Balance is a big deal for sports cars. One of the easiest ways to properly balance a car is to set the engine and transmission as close to the middle of the vehicle as possible. Since mid-engine cars can be costly and come with a myriad of compromises, most manufactures tackle the issue by installing a small engine ahead of the driver, but as far back from the front axle as possible.
Over the past two decades two cars have taken this idea to the extreme. In 2004 Mazda finally followed up the iconic RX-7 sports car with the RX-8. Like any model using the RX designation, the RX-8 was rotary powered, using a 1.3-liter twin-rotary engine making 232 hp and 159 lb-ft. of torque. Rotaries are tiny engines and Mazda was able to install the 13b so low and far back in the engine compartment that it was almost between the driver and front passenger’s foot wells.
SEE ALSO: 2014 Ford Fiesta ST vs. Subaru BRZ
Discontinued after the 2011 model year, the RX-8 has been spiritually succeeded by a joint venture from Subaru and Toyota. Although the FR-S and BRZ do not use a rotary engine, they use the next most compact engine design: a four-cylinder boxer. By being horizontally opposed, the 200 hp 2.0-liter engine with 151 lb-ft. of torque has been set very low in the FR-S/BRZ chassis and as far back as possible.
Old-ish vs New
So who did it better? Well, there is only one way to find out – a comparison test. Thankfully, our local Mazda press fleet still has a pristine 2011 Mazda RX-8 Grand Touring on fleet available for special requests. With fewer than 10,000 miles on the odometer and having been meticulously maintained, it arrived at our office in better condition than a lot of newer press cars.
Next we grabbed a 2015 Subaru BRZ, but not just any BRZ. The RX-8 always had a bit of luxurious edge to it when it came to the interior so we decided to splurge and grab the special edition BRZ Series.Blue. Limited to just 1,000 cars for the 2015 model year, the Series.Blue is available in blue or white and comes equipped with an STI skirt package, red painted brake calipers, black STI wheels, a frameless rear-view mirror, fake carbon fiber dash panel, red illuminated STI engine start/stop button and various blue trim and stitching bits throughout the interior.
Different Takes on the Same Mission
Both cars are equipped with a standard six-speed manual transmission that sends power to the rear wheels. The gearing in the RX-8 is noticeably shorter to make the most of the insane 9,000-RPM redline. With a rotary engine already being a fuel chugging hog, I guess Mazda decided there was no use in trying to compensate for its unquenchable thirst by installing taller gearing. This led to official RX-8 fuel ratings in 2011 that made Corvette owners laugh: 16 MPG city and 22 MPG highway. The BRZ is a Prius by comparison with ratings of 22 MPG city and 30 MPG highway.
There may not be anything short of an electric motor that delivers power as smoothly as a rotary engine. Making that distinct Renesis whirl, the Mazda sounds better than the Subaru when you step hard on the gas with the majority of the mechanical symphony emitting from the exhaust. Thanks to a sound tube connected to the Subaru’s intake, the BRZ sounds aggressive in its own right, but still features that trademark boxer-engine utilitarian thrash.
Sending power to the rear wheels, the shift mechanism in the BRZ is more direct with solid engagement and a stiffer feel. Managing Editor Luke Vandezande prefers this setup compared to my preference, the RX-8’s, which offers shorter throws and a softer but less precise engagement.
Sweating the Details
Eager to rev, the RX-8 feels like it has a greater power advantage the numbers suggest. Yes, I just wrote that the rotary powered car feels like the torquier offering here. But the RX-8 needs the extra power since it has a significant weight disadvantage. Tipping the scales at 3,065 lbs., the RX-8 is nearly 300 lbs. heavier than the BRZ.
Aside from extra power, the RX-8 wears slightly larger tires, measuring 225/45R18 compared to the BRZ’s 215/45R17. With the rotary engine being so small, Mazda was able to really set it far back in the RX-8’s chassis to accomplish a 52/48 front to rear weight distribution compared to the Subaru’s 53/47.
Fun to Drive²
Specs and stats are fun and all, but it’s on the road where a car shows its true handling prowess. Both the RX-8 and the BRZ are something special. Perfectly weighted steering, an eagerness to change direction and the way the balanced chassis communicates to the driver put both vehicles near the top of affordable drivers cars.
With the high-revving engine, the RX-8 is a blast to roll onto the throttle through corners and tip-toe on the edge or rear-wheel adhesion. The BRZ in contrast is ridiculous fun to throw from side to side through tight S-bends. The higher riding RX-8 is more prone to body roll, but it also has a far softer, more compliant ride. The RX-8 also has brakes that left me feeling more confident about stopping.
|Vehicle||2011 Mazda RX-8||Advantage||2015 Subaru BRZ Series.Blue|
|Engine||1.3 L Rotary X2||-||2.0 L Boxer-4|
|Horsepower||232 hp||RX-8||200 hp|
|Max. Torque||159 lb-ft||RX-8||151 lb-ft|
|Transmission||6-Speed Manual||-||6-Speed Manual|
|Fuel Economy||16 MPG city / 22 MPG hwy||BRZ||22 MPG city / 33 MPG hwy|
|Weight||3,065 lbs.||BRZ||2,776 lbs.|
|Rear Cargo Capacity||7.6 cu. Ft.||RX-8||6.9 cu. Ft.|
|As Tested Price||$33,055*||BRZ||$30,285|
Comfort vs Sophisticated
If you are over six feet tall and are interested in an RX-8, get one without the optional sunroof. At just over the six-foot mark, my head was constantly rubbing against the headliner, threatening to eliminate what little hair is left on my head. The BRZ offers much more headroom thanks to a lower seating position and the omission of the sunroof. Both cars have all the primary controls set in the proper places for optimal driver control. Although the RX-8 has a more comfortable front seat, the BRZ buckets offer better lateral support.
At 175.6 inches long, the RX-8 is a fair bit bigger than the 166.7-inch BRZ. It’s no surprise then that the trunk is larger and the back seat is actually semi usable in the Mazda. Oh and don’t forget about those rear-swinging half doors on the RX-8 “coupe.”
Price and Reliability
In 2011, the RX-8 started at a price of $27,590 after destination charges. Our 2011 RX-8 Grand Touring would have set you back $33,055. That is nearly $3,000 more than the 2015 Subaru BRZ Series.Blue that lists for $30,285. But it’s nearly impossible to find a new Mazda RX-8 these days so expect to pay in the high-teens to low twenties for a great condition, low mileage example. That undercuts the BRZ’s entry price of $26,490, but depending on purchase date and whether the previous owner bought an extended protection plan, the RX-8 will probably be outside its factory warranty.
And that brings me to reliability. Although the BRZ’s run so far hasn’t been without a few issues, they are nothing compared to the RX-8’s. Blown engines, grenade transmission, worn-out catalytic converters and coil packs offering a shorter lifespan than that of a house fly were just some of the problems plaguing the rotary sports car. As a former owner of a 2004 model, I know all of these issues first hand. But in fairness, by 2011 most of the reliability issues associated with RX-8 had been addressed by Mazda. Still, buyers beware.
And that brings us back to the question of which one is better. After a few days of driving, Luke and I were divided. He preferred the raw eagerness of the BRZ while I appreciated the fun and sophistication of the RX-8. But as a former owner, I know how problematic these used sports cars can be, so I have to agree with Luke and recommend the Subaru BRZ. For the mechanically inclined who want something completely different though, the RX-8 is a terrific vehicle and may well be the last rotary sports car ever produced.
2011 Mazda RX-8 Grand Touring
2015 Subaru BRZ Series.Blue