Mazda introduced rotary engine vehicles in the US in 1971, beginning with the R100, followed by RX-2, RX-3, RX-4, RX-5, and finally three generations of the RX-7 sports car. However, the lack of creature comfort and user-friendliness, coupled with the high price tag and declining interest in sports cars and coupes at this time, led Mazda to pull the RX-7 from most major markets except Japan. After 1995, Mazda suffered from a relatively undistinguished product line in the US save the MX-5 Miata. As popular interest in import tuning and performance cars resurged in the late-1990s, thanks in part to various popular cultural influences such as the Sony PlayStation video game Gran Turismo, Japanese automakers waded back into the performance and sports car market in the US. In addition, Mazda endeavored to rejuvenate itself around this time, partially with financial and management assistance from Ford, and successfully developed a new product line of high quality cars with desirable styling and superior driving dynamics, beginning with the Mazda6 and followed by the Mazda3, paving way for the arrival for Mazda’s next-generation rotary sports car.
Development and design
Development of the RX-8 can be traced to as far back as the 1995 Mazda RX-01 concept car, which featured an early iteration of the 13B-MSP engine. Naturally aspirated with side exhaust ports, this engine produced 220 hp (160 kW). As prohibited by Mazda’s financial state at the time and the growing market interest in SUVs, the RX-01 never saw further development or production. However, a “skunkworks project” engineering team within Mazda kept the development of the 13B-MSP alive using MX-5 Miata chassis, eventually catching the attention of management, which at this time had come under heavy influence from Ford. Development of the 13B-MSP advanced and eventually led to the RENESIS moniker debuting along with the RX-EVOLV concept car which began to bear semblance to the production RX-8 with the “freestyle” rear suicide doors. Styling was developed via design competitions in Mazda tradition among its design studios in Japan, the US, and Europe. The project obtained official approval from management, and eventually the RX-8 concept car (design/engineering model) was produced and shown in 2001, closer resembling the production version. A near-production “reference exhibit” RX-8 was shown shortly thereafter at the 2001 Tokyo Motor Show, pending final approval for production. Production RX-8 closely resembles this vehicle save for minor trim details, and “job 1” began in February 2003 at Mazda’s Hiroshima plant in Japan.
The RX-8 was designed as a front mid-engine, rear-wheel drive four-seat four-door coupé. The car has 50:50 weight distribution, achieved by mounting the engine behind the front axle and the fuel tank ahead of the rear axle. The front wheels feature classic independent double wishbone suspension, while the rear are independent multi-link. Weight is trimmed through the use of materials such as aluminium and plastic for several body panels. The rest of the body is steel, save for the plastic front and rear bumpers. The manual gearbox model uses a carbon fiber composite driveshaft to reduce the rotational mass (moment of inertia) connected to the engine. Power is sent to the rear wheels via a Torsen limited slip differential for improved handling. Whilst not quite in the league as the last RX-7 in terms of raw performance, the RX-8 is considered its successor as Mazda’s rotary engine sports car. Its layout and clever engineering, along with typical Mazda suspension tuning, have endowed it with excellent driving dynamics which have garnered much praise and numerous awards. It has also proven popular in Japan among car enthusiasts as well as aftermarket equipment manufacturers and professional tuners.
A prominent feature of the RX-8 is a pair of rear-hinged “freestyle” doors (similar to suicide doors) in order to provide easier access to the rear seats. The RX-8 has no B-pillar between the front and rear doors, with the leading edge of the rear door acting as a “virtual pillar” to maintain structural rigidity. Because of the overlapping design, the rear doors can be opened only when the front doors are open. Although by no means expansive, the RX-8’s cabin was meticulously designed to boast enough room to house four adults, making it a genuine 4-seater rather than a 2+2.
The first version of the RX-8, chassis code SE3P, was produced from model year 2003. It is powered by the RENESIS 13B-MSP (multi side port) Wankel rotary engine displacing 1.3 litres (2×654 cc). At launch, the RENESIS was available in standard and high power versions. The 4-port standard RENESIS produced 210 hp (160 kW) and was coupled with either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission. The 6-port high power RENESIS was only available with a six-speed manual transmission and was rated at 250 hp (190 kW). For the North American market, Mazda revised the reported output rating of the standard and high power RENESIS soon after lauch to 197 hp (147 kW) and 238 hp (177 kW), respectively. With exhaust ports now located in the side housing, the RENESIS boasted improved fuel efficiency and emissions rating over the 13B-REW employed by the last RX-7, thereby making it possible to be sold in North America.
