On this day 11-January fifteen years ago, the Mazda RX-8 Concept was shown to the world’s press at the 2001 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) at Detroit’s Cobo Centre.
It was also the first time that the RX-8 nameplate was announced to the world. Mazda had deliberately chose to create a new ‘RX-8’ name rather than calling it an ‘RX-7’ to avoid muddling the two-door rotary engine-powered sports car’s heritage with the four-door RX-8.
“The RX-8 is new generation four door sports car and is totally different from the RX-7. To create a new genre of sports car, we named it "RX-8," said Phil Martens, Mazda’s then Managing Director in charge of Product Strategy.
The RX-8 Concept was itself a further development of the 1999 Tokyo Motor Show’s RX-EVOLV Concept (below).
At that time, Mazda was headed by Mark Fields, who have since moved on to become the CEO of Ford Motor Company today.
Presenting the RX-8 Concept, Fields hinted that there was a high possibility for the RX-8 Concept to be turned into a production car.
"I wouldn't be surprised if you see this car - or something very close -- on some of the world's most scenic, most fun-to-drive highways in the not-so-distant future," said Fields.
Indeed, the production RX-8 went on sale in Japan on April 2003, retaining many of the design elements shown in the concept car.
The RX-8 is the third car – after the Atenza (Mazda 6) and Demio (Mazda 2) - to be produced under Mazda’s Millennium Plan – a mid-term plan established in year 2000 to turn around the then ailing carmaker.
“Central to the creation of the Millennium Plan was an inward look at the soul of Mazda. We asked the most obvious question: What is Mazda's role in the automotive world? In answering, it became clear to us that Mazda's future could be seen in its past. Stylish, insightful, spirited automobiles; that is our history, and that will be our future,” said Fields.
The Millennium Plan was also where Mazda’s ‘Zoom-Zoom’ tagline originated from.
Describing the Zoom-Zoom tagline, Fields said “Our product philosophy – a central theme of the Millennium Plan – gives form to Mazda’s DNA and is based on three attributes: distinctive design, exceptional functionality and responsive performance and handling. This philosophy is summed up in two words: Zoom-Zoom. But it's more than words. It's a deep understanding that Mazda is unique in the industry. We cannot be all things to all people. And we will not try. Mazda can, and will, meet the desires of like-minded customers who believe cars are more than a means of traveling from A to B; customers who have never lost the thrill of motion.”
The chief engineer responsible for the production RX-8 was Noboru Katabuchi, Program Manager for the RX-8, who said:
“We intended to give the world a kind of sports car that had never been seen before – a four-door, four-seater with a centre-opening Freestyle door system–and I had to grapple with all kinds of views and opinions as to the definition of a “sports car”
Apart from its rear-hinged ‘Freestyle’ rear doors, the other highlight of the RX-8 is its ‘Renesis’ rotary engine. Renesis is short for ‘the rotary engine’s Genesis.’
Although sharing a similar 1.3-litre displacement (two rotors displacing 0.654-litres each) as the RX-7, the naturally aspirated RX-8’s Renesis engine was a lot more compact than the turbocharged RX-7’s 13B-REW unit. Not having to accommodate additional components for turbocharging was primarily responsible for the more compact packaging.
The compact layout allowed Mazda engineers to move the engine further rearwards, closer to the car’s centre of gravity, giving the RX-8 a perfect 50:50 front-rear weight balance. What is more impressive is that the weight balance will remain largely the same even when loaded with up to four occupants in the vehicle, varying between 52:48 to 48:52.
The engine was available in two different state of tune – High Power and Standard Power – 250 PS for the former and 210 PS for the latter.
The difference in power output was mainly due to a variable fresh air duct (FAD) that’s fitted on the High Power version. Mazda explained, “The High Power specification engine incorporates a variable fresh air duct in addition to a large, low resistance air cleaner. At around 7,250 rpm, a shutter valve opens to shorten the intake manifold upstream of the air cleaner. The shutter valve works in tandem with the variable intake valve to boost torque and power at high engine speeds. The fresh air duct is partially inserted into the air cleaner and enables an optimal length intake system by valve opening/closing.”
The High Power engine also has one more additional (total is 3) intake port for each rotor chamber – primary, secondary and auxiliary. In total, the High Power engine has six intake ports versus the Standard Power engine’s four.
But before you conclude that the Standard Power version is the model to avoid, note that the Standard Power version is actually more relaxed to drive. A quick look at the torque curve shows that the Standard Power version actually produces more torque, at a lower rpm, even though maximum power output is less than the High Power version.
In Japan, the Standard Power model is only available with a 4-speed ActiveMatic automatic transmission with paddle shifters while High Power models are available with either a 5-speed manual or a six-speed close ratio manual transmission.
Power is transferred to the rear wheels via a noise-reducing, one-piece propeller shaft that’s made from steel, carbon fibre and high-strength plastic (manual transmission models only). Automatic transmission models of the RX-8 uses regular steel propeller shaft.
High Power RX-8 variants also come standard with torque-sensing LSD.
Inside, the RX-8’s cabin is populated by several rotary-shaped design details – rotor-shaped gear shift lever and bezels on the front seats head rests. It’s strictly a four-seater, with a centre console running the entire length of the cabin.
The RX-8 was given a facelift in March 2008, and a new Type-RS variant was added to the range.
The facelifted model can be identified by its larger air intakes in the front bumper, side marker lamps integrated with the headlight units, side air vents integrated with the turn indicators, and rear combination lights that contain LED lamps.
Inside, the tachometer was updated with a new design that had silver markings and white illumination and the redline changes depending on engine temperature. The seats were a new design, and depending on variants, was trimmed in either densely woven black fabric or perforated leather.
Under the bonnet were new water and oil pumps, revised gear ratios in the six-speed manual transmission, while the front and rear suspension were also revised to take advantage of the more rigid body.
Production ran from April 2003 until June 2012. The last 2,000 units of RX-8 were sold as the RX-8 Spirit R which had bespoke aero parts and Bilstein dampers as well as Recaro bucket seats and 19-inch bronze-painted forged aluminum wheels. Spirit-R models were only available with three colour options - Aluminum Metallic, Sparkling Black Mica, and Crystal White Pearl Mica.
While scouring through the listings on Carlist.my, we came across this particular listing for a very rare Mazda RX-8 Spirit-R – which the dealer is willing to arrange for a special order from Japan, for a cool sum of RM183,000.
There are also many more regular variants of the RX-8 which can be had for less than the price of a brand new Toyota Vios. At the moment, there are over 140 RX-8s listed on Carlist.my.
Come 2017, Mazda is expected to reach a new milestone for its RX model range. Previewed at last year’s Tokyo Motor Show, the Mazda RX-Vision Concept previews Mazda’s return to rotary engine-powered sports cars. The yet to be named production version of the Mazda RX-Vision Concept is likely to herald the continuation of the RX-7’s lineage rather than the RX-8's.