Tom Matano, Thu, 22 Dec 2005 08:00:00 PDT
Mazda showed the final production version of the RX-8 in Detroit. I was deeply involved in this project from the first design competition in 1999.I worked on the first round whilst I was still in California. Then, I was assigned to work in our headquarters in Hiroshima Japan, where I worked on the RX-Evolv show car. I supervised the rest of the development stage until I left Mazda last August.From the out-set it was a very challenging program. Four door, four-seater sports car concepts have been tried with little success in the past. And with an abundance of capable sports sedans on the market it has got even harder to succeed nowadays.
Let me take you back to the last generation of RX-7 development in 1988-1989, when we developed our design proposals in the California studio. My aim was to design a timeless model that would stand the test of time.I was determined that this design would not be able to be easily toppled by another model design that might follow, at least, not unless the package layout was going to be changed drastically.The final design was approved in 1989 when we moved in to our new R & D center. I think it is safe to say that the third generation RX-7 design has stood the test of time.
So, when we got a green light to start the RX-7 successor program with a new package layout, I was relieved to find out that we were not bound by our former efforts. But on the other hand, I was caught up in a contradiction between the real meaning of a sports car and this four door, four-seater concept.To me, a sports car is about the driver being at one with the car, with its purpose being the experience of sheer driving pleasure. This doesn't just mean great handling, but great stopping performance, great stability, a tightness as if you could be almost wearing the car, and an efficient weight to power ratio.
So adding extra doors and seats contradicts my definition of a true sports car. It not only contradicts the laws of physics but also causes a major challenge to its exterior design. I have always believed in visually communicating a car's concept through its exterior design. To stay true to the soul of a sports car, the design must have substance to gain staying power.With a new layout, we tried different visual weight distributions to achieve the best combination of sports car balance and comfortably tight interior.The rear door mechanism was a hotly debated issue and the free-style doors were our answer to achieving sports car appearance with four-door access for the rear seat.
Mazda's engineers worked very hard to deliver the desired rigidity with the free-style doors. Early test drives have indicated that the RX-8 handling is exceeding RX-7. Physical weight distribution is close to 50:50.Nissan's Z car is a shared platform with other sedan-based cars, so it has a high cowl. RX-8 has a dedicated platform to achieve our goal of a true sports car that has four doors and four seats.I would like to take this opportunity to thank our engineers for their excellent work. I truly believe that we could not have achieved our design goal without our dedicated engineers and their sports car expertise. Ultimately I am proud to say that we have accomplished the world's first true four-door, four-seater sports car that will open a new chapter in sports car history.
I was invited, or rather invite myself, in to Mazda's media test-drive program that was held in Monterey area. Monterey is located about 120 miles south of San Francisco.I used to go to those events as a presenter to explain about Mazda's design philosophy, new car's design background, and design itself.This is my very first experience to be invited to attend such an event as a recipient of the presentation.
I drove down to the Lodge at Pebble Beach where reception was held for the first night in my third generation RX-7. This is the venue for a famous Pebble Beach Concourse d'Elegance each year in August. I visited there many times for that event in the past. There were no road signs to direct you to the venue this time, unlike that famed weekend.Mazda organized this media test drive as a global launch event. This event went on for a couple weeks to provide media from all over the world a chance to drive RX-8 at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and a scenic Pacific Coast Highway.
My session was a second wave of the European media and about twenty people in total. The next morning, we started early and got on a bus from a hotel to the Mazda Raceway.Laguna Seca raceway is a venue for the Monterey Historic Car race and known for it's spectacular corkscrew bend. I visited there many times to watch the race, inhale wonderful fumes of Castrol and listen to music of those exhaust notes.There, we were given the presentation on safety, power train, design and package from engineers and a chief designer. There was a display of rotary powered cars that included RX-01 show car, Le Mans winning 787B, Bertone designed Rotary Coupe, Cosmo sports, the first rotary engined Mazda and a first generation RX-7.
After the presentation, we split into groups to drive a car on a track and an autocross circuit. I was in the group to drive a car on a track first.It was a strange feeling for me to sit in a car after worked on various stages of clay model. We were still putting final touches on a clay model less than a year ago. I saw first running prototypes at our design center in Hiroshima, before I left Mazda in July. Those cars that we drove were still an early production prototypes.There were a few blind turns and severe elevation changes. Driving on this track for the first time was beyond what I imagined. I gained more respect for those drivers who race on this track. RX-8 showed much more torque from a new Renesis rotary engine and body rigidity despite its unique free-style doors. It handled just a sports car should. You forgot that there were full size rear seats behind you.
After the racetrack drive, we were allowed to drive on a regular road. Car's ride was well -controlled and smoother than RX-7, thanks to longer wheelbase as well. It's handling was very linear. But, the most impressive part was it's increased torque over the previous generation rotary engine without turbos. This drive program came to an end rather quickly. Four hours went by too fast. I would have liked to keep on driving.I wrote about a contradiction I felt about its concept earlier. After my brief test drive, I came away with a confidence that RX-8 is a true sports car in its driving dynamics with extra space that adds versatility. It is a great grand-tourer.
I started to think about whether to trade-in my RX-7 for RX-8 or not while I was driving on scenic Pacific Coast Highway.On my way home, however, I decided to keep my RX-7. That means that I am going to have to talk my wife into selling her Lancia. Then, I will be able to add a RX-8 to our stable.