The RX-8 was introduced for the 2004 model year, after its predecessor, the RX-7 had been absent from the U.S. market for most of a decade. While the RX-7 in its later years had become a heavier—more bloated, some might say—grand tourer, laden with tech features, the RX-8 took the light, nimble feel of the Miata and was, from the start, more affordable. The RX-8 design was absolutely like no other, and blended form and function in better fashion than most other sports cars of its time; the two rear-hinged suicide-style doors allow improved access to the two back seats, though they're still quite tight, and the trunk is just large enough for weekend trips.
In front—which is where you want to be—you sit low to the road, though slightly more upright than other sports coupes, with a small-diameter steering wheel and close cockpit-style gauges. The 232-horsepower, 1.3-liter twin-rotary engine doesn't make much torque, and to access the bulk of it you have to keep the engine revving. Thank goodness, it's extremely rev-happy and satisfying to exercise to its upper ranges. Peak power is made at 9,000 rpm, and the engine gets a motorcycle-like wail it's up there. The six-speed manual gearbox is the only way to go, as automatic models get a reduced redline and lower power ratings. Steering has a quick ratio and managed a good feel of the road.
In 2009, the RX-8 received some structural improvements, as well as a reconfigured suspension geometry, which resulted in even more confident handling while reducing interior noise and vibration. With these newer models especially, the RX-8 is actually a lot more civil than you'd expect. It rides reasonably well and provided you have the engine in one of its relaxed upper gears both engine and road noise are quite muted. It's also not twitchy in the way that you might think a light, low, rather short sports car to be. Most notably, Mazda bolstered the rotary engine with some significant seal and gasket improvements that should extend engine life and reduce oil consumption—always a rotary weakness.
Also for 2009, Mazda rolled out a top-of-the-line R3 package, which includes a sport-tuned suspension, Bilstein shocks, and high-performance tires on 19-inch smoky forged-alloy wheels, plus foam-filled front-suspension crossmembers. Wheels were also upsized. Most RX-8 models include electronic stability control, but even for some recent model years, it was not included on the base Sport. Grand Touring models fit those who want all the interior comforts, such as automatic climate control, upgraded audio, Bluetooth, and keyless start, plus HID headlamps and rain-sensing wipers.
One of the most significant drawbacks of the RX-8 is its thirst for premium. Its EPA city rating is just 16 mpg, but if you drive the RX-8 in a spirited way you're likely to see significantly lower.
The RX-8 is expected to be discontinued after the 2012 model year, with no direct replacement in sight.