So, it’s 108 degrees outside and I’m right out in it, sweat pouring off me like I’m Spongebob Squarepants, polishing the paint on my car. My wife thinks I’m nuts. My neighbors have given up hope. They profess adoration, but none of them have, or will ever desire anything like my project vehicle. So, what does a freelance automotive photo-journalist and enthusiast drive? What is reasonably fast, handles fantastic, and can also carry a four-person family around with relative ease? Why, the Mazda RX-8, of course!
I’ve always wanted a rotary. That the no-piston concept confounds everyone who asks is a plus in my book. It’s the ultimate counter-culture car. I couldn’t afford one of the FD3S models in the 90’s, and still can’t today at theses prices. I doubt I could get my pregnant wife to climb into one anyway and good luck getting an infant into the back seat! What are rear doors doing on a sports car? When the RX-8 debuted, it took a few glances before my eyes adjusted. Say what you will about Mazda’s stylists; they don’t do “bland”. I gradually came to love it. Where some folks saw only angular edges and swoopy fenders, I saw unadulterated potential.
In stock form, it’s not perfect. There’s the roly-poly suspension, the hard, high-mileage “sport” tires, the nice-looking but heavy wheels, and the “smiley face” fascia. The awesome-stopping iron front calipers and 12.9” rotors could double as boat anchors. Mazda worked hard to optimize balance, only to load the car down with the cavernous, trunk-cooking twin-exit exhaust. I started on the weight by tossing the exhaust in favor of a free-flowing Magnaflow cat-back, which saved at least 20 pounds. Nothing quite says “Get out of my way” like rotary at full song!
Mazda lists the RX-8 with a curb weight of 3,064 lbs, give or take a few options. I learned that, starting with the Base 6MT (their code for “nicely-equipped with a 6-speed manual transmission, big brakes, and Sport suspension’) gave me a curb weight of just under 3,000 pounds. The 18x8” five-spoke wheels were replaced by 19x8.5” Enkei RPF1s. Each wheel saved 5.5 pounds! Next, I selected Bridgestone’s newest high-performance tire, the Potenza RE-01R. A 245/35-19 was substituted for the 225/40-18, gaining 20mm in width. There’s just one-tenth of an inch difference in height between the two, with the RE-01Rs being fractionally shorter. They wear like iron thanks to the fancy compound which doesn’t shear like older formulas, and, more importantly, they flat-out stick like glue to the ground!
My next challenge was the suspension. My planned purposes were daily driving, auto-cross and HPDE events, and the occasional HIN show. K-Sport, from Autoline Industries in Phoenix, Arizona, makes a great little coil-over package with 36 settings for compression/rebound and a variety of spring rates for a minimal price. With 10 kg/mm front springs and 7.5 kg/mm rear spring (mains with tender springs for pre-load) it’s a setup meant for hardcore track days. At their softest settings they could be used for daily driving depending on your roads. My local California roads suck, regardless how much money Senator Feinstein says has been spent on them. That’s not K-Sport’s fault. I needed a comfortable-yet-sporty alternative so I tried Eibach’s Pro-Kit springs. They fit the bill for handling, but the OEM shocks lacked control. Another RX-8 afficianado convinced me that Tokico’s D-Spec units were my “Goldilocks solution”. Not too stiff, not too soft, with daily driver-friendly high-speed valve settings. Install ‘em, adjust ‘em, and forget ‘em! On track days they can be cranked to firm. Problem solved.
The stock anti-roll bars were too soft. This wasn’t necessarily bad as it does permit a hard tire to follow the pavement surface (mechanical grip). The design of the multi-link front and rear suspension is such that it will allow some body roll with the best possible camber control. When the speeds get higher, and there’s a better tire on the car, stiffer anti-roll bars or higher spring rates are necessary. Progress Technology makes a fine set, with the front 32mm bar offering three holes of adjustment on each side, urethane bushings, and hollow construction. The rear 19mm bar has just two holes per side, and is solid, which perhaps adds a couple pounds to the rear (despite claiming a “near 50-50 weight balance”, RX-8s are still lighter backthere). I paired these with Energy Suspension zerk-fitting-equipped mounts and bushings for smooth, non-maintenance intensive operation.
Brakes offered another chance to save unsprung weight. With the help of Wilwood I installed one of the first sets of four-piston, 14” front kits in time for the 2007 SEMA show. Using Wilwood aluminum hats and slotted 14”x 1.10” rotors, Todd Cook at TCE Performance Products designed water-cut aluminum mounts for the slim Superlite-4 radial-mount calipers. They use dust seals for the stainless steel pistons and fit behind the stock wheels. Perhaps this isn’t important in sunny Los Angeles, but in the Snow Belt it’s a prime consideration. The rear kit consists of an offset dogleg bracket and custom 13” rotors which slip into the stock rear single-piston caliper. This package measurably increases the brake torque, but does require sticky tires for best performance.
