The 2011 RX-8's unique characteristics help distinguish it, but you'll have to favor finesse over brute force if you're going to appreciate this car.
You'll also have to act quickly; the 2011 model year is the RX-8's last, marking the end of the rotary engine era — one that never gained much steam.
I tested an RX-8 Grand Touring with an as-tested price of $33,055.
Rotary Engine Highs & Lows
If you relish high-revving power over low-rpm grunt, the RX-8 might be for you. Its 1.3-liter rotary engine's redline is 9,000 rpm with the six-speed manual transmission, and it makes 232 horsepower at 8,500 rpm. Both of those rpm levels are incredibly high for any production-car engine. (With the six-speed automatic, the engine makes 212 hp at 7,500 rpm, which is also the redline.) You have to be willing to let the engine rev in order to fully enjoy it; if you do, you'll be treated to a wonderful mechanical symphony as the tachometer swings unrelentingly toward that stratospheric redline.
Even when that's happening, the RX-8 doesn't offer forceful acceleration by sports car standards, though it's entirely acceptable for everyday driving. On the other hand, if you're unwilling to wind the engine out, you likely won't be pleased by the RX-8's performance, as peak torque is an underwhelming 159 pounds-feet at 5,500 rpm. One editor thought the 263-hp, turbocharged four-cylinder from the Mazdaspeed3 would make the RX-8 a more appealing car, and I concur: That engine's low-end torque — 280 pounds-feet at 3,000 rpm — would go a long way toward improving the car's overall drivability, if diminishing some of its uniqueness.
As it is, you must keep the six-speed manual in the correct gear if you hope to keep the engine in its power band. If the rpm drop too low, there's little power available. Fortunately, the short-throw stick is a joy to shift; it moves precisely from gear to gear with an easy familiarity, giving you confidence the moment you hit the road. The clutch is also forgiving and not overly grabby.
One of the problems with the rotary is it sucks gas at an alarming rate for such a small engine. At 1.3 liters, the two-rotor engine is one of the smallest available today in the U.S., but its EPA gas mileage estimate of 16/22 mpg city/highway with a manual transmission is akin to a full-size pickup truck's. It's true that sports cars aren't typically the thriftiest on gas, but both the 332-hp Nissan 370Z and the 412-hp Ford Mustang GT get better estimated mileage, with ratings of 18/26 mpg and 17/26 mpg, respectively. With tougher fuel economy rules looming, automakers are looking high and low for ways to improve gas mileage. Perhaps getting rid of the thirsty, rotary-powered RX-8 is an easy one.
Ride & Handling