Mazda’s RX-8 PZ

11 11 2008

Prodrive's RX-8 PZ sits 15mm lower than the standard car

Prodrive's RX-8 PZ sits 15mm lower than the standard car

Millbrook’s a strange place. We’re not talking shrunken-headed folk wandering around, muttering utterances in some native tongue unique to Bedfordshire auto-testing. But if you’ve ever been (and they don’t make it easy) you’ll know exactly what I mean when I refer to the ‘aura’. It’s hardly discreet from the road (albeit a road only visible to the determined car nuts and the lost) with its enormous sign and an entrance the scale of a track run-off. It’s almost as if they want you to stumble and crash through the gates, only to be politely told to bugger off again. It’s a tease, a VPL (an abbreviation I’ve only fully understood recently, so it’s with considerable glee that I can shoe-horn it into this anology) and a place of untold reward for those fortunate enough to venture inside…

At this juncture you may be thinking I’m calling a spade a soil extraction device, and that my buttons are pushed by rather odd stimuli. Well, you’d be right. Millbrook is, at best, a lot of neatly poured tarmac and an HSE rule book as long as the arm of someone with very long arms. But then, as you emerge from the humdrum carpark filled with Vectras (and other such exotica) and venture down Mountain Pass (names have been changed to protect the innocent and inject some romance) you start to see what gives this place such magic.

Think of it as a wildlife resort, a piece of covert land where test mules can ‘Bambi’ about, learning how their dampers work. If you drive stealthily and with deftness of tyre, you might catch a glimpse of a new model, still wet behind its wing-mirrors, its every move being tracked and recorded by lab technicians in boiler suits. I’m never quite sure where ‘yonder’ is, but for now we’ll adopt it for the off-road course, because up yonder lies a quite delicious series of dips, bumps, puddles and the wonderfully-titled Sinusoidals. Maths teachers: feel free to don an air of smugness, because they do exactly what they say on the tin.

All of this is well and good, and I could bark on about the automotive theme park that is Millbrook, but we have a job to do. Nestling deep in the folds of it all lies the Hill Route. It’s 1.4 miles of asphalt sculpture, the result of dropping a ribbon onto a duvet, but only once the duvet has been slept in, kicked about and deformed beyond all recognition. This is home for the next few hours, and was also the location chosen for my rendezvous with the PZ.

“Finally”, they cheer. “A bloody car!”. Well, yes, actually. And quite a car it is too. The distinctly left-field RX-8 has been with us for five years, pretty much unchanged. This lack of facelifts and drivetrain tweaks speaks volumes of a car’s character, and perhaps its suitability to both brief and demographic. Were it not for the oft-misunderstood badge on the bonnet, it would endow the RX-8 with strong residuals. But Mazda seems to suffer from multiple-personality disorder. On the one hand it has the MX-5, a car so revered and loved in equal measure it regularly earns the title of ‘iconic’, a word bestowed upon few cars until at least twenty years after production (Capri, anyone?). On the other hand, Mazda is responsible for automotive brown rice like the woefully unimaginative MPV and 1st-gen Mazda2, both of which have since been replaced with significantly better models (the new ‘2’ being uncharacteristically lighter than its predecessor and the ‘5’ having lovely slidey doors…). The dynamic talents of a Mazda are rarely questioned, but for a mainstream manufacturer to rely on such an emotional USP as ‘handling’ is, frankly, a bit dim. The public gets what the public wants, or so said Weller, and it seems Mazda believes the public wants a Michael Owen: some nifty footwork but with the personality of a lettuce.

Enter the RX-8. With its ‘freestyle’ doors and rotary engine it’s a wonderfully quirky piece of kit. From side profile the coupé roofline belies its practicality, which is great: the last thing you want when you buy a sports car is to tell people you hankered after four doors and a decent boot. It’s like meeting someone in a guest-list winebar and telling them you like slippers and Horlicks of an evening. It has been said that Mazda’s Master Of Crayons just couldn’t stop designing this car, and to some extent I agree (the constant need to remind occupants of the bulbous triangle that defines the RX-8’s Renesis engine configuration feels obvious and tacky) but it’s hard to deny they’ve created something truly different. No other car on sale today, let alone five years ago, looks like an RX-8. However, we’re not here to talk about the RX-8 per se, more the distinction between it and Prodrive’s adaptation: the PZ.