For the aggressive appearance, I turned to Shine Auto Project, also out of the Los Angeles area. Owner Ken Ching helped order a straight-from-Japan KS-Auto Burnout II lip kit. I was worried about smashing that expensive fiberglass to shards while doing Drift Day events, so Shine replicated it in their flexible resin composite material. We redesigned the attachment points, adding wider flanges for screws at the wheel arches and tape-mount flanges on long side skirts. It weighs significantly less than the thicker, extremely-stiff traditional fiberglass. Although I drift poorly, I now do it without fear of cone-induced damage. Extreme Dimensions contributed their outrageous NT-5 wing, which, while merely a generic-fit item, looks as if it were lifted straight from a Formula Drift event.
Recently Cobb Tuning introduced their programmable Access Port for the RX-8. “Simply fabulous” is the only way to describe this plug-and-play miracle worker. Out of the box it makes the RENESIS more powerful. It plugs in directly to the factory OBD-II port under the dash and takes control of the PCM. No, you can’t do the programming yourself; you need the help of a Cobb-licensed tuning facility for that task. You need someone like Jeff Abrams from Phoenix, Arizona, who goes by the appropriate name of “Mazdamaniac” online. His custom tunes can push the little rotary mill to over 200 horsepower at the rear tires, but only with the removal of the restrictive (and Federally-mandated) catalytic converter. Jeff’s custom tune also increases the flow from the oil metering pump for an increase in apex and side seal durability.
We have a plethora of ways to measure automotive performance and excellence. Perhaps we have too many now. We can choose to measure our vehicles over the short sprint in a straight line, or over a winding, asphalt-covered mobius strip. We can argue horsepower numbers in quantitative terms, even though no such value truthfully exists, until we’re ready to come to blows, but it doesn’t matter. In the end there’s only one question we should really ask ourselves; “Does it make YOU happy?” This particular RX-8, with its iPod adapter, upgraded Bazooka speakers, and amazing Soundstream Van Gogh subwoofer stuffed in a sealed box built by my own two hands, makes me happy with every aspect of its performance. I can barnstorm gracefully through canyons or commute in blissful, sound-soaked happiness. I can rub shoulders with drifters and track rats (though probably not win at either venue). I get the “mad thumbs up” from drivers of all ages and brands, which always surprises me. If you want to impress me with your car when I do a story, it’s got to match up well against my Velocity Red rotary rocket. First you’ve got to catch me though, and I get to pick the road!
Vehicle: 2006 Mazda RX-8 Base 6-MT
Engine: Mazda 1.3-liter Renesis Rotary
Engine Modifications: K&N panel air filter, Magnaflow cat-back dual muffler exhaust w/ polished stainless steel tips, Motul 300V 15-40W synthetic oil, Motul Gear 300 75w-90 synthetic transmission fluid, Mazda OEM 1.1 bar radiator cap.
Engine Management: Cobb Access Port tuning w/ Mazdamaniac custom tune
Drivetrain Modifications: Fidanza lightweight aluminum flywheel and Stage One clutch
Suspension: Eibach Pro-Kit springs, Tokico D-Spec adjustable shocks, Progress Technology 32mm front hollow anti-roll bar, rear 19mm solid anti roll bar, Energy Suspension anti-roll bar bushing and mounts, JIC Magic front aluminum strut tower brace.
Wheels, Tires and Brakes: Enkei RPF1 19”x 8.5” wheels (f/r), Bridgestone Potenza RE-01R 245/35-19” tires, Muteki 12x 1.25 hollow lightweight lug nuts, TCE Performance Products Wilwood 14” front brake kit w/ 4-piston Superlite-4 calipers, Wilwood 14”x 1.1” slotted rotors, Wilwood street/track pads, braided stainless steel brake lines, rear TCE Performance Products 13” brake offset kit with custom 13” slotted rotors and Wilwood aluminum hats, rear braided stainless steel lines, Motul RB600 synthetic brake fluid
Interior: Bazooka Audio BC5702 front 5x7” two-way speakers, rear BC6903 6x9” three-way speakers, Bazooka Audio BA1300 300-watt mono subwoofer amp, Soundstream Van Gogh 10” dual voice-coil subwoofer in custom sealed box, Mazda factory iPod adapter, red aluminum iPod 4gb Nano, Boom Mat by DEI sound deadening, Razo 340R black anodized shift ball.
Exterior: Shine Auto Project Burnout KD-IV body kit in flexible fiberglass, Extreme Dimensions NT-5 wing, Seibon Carbon TS-style carbon fiber hood, OEM 3-stage paint by SW Autobody and Custom, graphics by NTNS Grafix, NRG Innovations carbon fiber-wrapped hood rams.
Thanks: A Big Thanks to: my wife Betsy and daughter Bridget for their tolerance, Jeremy Barnes at Mazda USA for his help, and every single one of my sponsors. You folks rock!