At launch, the RX-8 was available in various models in different markets around the world. Standard models include:
- 6-speed manual “High Power” with a claimed output of between 170 kW (231 PS; 228 hp) and 184 kW (250 PS; 247 hp) and a 9,000 rpm redline. This model was equivalent to the “Type S” trim in Japan.
- 5-speed manual “Standard Power” tuned to 141 kW (Template:Convert/PS 257 hp) with the redline reduced to 7,500 rpm. This powertrain combination was not available in North America.
- 4-speed automatic tuned to 141 kW (192 PS; 189 hp) in some markets, while the U.S. automatic is stated to deliver 158 kW (215 PS; 212 hp) .
- 6-speed automatic (available in the U.S. market after 2006) developing 158 kW (215 PS; 212 hp) and 159 lb·ft (216 N·m) of torque with a redline at 7,500 rpm. This was the revised standard RENESIS, now with two extra intake ports like the high power version.
In 2005, Mazda introduced the first special edition RX-8 called “Sports Prestige Limited” in North America and “Shinka” in Japan. Billed as a more luxurious grand touring model, this Shinka came with Black Cherry exterior color and Parchment leather interior along with subtly chromed 18″ wheels. Only 2150 were made in the 2005 model year. The most significant mechanical change were slightly revised Bilstein shocks and suspension cross member injected with urethane foam to improve ride quality.
Shinka returned for 2006 as a production trim package, now available in Copper Red, Galaxy Grey, and Whitewater Pearl. Only 1500 were made in 2006.
In May 2006, the Mazda released the RX-8 PZ for the UK market. This car was jointly developed with motorsports company Prodrive. Only available in six-speed manual, it featured custom 10-spoke alloy wheels supplied by Italian F1 team supplier OZ Racing in “Dark Silver” finish, mirrors developed to reduce drag, front and rear black mesh grilles, and a rear spoiler to provide more stability at higher speeds. Both the wheels and rear wing are badged in carbon fibre with “Prodrive.” Significant revisions were also made to the suspension to improve the handling: dampers from Bilstein and coil springs from Eibach are used in addition to reducing the ride height by 15 mm (0.6 in) and an increase in spring rate of 60%. Finally the car was supplied with a unique upgraded twin exhaust system, with exhaust tailpipes branded “Prodrive.” Only 800 were made at an MSRP of £25,995 ($51,990). It was available in two colours, Galaxy Grey (320) and Brilliant Black (480).
In 2007 Mazda released a UK-only limited edition known as the Kuro (Japanese for Black). While the drivetrain remains the same as standard models, it did receive a revised interior as well as minor changes to its head and tail lights. It was only available with a light grey leather interior and Sparkling Black Mica exterior paint. The car was limited to 500, with a scuff plate denoting the serial number out of 500.
2007 saw the release of a special edition to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Mazda’s rotary engine. The 40th Anniversary special editions were different in the Japan and North American markets. The Japanese version came in Crystal White as an homage to the Mazda Cosmo Sport, which was initially only available in white. The North American version came in Metropolitan Grey exterior with the interior clad in special Cosmo Red leather. It also had wheels of a new design later incorporated in the 2009 facelift, as well as an exclusive sport-tuned suspension. In North America, this special edition was available only in 2008.
True Red Style
During the 2006 model year, Mazda released a “True Red Style” special edition RX-8 in Japan. It came in exclusive True Red exterior color with black leather interior and minor trim variations.
After initial launch in 2003, Mazda released a limited run of RX-8 dubbed “Mazdaspeed Version” boasting various Mazdaspeed accessories as well as a slightly tuned ECU. This special edition was available in Strato Blue Mica or Sunlight Silver. Only 300 were produced. In 2004, Mazda followed up with a “Mazdaspeed Version II,” this time available only in Strato Blue and with slightly up-rated equipment. Only 300 were produced as before.