Introduced in May 2006, the PZ was the result of a few hours’ work from the guys at Banbury. And by that I’m not belittling the alterations, but when you see what these guys can do with an Impreza and half a million quid, it puts the RX-8’s modest mods into perspective. Noticeable from the outset are the colour, of which two unique hues are available – Galaxy Grey and Brilliant Black, and the wheels: a set of utterly gorgeous 18” multispokes, finished in dark silver and screaming of track-day intent. This is the first clue of the PZ’s seriousness as a driver’s car: some fairly boast-worthy names are on the tick-list: Bilstein (dampers), Eibach (springs) and OZ (wheels). Furthermore, Prodrive themselves deemed it necessary to pepper a few naff carbon-effect badges here and there, which look a bit too ‘Halfords’ for my liking.

Step inside the PZ and you’re treated to a pretty standard RX-8. This is not a tarty special edition with trinkets of gold in the footwells and a rear-view mirror made of crystal. Instead it’s an attempt by Prodrive to sort out the handling once and for all – to make the RX-8 feel more focussed, more toned and more rewarding in the twists. It was never the dinner of a dog in the first place, but to achieve a compromise with everyday commuters the suspension was soft and a bit wayward, leading you to fold your cards long before you got caught bluffing. Spring rates on the PZ are increased by 60% over the standard setup, coupled with Bilstein’s quite brilliant dampers, and the effect is remarkable. The damping rate is so much faster than on the ordinary car, allowing you to push harder and harder until a progressive and predictable drift starts to manifest, easily controllable thanks to the 50:50 weight distribution. It never feels harsh or brittle, although a good thrash on a public B-road might reveal more (Millbrook’s Hill Route is enviably smooth and pot-hole free), and is just communicative enough to let you know when you’re about to have an appointment with a tree.

Although Prodrive’s fiddling didn’t venture under the bonnet, the Renesis engine remains one of the all-time greats. If you want character and emotion from an engine, I implore you to drive one. If however you want grunt and torque, don’t bother. The torque figure of 159lb/ft is telling, so this car should be driven in the same vein as one of Honda’s delectable VTEC units (stalling the RX-8 is something of a regular occurrence according to a few admirably honest owners). Nail your foot to the floor all the way to the 9000rpm redline and it rewards you with caramel-smooth acceleration and a haunting howl, befriended in the PZ by a deeper bark from the exhaust. But change up too early and you’ll be bogged down in a torqueless abyss before the rotary unit really gets its groove on.

Steering is precise and enjoyable, especially once you’ve pushed a little beyond your comfort zone but still well within the limits of the chassis. The brakes are soft but not intolerable, although fade became an issue towards the end of each 30-minute session. The most alarming aspect of the whole day was the fuel consumption – we were averaging 16MPG, so don’t be put off by it (we were driving ‘enthusiastically’), but be warned: it likes to drink. To be honest I was expecting it to be mixing the petrol pints with copious chasers of oil, after so many horror stories from RX-7 owners, but the RX-8 has two distinct advantages over its numerical (but not spiritual) predecessor: namely a lack of turbos and the addition of titanium rotor tips, reducing wear and lengthening the life of both the oil and the engine.

The RX-8 is already a car so brimming with personality it’s easy to see why Mazda have refrained from fixing what ain’t broke. The PZ further adds to the warm smug feeling of buying a car of such refreshingly rewarding talents. It is not without its flaws, but they can easily be overlooked, and to do so is to open a rear-hinged door into a world where pub boasts of engine size are ill-advised, but a machine capable of so much more than its figures suggest awaits in the car park.


Brilliantly Masquerading W**kers

10 11 2008

Far be it from me to pull on my coat of clichés, but I thought I’d shout a bit about BMWs. I respect them enormously, and would love to own a select few. But brand-engineering has created a class system, and BMW put themselves right in the firing line.

When it comes to brands, BMW knows a thing or two about creating one, nurturing and propagating it, and ultimately making the brand stronger than the product. They even like throwing us commoners a red herring to make us think they’re testing new water, when really the bean-counters have outlined exactly how said herring will work financially and meet all the current ‘brand values’.

A brand is intangible. It can’t be seen, touched or filled up with eighty quid’s worth of super-unleaded. Or can it? BMW don’t sell 1.2 million cars a year because of feedback through the steering wheel. A few, of course, go to die-hards with several spare 10mm sockets and a wing from a 1980s E30 lying around. But 99.9% (statistics may have been conjured from thin air to prove my point) are bought not because of the badge, but of what that badge represents. What this actually means to Joe Public is very little. Those who don’t care about cars won’t give two hoots about what you drive. In fact it’ll probably mean you won’t get invited to the street barbeque with the nice chaps from 43a. Not that you want to waste time going to tedious social events with people you are forced to live next to. You have targets to reach.

