Mazda RX-8. One for the full-time enthusiast

Mazda has been the one manufacturer who was able to make the Wankel rotary actually work, stay together and become a worthwhile engine. For me, the Mazda rotaries have all been brilliant, having raced a couple and had an RX 7 as a drive car for a couple of years. So I was very interested to see what our Down-under correspondent John Weinthal would make of the new RX-8. Here are the Words from Weinthal

“Mazda’s RX-8 is unique in at least a couple of fascinating details. It is the world’s only current production car powered by a rotary engine and it is the only production four door, four-seat sports coupe. It also has unique styling with none of the current fad for retro or even a nod in the direction of any other car - existing or past.

“At AUD 56,170 with six-speed manual transmission it represents great value for those who want sports coupe performance with more than adequate room for four average size adults. While auto adds AUD 830 to your RX-8 in Australia, in the US it costs about AUD 2,100 less than the manual. Figure that out!

“The manual version of the 1354 kg RX-8 develops a more than adequate 177 kW, but the auto makes do with 141 kW from the same notional 2.6 litre naturally aspirated twin rotary engine. All this adds up to a car in a class of its own.

“However, there are other performance cars which would-be buyers might well consider. The most obvious is the more powerful Nissan 350Z costing within a couple of thousand dollars, but strictly transport for two and no more. Similar performance will be yours with the more conventional but deliciously stylish four-seat, front-wheel-drive Alfa Romeo 147GTA three-door hatch. This Alfa is more than worthy of consideration for its outright performance and how it will surely reward the enthusiast driver with few compromises.

“Back to the Mazda. It proved a far from easy car to review. It has so much appeal, yet there are some basics which could prove a bit much over an extended period. First you must love the looks. It is very different and not to everybody’s taste. I am a lover, both externally and inside.

“Second, you must drive like a full-blooded enthusiast most of the time. The RX-8 does not reward the tenderfoot. Forget swanning along in top or even fifth gear all day.

“The lightweight and compact rotary engine has only five moving parts. Although it is not turbocharged, it continues the rotary tradition of having a prodigious thirst for premium petrol. Apart from denting your wallet this also means limited range.

“But the positives are many - terrific comfort and safety gear; intriguing technology backed by a three year unlimited km warranty; great handling, accelerative potential for those willing to work the six-speed manual box, delicious steering feel and brakes of formidable effect.

“The ride is sports firm, but nothing like the near harshness of the Nissan or a Subaru WRX STi. The Mazda’s ride is totally acceptable in terms of its performance and excellent grip on this earth.

“The deciding factor for some will be the unique entry to the back seats through the rear-hinged doors. No coupe is easier to climb into the rear, and it is also very handy for carrying things on the back seat. For a family with younger children, there would be no more back-breaking twisting to put toddlers into their safety seats.

“Equipment levels, particularly on the Luxury Pack model, are up with the best in the AUD 60,000 range. They include climate control air, huggingly comfortable and stylish leather seats, xenon headlamps, an excellent sound system, cruise control and the usual power seats, windows and mirrors.

“Drawbacks - for some - will be the relatively torque-free rotary engine and its great thirst. On the other hand it sits far back and low in the body. This contributes to the outstanding handling, and the rotary sounds fantastic nearing its 9300 rev limit.

“For my money, however, the rotary still delivers more as a talking point than as a must-have benefit. The RX-8 ensured a very special motoring week, but I am unsure that its large novelty appeal would endure.”

(This is obviously an area where John and I can agree to disagree. Petrol is the cheapest part of motoring as soon as you look at the costs of insurance, repairs, registration and all the other financial anti-inducements to sporting motoring. My experiences with Mazda rotaries has left me an ardent enthusiast of the engine for life. Dr. Iain.)

Personalizing your car - One man’s CRV

From the moment Henry Ford I started mass producing cars, motorists began en masse to individualize their own particular vehicle. There are many reasons for the need to mass produce - economies of scale being a major one, as well as ease of servicing and parts, but the human psyche needs to say “Hello, this is me! I’m different!”

