A Nice Winter Ride With the Proper Footing

2008 Mazda RX8 Grand Touring
2008 Mazda RX8 Grand Touring (Courtesy of Mazda)
By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 27, 2008

Little things are important. Consider the matter of tires and this week's subject car, the 2008 Mazda RX-8 sports coupe that really isn't a coupe, because it actually has four doors and seats for four people.

I and my associate, Ria Manglapus, didn't want it. Allow us to explain:

The car came in January. That's winter. That means the possibility of snow and ice. We don't like driving sports cars in such weather. Too many of them come with tires whose tread is so close to the rims that you can barely tell where one ends and the other begins.

Those vertically thin, wide-track tires are great for running around dry, smooth racetracks. They are wonderful for high-speed driving on dry, well-maintained expressways that are relatively free of traffic. They are lousy for winter driving.

If you want proof, just wait for the next mid-Atlantic snowstorm. Then, climb into an all-wheel-drive vehicle equipped with proper winter tires and carefully motor along winter-bound roads counting the high-end, high-performance sports cars stuck in the snow or sidelined by ice.

Owners of those cars spent big bucks for horsepower, luxury and image. But they gave scant attention to those four little black things that connect all that pomp and circumstance to the road -- the tires. So, they wound up inconvenienced and looking silly, calling a General Motors, Ford, Dodge or Toyota tow truck to haul their high-performance hardware to safety.

Ria and I didn't want that embarrassment. But we were put at ease by a decision Mazda made before shipping the RX-8. The company equipped the car with Bridgestone Blizzak Performance tires, specifically Blizzak LM-25 winter rubber, 18-inch diameter.

Caveat: You can still slip, slide on ice, crash, be injured, die or get stuck in snow with Blizzak tires. Technology is no substitute for common sense. But you are substantially less likely to wind up upended in winter driving with Blizzaks or similar winter tires from Goodyear, Michelin or Pirelli.

Those tires employ special rubber compounds and tread designs to improve winter traction for cars that usually do their best work on dry roads. They are not "all-season radials," per se.

Here, we would like to urge all tire marketers to stop misleading consumers by labeling tires "all season." In truth, there is no such thing. Anyone doubting that should try driving "all season" tires through ice and snow one day and running the same route under the same conditions with proper winter tires the next.

Blizzaks and similar tires, of course, tend to cost more than regular "all season" rubber. But, strangely to us, they can cost less than high-performance tires meant for dry roads. Consumers should shop around to get the best price. It's worth it, as we discovered with the Blizzak LM-25 tires on the RX-8.

The weather turned nasty the day the rear-wheel-drive coupe-that-isn't-a-coupe arrived. Snow, or a reasonable mid-Atlantic facsimile, fell. Temperatures dropped. At night, the stuff that appeared to be snow turned to ice.

Through it all, the little RX-8 drove nicely, never once slipping or otherwise losing its grip on the road. Neither Ria nor I tried pushing the RX-8 too hard. Blizzak tires or no Blizzaks, we both have families and we rather like returning to them alive and well after work.

We did have some good weather that allowed us to drive the RX-8 more briskly. The 1.3-liter, 232-horsepower, rotary engine car -- this one marking the 40th anniversary of Mazda's high-horsepower, low-torque, still-thirsty tiny engine -- tends to whine at high speeds. But the car is quick and nimble. We both called it "fun to drive."

But, as attested to by Ria's teenage and subteen sons, Bori and Q, it's no fun to ride in the RX-8's back seats -- accessible by two small rear doors -- for longer than a few miles. Both boys complained mightily about being cramped and cooped up. They were unimpressed by Mazda's "sports car for four" marketing; and they were not all that taken with the notion that the car was equipped with great winter tires.

The boys' collective assessment was straight to the point: The RX-8 might be a fun car for drivers. But it's lousy for families. And for a small car, jeez, Mom, it surely burns a lot of gasoline.

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