Following suit with the Roadster, Mazda introduced the NR-A/Party Race program for RX-8 in Japan in 2004. The NR-A kit, sold through Mazda dealers, brings the RX-8 up to spec in terms of eligibility for participation in the one-make Party Race sanctioned by the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF). The kit includes roll bar, sports radiator, oil cooler kit, tow hooks, and racing brake pads, and was only available for the Type S (high power) model.
At the 2004 North American International Auto Show, Mazda unveiled the RX-8 Hydrogen RE concept car, designed to run on either hydrogen or gasoline. In February 2006, Mazda revealed that it would start leasing a dual fuel RX-8 to commercial customers in Japan, and in March 2006 announced its first two customers, claiming the first fleet deliveries of a dual hydrogen/gasoline production car. In 2008 30 RX-8 HRE were delivered to Hynor.
For 2009, Mazda engineers improved the RX-8 body rigidity through the addition of structural reinforcements, by adding a trapezoidal strut tower bar and enhancing the local rigidity of the front suspension tower areas. Also, the rear suspension geometry has been reconfigured for better handling performance and for improved driveshaft rigidity, lowering NVH levels and improving overall performance. The 09 RX-8 is also (90 lbs) lighter than the previous RX-8 models.
In addition to being lighter, the 09 RX-8 has a different gearing ratio (on manual transmission-equipped cars) that is lowered from 4.444 to 4.777 for improved off-the-line performance. While minimal, these performance changes give the 2009 RX-8 increased acceleration and performance, as well as even greater responsiveness to the accelerator pedal. Mazda claims that the 09 RX-8 is a significantly faster car than the previous (2003 -2008) model car due to the lighter weight, lowered gearing, and improved suspension.
The 2009 RX-8 also receives design enhancements that are meant to freshen the styling and give the RX-8 a new look, without impairing the basic design theme. Refinements for the 2009 model year include a more aggressive restyled front and rear bumper as well as a new front fascia. The 09 RX-8 also comes with sporty, high-quality finish front and rear headlamps as well as larger exhaust pipes (now measuring 90 mm across). The 2009 RX-8 also offers a new five-spoke wheel design featuring a symbolic and sporty design reminiscent of the rotary engine, with different arrangements for each wheel size.
The R3 version was introduced for the 2009 year model. The R3 package adds slightly improved suspension over the base model car by adding Bilstein shock absorbers. The R3 also comes with 19-inch forged aluminum-alloy wheels (sourced by BBS, and of similar design as those on the RX-01 concept car) and high performance tires. On the exterior, the R3 has a different, lower front bumper sporting a splitter, lower side sills, and a standard rear spoiler. There is a pair of special Recaro seats up front, along with a 300-watt Bose audio system with Centerpoint surround sound and AudioPilot noise compensation technology, Bluetooth, and Mazda advanced keyless entry and start system.
Circuit Trial Edition
At the 2009 Tokyo Auto Salon, Mazda displayed the Mazdaspeed RX-8 Circuit Trial Edition, essentially a track-ready model put together using available off-the-shelf accessories from Mazdaspeed and other aftermarket manufacturers. It sported the Mazdaspeed body kit for the face-lifted RX-8, upgraded brakes and suspension, and Yokohama wheels clad in Advan AD08 tires.
Warranty extension program
Mazda North American Operations extended the engine warranty on RX-8s built between 2004 and 2008 to 8 years or 100,000 miles. The warranty extension covers the engine core which consists of the rotor housing and internal parts as well as the seals and gaskets. A copy of the extended warranty can be found at Racing Beat’s website.
Mazdaspeed, Mazda’s in-house tuning and high-performance arm, has produced various after-sale parts and accessories for the RX-8, including full body kits, suspension upgrades, engine upgrades (such as cold air intake kit and catback exhausts), and various interior accessories. In addition, Mazdaspeed has also produced several series of showroom-ready limited-production RX-8s in Japan featuring some of these parts and accessories. To date, however, there has not yet been a full Mazdaspeed-tuned RX-8 along the same line as the Mazdaspeed6 or Mazdaspeed3.
The RX-8 has been campaigned and used in various racing series by privateers. It has seen a considerable amount of success, the most prominent of which being the 2008 and 2010 24 Hours of Daytona GT-class wins campaigned by SpeedSource Race Engineering. This victory also marks the 23rd endurance race win at Daytona by Mazda rotary-powered race car. Other racing series include the KONI Challenge Series in the Street Tuner class.