I can remember back in 1968 buying a pale green bog standard Morris 850 and putting a two white vinyl stripes down the sides of the bonnet, ostensibly so that I could find ‘my’ pale green Mini in parking lots full of them, but the real reason was to be different and assert one’s own individuality.

Of course this need for individuality spawned a complete new industry - the after-market modifications. Some of these over the years have been of doubtful value (the plastic bug deflectors perched on the bonnets of cars in the 60’s are testimonials to this!), all the way through to downright fraud, but they exist because of our basic human need.

I was able to get my bottom in a modded CRV the other day. Honda CRV’s are fairly plentiful on the road, being perceived as good value for money, but like all of today’s offerings (especially Japanese) tend to be mind numbingly bland. The owner of this CRV has sporting aspirations, so much of the outlay on his individual CRV was directed at correcting this blandness. This included 17 inch Lenso wheels fitted with 225x45 Bridgestone Potenza RE 77’s, lowering the car by 1.5 inches and fitting Koni shocks all round.

Power and performance options are another very popular way to go in the after-market stakes and this CRV was fitted with a low resistance K&N Ram Air filter and then the electronics were reprogrammed with a Unichip.

Back to the visuals, and front and rear bumpers were added and a custom grille. There is also under-car blue neon lighting (see the movie Too Fast, Too Furious I was told).

Since we do spend much more time in our cars than we would expect going from A to B through the traffic jams, the CRV also has a 6-stack DVD player and 7 inch TV monitor, piping sound through a Sony Explode amp connected to a 7 speaker system including a 10 inch sub-woofer. This makes this CRV something akin to the Muangthong Thani concert arena on wheels!

I went for a short run, and undoubtedly the sound system is better than you get in the local movie theatres. This is not just surround sound, it goes through you as well if you turn up the noise maker.

However, for me I was more interested in the performance, road-holding modifications. Going to low profile rubber often makes the ride too harsh, but this was not the case with this CRV. The wider track wheels and lowering gave the car a very sure-footed feel, while the re-chipping did give more available oomph from the small 4 cylinder engine, one that is not known for excess horsepower.

All in all, I believe that the owner has improved upon the base product (at a price of course); however, the TV screen in the central dash would not be one of my modifications or extras. I consider it to be more of a safety hazard, drawing your eyes away from the road. Certainly it could be said that it would only be used when the vehicle is stopped, but in that case I’d rather watch a larger screen somewhere else.

Jeep going soft?

The Chrysler group plans to expand the Jeep line with SUVs that move away from Jeep’s historic roots and won’t be serious off-road vehicles. “We have to extend our lineup and offer Jeeps that will be used 99 percent of the time on-road,” COO Wolfgang Bernhard said last week at a press event in Texas.

This decision comes at a time when the Chrysler group is spending heavily to position Jeep as the “real 4x4” in the world marketplace. Chrysler needs to re-energize Jeep because the brand has slipped badly in recent years. Jeep once held 19 percent of the U.S. SUV market in 1999 but only 11.2 percent in 2002.

To help bolster sales, the Chrysler group is preparing to expand the Jeep line-up to at least six vehicles within the next three years. Scheduled to join the Jeep line are the Scrambler, a pickup derivative of the Wrangler due next summer; and a premium four-door SUV based on the next-generation Grand Cherokee platform.

Autotrivia Quiz

Last week I asked which cars changed nationalities after WWI? The answers were Bugatti and Mathis changed from being German to French when Alsace and Lorraine ‘came home’ to France and Tatra, Praga and Laurin-Klement (later Skoda) went to the new state of Czechoslovakia.

So to this week, and look at the photograph. This car returned 63 mpg in the old money (22 km/litre), a plastic body and a drag coefficient of 0.25. It was built in 1982. What was it?

For the Automania FREE beer this week, be the first correct answer to email [email protected]

Good luck!