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Click to view picture gallery“The striking-looking
  RX-8 seems to offer
  it all: a fully-fledged
  sports car with four
  seats and four doors.
  But can Mazda’s
  ingenious coupe
  satisfy on both fronts
  without compromise?”

BUY ONE of Mazda's RX-8s and you'll have the advantage of owning something quite unique. There isn't another sports coupe quite like it.
For a start, it
's got four doors
— one for each seat. More individualistically, the rear two are reverse-opening — so-called suicide doors — with no external handles. Then there
's the twin-rotary Wankel engine that is as notable for what it hasn't got as for what it does: no cylinders, no pistons, no valves. Just two 654cc rotor units. In fact, there are only three main moving parts compared to a minimum of 40 in a piston engine, so revs can increase rapidly with virtually no vibration.

Okay, just 1.3 litres, but it's not a problem. Because when it comes to cubic capacity, one can't compare rotary to conventional engines
like-for-like. All you need to know is that the compact Renesis rotary engine nestling below the Mazda RX-8's low bonnet is a supremely creamy powerplant — and one any red-blooded driver won't be able to resist revving to its sky-high 9,000rpm — yes, 9,000! — red-line.

Two things should be made clear right away. For starters, the dramatic rear-hinged back doors and the fact that there's no B-pillar actually make it easier to enter and exit the rear passenger compartment. And they're perfectly safe, too: they cannot be opened unless the front doors are already open. Madza has engineered the pillar-less body to be at least as safe in a side impact as a similar-sized four-door saloon.

Secondly, it's also smoother than Jonathan Ross and goes about its business with an overwhelming mechanical refinement that makes you question the need for colossal amounts of torque when you can have an engine under the bonnet that feels as if its DNA was donated by a superbike.

While the RX-8 puts out a meaty 227bhp, torque — 156lb ft at 5,500rpm — is, like the engine capacity, far lower than you were probably expecting. Again, don't be deceived by size: it's sufficient to get you from standstill to 62mph in 6.4 seconds and on to 146mph.

The other essential thing the RX-8 has going for it are its looks. The curvaceous body is still as intriguing to look at as it was when it was launched three years ago. Significant others agree and for three years running (2004, 2005 and 2006) the RX-8 has been voted Best Coupe by What Car?, it was Top Gear's Best Coupe in 2004 and Auto Express' Best Coupe of 2005. There's no shortage of muscle and sinew on
show, thanks in no small part to the extravagant and aggressively pronounced wheel arches, slant-eyed headlamps and 'snouty' business end. From the front it exudes 'pedal to the metal' intent.

As an RX-8 owner (or passenger) you don't have to wave goodbye to comfort as is often the case with sexy-looking coupes — especially in the back. The driver and front passenger enjoy well-shaped low-slung bucket seats with integral headrests. The soft leather upholstery, along with the electrically-adjustable driver's seat, front heated seats and SatNav come in an optional factory-fitted pack that costs 3,100. The standard-fit three-spoke, leather-clad steering wheel also feels good to the touch, and it comes with multi-function controls. For the record, neither do you pay any extra for the standard powered front windows (driver's one-shot up/down), power-operated and heated door mirrors, 18-inch alloys, self-levelling Xenon headlights or for the dual-stage front airbags, front side airbags and front and rear curtain airbags.

A perennial problem with sports cars is that they only work for families as second cars. You have to admire Mazda's lateral thinking — Okay, then let's build a four-door sports car. Which is what they've done. The pair of rear doors may look narrow from the outside but, thanks to the lack of a restricting roof-to-sill B-pillar, there's space aplenty when getting in and out or when installing the kids or shopping or fitting child seats for the smaller ones. There are Isofix anchorages on the rear seats. The back seats are snug, and some adults may find the smallish windows/high sides combination a tad claustrophobic. Rear door windows can be opened, but only horizontally at their rear edge just like those in the back of a MINI.

On the plus side rear passenger room, including headroom, is acceptably generous — there's just about enough room to seat four average-sized adults with two riding in the back comfortably, with a couple of inches to spare between their knees and the front seat-backs. Five into RX-8 will not go because you only get four cosy, individual chairs. Welcome news, because it avoids arguments over squeezing in just one more passenger. In the same way, no-compromise two-seater sports cars are so perfect when you want
to say: "I'll take you — but don't bring a friend!"

Front seat passengers are well catered for and while the steering wheel only tilt adjusts, there's enough powered multi-directional adjustment in the well-bolstered seat to ensure any driver can achieve a good driving position. Visibility from the driver's seat is excellent
both to the front and sides and, thanks to the wide wrap-around rear screen, good to the rear, too.

