ring tone. It's important to mention that this is one of the most impressively comfortable performance cars I've ever experienced. The idea of piloting a car with this much precision, on track, with a Bluetooth system hooked up, chatting on the phone with your boss, grandma or roommates is an incredible thing. This car deserved more attention and more positive reviews.
Overall? If you can afford a new RX-8 (don't get one with high-mileage, the rotary engines like to let go with higher mileage), this would be one of the most ideal track cars to learn in. It's responsive, agile, but well-mannered and sophisticated.
Problems to look out for:
What we loved:
What we'd improve:
Drew Geier is a Canadian petrolhead whose main mission is to make motoring accessible, enjoyable, and affordable well into the future, by improving the art, hobby and lifestyle of motoring. He builds cars, and he writes about other builds. He's built a Subaru WRX and is building a Honda Civic EK.