However, what it means to Joe Petrol is altogether different. Every time I see a BMW I glance at the driver, wondering to myself if they actually knew what they were driving. Do they care about VANOS? Do they understand the significance of weight distribution? Possibly, if they’ve got an M3 on 18” wheels instead of the ride-ruining 19s. Again, if they’re gripping the helm of a Z4-M you can bet they really appreciate the lack of Active Steering, instead of wondering why they weren’t allowed to tick the box in the dealership when handing over the best part of 45 grand.

But for each M3 or Z4-M there are literally thousands of 320Ds and X5s. Both excellent pieces of engineering, but both completely devoid of emotion.

So herein lies my beef with BMW. It builds its cars beautifully, but so do Skoda. At least when you see an Octavia you know where they stand, and how little they care about public perception. A BMW driver could be a genuine car nut with ferry receipts to the Isle of Man, or they could be carbon-copy dullards who own a pair of those Puma trainers with the Ferrari logo on them. That blue and white badge hides so many things, it makes it much harder for me to be judgemental. Perhaps the Bavarians should take all BMW badges off their best models, and be the first automotive anti-brand. That’d sort the wheat from the chavs.

The Old Pair of Trainers…

10 11 2008

Upon rummaging through some old boxes this week, I stumbled across an old friend. Nestling deep under some creased receipts and a box of unprocessed 35mm film was my very first Walkman. Isn’t it strange how your brain recalls a memory? Vividly depicting the very image your eyes saw so many years ago, often accompanied by smells and sounds, long before you’re able to place it in any context?

I could see the desk, the Walkman, the coil of headphone wire and the pale grey pouch. Almost as if I’d owned no other such gadget in the past fifteen years, I could instantly remember the satisfying click of the buttons, the feel of cold aluminium in my hands, and the truly mesmerising sensation of that inaugural walk accompanied by a soundtrack. My soundtrack. Outside. Fresh air and everything. Every song felt new again, every word suddenly possessed more gravitas (somewhat ambitious given my questionable taste) and every drumbeat fell effortlessly into the rhythm of my revitalised footsteps.

That’s what the Vitara was like. Don’t get me wrong, this was no childhood possession rekindling its love affair with my senses. I’ve only owned the thing for a little over a year, but it just felt like a memory. Some might say a pretty crap one, and I’m inclined to agree. A bit like remembering the first time you got dumped. But still, a memory’s a memory, and anything that sparks neural pathways in your brain usually elicits at least a little fondness.

'The Jeep' now enjoys a playful retirement on a farm...

I should point out at this stage that I didn’t part with any cash for the ‘Jeep’. To admit such a thing would widely discredit any claims of being a petrolhead. It was given to me by a dear friend, although when it descended on my driveway I think I called him something rather less savoury. It was a midnight-blue 1996 Suzuki Vitara, a three-door rag-top with an engine so small the engine bay looked like it had been broken down for parts already. I honestly could have provided a genuine alternative for illegal immigrants tired of forcing themselves into the confines of a 40-footer. A warmer one, too. The alarm didn’t work, except on sunny days when it would wait until I was nowhere to be seen and drain the battery. The roof was more awkward than Jeremy Paxman, the rear screen let more rain in than light, and the steering was so heavy I had to add another link into my watchstrap after two days of lugging it around car parks. The gearbox, although mechanically faultless, was accessed by a lever so vague that engaging first, third or fifth meant slamming your knuckles into the centre console. And the handbrake was for show.

But it worked. Every morning for a year I walked up to it, mobile phone in one hand, RAC card in the other, but it started first time. I dreaded the rain, mainly because the wipers were beyond useless, but The Jeep never left me out in it. The keep-fit window winders reminded me of the Cortina my father had, if only for their apparent lack of connection to any glass, but they never completely jammed. I can’t really explain why this one-ton piece of Japanese campness felt like a memory: maybe it was the back-to-basics nature of everything on it; maybe the flashbacks of doughnutting an SJ410 round a mate’s field as a child; maybe just that it was old and beaten, dented with war-wounds and scratches. I don’t really care. I don’t have the slightest urge to put some fresh batteries into my Walkman, but it’s nice to know it still has enough power to ignite some history.


9 11 2008

There we have it.  First post.  I’m positively swelling with pride.  Top Gear is about to start so I’ll keep it short and sweet, suffice to say I’m going to start to use this space to publish my many ramblings about cars and the car industry, with a few random musings along the way.  Thank you for taking 30 seconds out of your day to read this.  Rest assured, more is coming.