The RX-8 cabin also boasts a style of its own, with aluminium detailing that includes drilled alloy pedals and three deeply-cowled dials. The tachometer naturally takes centre stage, and there is a dramatic piano-black centre console incorporating a custom-tuned premium Bose audio system along with easy-to-use rotary controls for the climate control air conditioning. The hi-fi features nine surround sound speakers and an in-dash 6xCD autochanger. There's no conventional speedometer but instead, neatly inset in the analogue rev-counter,
is a crystal-clear, digital speedometer. And it works brilliantly. The optional SatNav's screen power flips up when required and the angle can be adjusted to minimise reflections. Quality touches include a drop-down glasses case that is nicely lined with rubberised foam, dam-ped grab handles, neat puddle lights in the bases of the door mirrors and 360-degree swivelling fascia air vents.

There's a good number of handy storage spaces scattered around the cabin, including two lidded storage trays in the central transmission tunnel that runs uninterrupted the full length of the cosy cabin. The rear lid lifts up to reveal the CD autochanger. Behind the large, upright storage box separating the two rear seatbacks there's a convenient ski-hatch. The boot provides a useful 290 litres of storage space — helped by the fact that there's no spare, just an emergency tyre repair kit — and it's big enough for two golf bags or weekend cases. Take a long drive for your weekend break and you'll see as much as 32.5mpg — 70mph in 6th gear calls for 3,500rpm, which adds to the effortless cruising nature of the RX-8, which is quiet and stable at speed. Around town consumption can drop to 18.1mpg, with the official combined figure coming in at 25.2mpg. Overall, we managed 24.7mpg.

Mazda's engineers have done everything they could to ensure the RX-8's handling matches its performance-orientated looks. They've mount-ed the compact engine low down and further back, close to the centre of the car in a front-midship position and they've placed the powertrain and fuel tank near the car's centre point within the wheelbase for a near-perfect 50:50 weight distribution. Power is sent to the rear wheels through a six-speed manual 'box. There's even a limited-slip differential for maximum traction. Factor in the double wishbone front suspension and multi-link rear set-up, compact dimensions, good aerodynamics and low weight (1,390kgs) and you have a tried-and-tested recipe for sports car handling.

And out on the road you'll discover that that is precisely what you
get: the RX-8 might have four seats and four doors but it drives
and behaves like a responsive, precise-handling sports car. You
even get a reasonably supple ride, although not at the expense of communication.

If you plan to match the RX-8's official 0-62mph time of 6.4 seconds, you'll need to modify your driving style. Remember that 156lb ft of torque we mentioned earlier? Well, this is why you need to re-evaluate your technique. Because if you're really pressing on, you'll need to make full use of the cogs and the rotary engine's eagerness to rev like a mad thing all the way round to the red-line. You need to make full use of those revs, particularly when pulling away and through the gears — it starts to come alive after 4,000rpm but it is at its happiest playing in the 5-7,000rpm band.

This doesn't mean that you can't have fun on the back roads driving at five-tenths. Fortunately, the engine spins so smoothly there's never any sense that you're thrashing it, so it's no hardship to work the twin rotaries. The other point in its favour is the stubby gearlever's slick 'n' quick' shift action that makes the act of swapping ratios a pleasure.

Despite its trackday looks and wheel-at-each-corner stance, the RX-8 doesn't deliver the rock-hard, kart-like, dead-flat cornering you might be expecting. It's cleverer than that. The chassis is clearly set-up to deliver lithe handling and to respond accurately to driver input. And although there is some body roll, it is well controlled. The electrically-assisted steering is nicely weighted, with sharp and accurate turn-in, and returns enough feel to inspire full confidence in the tightest corners and sweeping bends. Grip, aided by 18-inch 225/45 Potenza rubber, is excellent.

In the real world, the RX-8 proves to be both an agile and a decept-ively quick machine. And the stability/traction control systems keep things well in check without diminishing your driving pleasure. The brakes — ventilated discs all round — are potent stoppers, with good pedal feed-back. The Dynamic Stability Control, Traction Control, ABS and Elect-ronic Brake-force Distribution are all standard fitment.

No doubts, then, that the sharp-handling, keen-to-please RX-8 really deserves its sports car tag. That it will be bought and enjoyed by as many enthusiasts as boulevardiers doesn't actually damage its street-cred one jot. Add to that the RX-8's genuinely usable four-door practicality, its comprehensive standard equipment, value-for-money price and its undeniable presence. And there you have it — a fistful of reasons why you should buy one. Especially if it's going to be the only serious player in a one-car household!

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Mazda RX-8 231PS
| 22,900
Maximum speed: 146mph | 0-62mph: 6.4 seconds
Overall test MPG: 24.7mpg | Power: 227bhp | Torque: 156lb ft

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