Rotary engines offer pros and cons for enthusiasts
by: Marty Bontempo Just so you don't miss it, Mazda has branded a limited number of 2011 RX-8 sports cars with a decal package honoring the company's racing heritage.

After seven years in production, Mazda recently announced that 2011 will be the last year for its RX-8 sports car.

In many respects, it's surprising the RX-8 lasted as long as it did. It has always been a throwback to an earlier age when sports cars were small, cramped, noisy and underpowered. Owners established their credentials by driving them fast and smoothly, despite these limitations.

Most sports cars like that were either gone or grown up when Mazda released the RX-8 in 2004. British-made Austin's, MG's and Triumph's had vanished. Italian-made Alfa's and Fiat's were no longer sold in America. The Chevy Corvette had matured and the original Datsun 240z had been replaced with the much roomier and more sophisticated Nissan 350z. Porsche had long since dropped the Volkswagen-made 914.

In contrast, the RX-8 was and remains quirky. For starters, it is the only car in America still powered by the rotary engine that Mazda first introduced in the 1970s. Using a pair of wedge-shaped rotors that spin instead of pistons that pump up and down, it spools up to a ridiculously high 9,000 rpm with ease. But it only offers 152 foot-pounds of torque, meaning drivers must keep winding up to go fast - and the exhaust tone is an exhilarating but very loud buzz that police can hear from blocks away.

On top of that, the exterior styling is shown its age, featuring bulging fenders and a bulbous nose instead of the crisp or aerodynamic lines in vogue today. The RX-8 only comes as a hardtop, with headroom so limited that even short drivers have to lean their seats back. And it features two small rear suicide doors for accessing the two back seats, even though are so confining that even small children will refuse to sit in them.

On the other hand, the 1.3-liter rotary engine is light and mounted so far back that the weight distribution in the RX-8 is nearly an ideal 50/50. The steering is precise, the brakes are excellent and the six-speed manual transmission in our test car shifted smoothly. The interior is also well-laid out, with quality materials and controls that fall logically to hand.

All of this means that drivers willing to embrace the RX-8 can learn to drive it fast and smoothly. The secret is to exploit the engine's respectable 232 horsepower by keeping the revs high and throwing it into corners. Driven that way, the RX-8 is great fun, with the loud exhaust note adding to the enjoyment instead of being a distraction. When driven this way down traffic-free roads, the RX-8 is as enjoyable as any sports car in the past - including those that were not too hard to live with.

Just in case you want to make sure no one misses your 2011 RX-8, Mazda covered a limited number (including ours) with a decal package intended to honor the company's racing heritage. It includes red-and-grey stripes, a logo from the Mazda-sponsored Leguna Seca raceway in California, and a dash-mounted decal commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the company's 24-hour of Le Mans victory in a rotary-powered prototype - the only Asian carmaker to ever win with the historic annual race.

Mazda originally offered the rotary engine in America in a variety of mass-produced coupes, sedans and even a truck. The reason the company switched to conventional piston-powered engines becomes apparent very quickly - although it is small, the rotary engine gets terrible mileage. The EPA rates it just 18 mpg, worse than many V8s these days.

Mazda has not announced any plans for a successor to the RX-8, which is a shame. It is the direct descendant of the RX-7, one of the cleanest sports car designs of all time. First introduced in 1979, it reflected the timeless simplicity of the original 240 Z. Unlike most of its competitors, the RX-7 kept its original charm while growing slightly larger through several redesigns. Not offering at least one rotary-powered sports car would be the end of an era.

Fortunately, for those who still want a classic sports car, Mazda still makes the Miata, now known as the MX-5 Miata. Modeled after the smallest of the 1960s sports cars and powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, it is as basic and simple as they come. The only concessions to the modern age are an optional automatic transmission and retractable hard top model. It is also priced far less than the RX-8, making it a better option for many enthusiasts.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model: 2011 RX-8.

• Manufacturer: Mazda.

• Class: Sports car.

• Layout: Front engine, rear-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four-door coupe-styled fastback.

• Engines: 1.3-liter Renesis rotary engine (212 hp, 152 ft-lbs); 1.3-liter Renesis rotary engine (232 hp, 152 ft-lbs) - as tested).

• Transmission: Six speed automatic with manual shift mode and steering wheel-mounted shifters; six-speed manual - as tested.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 16/22 (as tested).

• Prices: Starting around $27,000 ($35,055 as tested).

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