Long ago, Mazda hung the name "Great Little Car" on a subcompact that really wasn't so great at all. For the 2004 model year, Mazda has a car that deserves the appellation, but it's called the RX-8.
It's better in some ways than its predecessor, the RX-7 and a whole lot better in many ways than Mazda's other candidate for the Great Little Car title, the MX-5 Miata.
Just as long as you don't have to drive it on snow or ice, as I was forced to do.
And as long as you can get used to a car with no speedometer - just a little digital readout.
Where the speedometer would normally be, directly in front of the driver, is the most important gauge for the kind of driving the RX-8 is best at: a large analog tachometer, registering the heartbeat of the rotary engine that makes the RX-8 unique.
Buyers get a choice of six-speed stick or four-speed automatic with manual shift capability, but the latter comes with a less-powerful, 197 hp. version of the engine than the 238 hp. version in stick shift models like my tester.
The six-speed offers short throws and a crisp feel, though sometimes balks at entering reverse, requiring a determined push downward on the stick.
Automatic versions are cheaper, listing for $25,700 with freight, while the stick model lists for $27,200 with freight. The stick shift models come with larger brakes and wheels and a firmer "sport" suspension, as well as the added horsepower.
The rotary, newly designed for the RX-8, gives a good accounting of itself, delivering 0 to 60 mph acceleration in 5.9 seconds (says Road and Track magazine) in stick shift versions, but its horsepower and torque pale in comparison to the Nissan Z's piston engine. The Z's engine is rated at 287 hp. and 274 pounds-feet of torque, the latter vs. 159 pounds-feet in stick shift RX-8s and 164 pounds-feet in automatic versions.
The Mazda's horsepower bests that of another competitor, Chrysler's 215 hp. Crossfire, but the Chrysler trounces it in torque, with 229 foot-pounds. Another sport coupe contender to consider in this price range is Acura's RSX, particularly the 200 hp. Type S.
On sale since July, the RX-8 differs from its predecessor most obviously in having two extra doors - little ones that are rear hinged, as on the Saturn Coupe and many pickup trucks, and can only be opened if the front doors are open. Their handles are hidden in the jambs so that, at first glance at least, the RX looks like a two-door.
Purists may scoff and say no true sports car can have four doors or a rear seat. But what good is a car like the Miata that you have to leave home half the time because it won't carry anything? Or even the Z, a two-seater with a structural bar that eats up half the cargo space? The RX gives up nothing that I can detect in sports car looks and handling. While the rear seat is not suitable for normal-sized adults, it's there if you need it and, in any case, the space is available for stuff. There's a pass-through from the trunk for long items, although the rear seatbacks, unfortunately, do not fold down.
The difficulties with winter weather stemmed mostly from the standard high performance summer tires, Bridgestone Potenzas on the tester, which might as well have been bald for all the traction they provided on packed snow and ice.
While new tires won't overcome the inherent weakness of rear drive in wet weather or increase the slim ground clearance, winter shoes should give you a fighting chance when combined with the available traction control and limited slip differential and 50-50 front to rear weight distribution, should you plan to drive your RX-8 through the winter.
Four major option packages are available, "Appearance," "Touring," "Grand Touring" and "Sport," which add things such as leather seat trim, an eight-way power driver's seat, Xenon headlamps, fog lamps, stability control and a moon roof.
Individual options include a navigation system, for $2,000, and a spare tire. Yep, a spare is optional; to save trunk space, Mazda equips the car only with a tire repair kit that includes a pump and a can of sealant. A tire pressure monitoring system is standard.
While cozy, the cockpit is pretty well laid out, with a few controls unconventionally located - the radio volume control knob in the middle, for example, instead of the left side of the array - but most are easy to locate and operate. Cruise control switches are on the steering wheel, where key stereo controls are duplicated. A center console runs the length of the cabin, with dual cupholders and covered storage for front and rear seaters. A decent-sized glove box and pockets in the doors provide more storage space. The trunk is reasonably deep and offers respectable luggage space for a sport coupe.
There is no second support pillar between the front and rear doors so that opening both creates a wide entryway for people or things.
Although there is no voltage gauge, there is one for oil pressure, as well as fuel level and coolant temperature. The soft blue instrument backlighting is a bit dim at night, even at the brightest nighttime setting but, otherwise, the gauges are easy to read.
Power windows and locks and air conditioning are standard.
Tight, highly responsive steering that is electrically rather than hydraulically assisted, strong brakes and good visibility from the driver's seat make this little car a joy to drive.
And it feels safe, unlike the Miata, whose minuscule dimensions - more than 18 inches shorter and 500 pounds lighter than an RX-8 - give one the uneasy feeling of driving a childhood pedal car on an expressway filled with sport utility vehicles.
Even the sport suspension isn't unduly harsh, so that long trips in the RX-8 should be as enjoyable as short ones.
Cruising range isn't the RX-8's strong suit; the fuel tank holds only 16 gallons and fuel economy is no better than 25 mpg - on the highway, according to the EPA, though Mazda says this is the most fuel efficient rotary engine ever in a mass production car. The city rating is 18 mpg.
Rotaries are generally smoother running, lighter and more compact than comparably-performing piston engines but always have tended to be thirstier, which is why Mazda scrapped most of theirs in the 1970s and substituted piston engines in cars like the GLC.
Safety equipment besides standard antilock braking and the tire pressuring monitoring system includes curtain-type air bags and thorax side air bags. The federal government doesn't yet have a crash test rating for the RX-8, nor does the private Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Quality also is an unknown for this new model. Mazdas scored respectably - just below average - in the latest J.D. Power & Associates dependability survey, but significantly below average in another of the firm's surveys that measuring overall customer satisfaction in the first three months of ownership. Obviously, given lag times, neither of those surveys included RX-8 owners.
Those concerns aside, the new RX is an appealing package. When the rotary-powered 255 hp. RX-7 left the U.S. market at the end of the 1995 model year, it cost about $42,000.
The new RX might disappoint some purists, but it seems likely to win over many more potential buyers for whom practical considerations preclude the purchase of a two-seater.
And that was the idea; Mazda, which is about a third owned by Ford, is trying to increase its minuscule share of the U.S. market.
Combine the RX-8's practicalities with a reasonable price and this is a sports car that more people can afford, as well as live with daily.
2004 Mazda RX-8
Engine: 1.3-liter twin-rotary, 238 hp.
Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive.
Safety: Dual front, side and curtain-type air bags; four-wheel disc brakes with antilock, stability control and electronic brake force distribution.
Place of Assembly: Hiroshima, Japan.
Weight: 3,029 pounds
Trunk: 7.6 cubic feet.
EPA Mileage Rating: 18 mpg city, 24 highway.
Price as Driven: $31,239 including destination charge