Mazda RX-8 gets super macho with R3 package

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Owners have had a love affair with the Mazda RX-8 since it first left showrooms as a 2004 model. Venture out onto the Worldwide Web and you will discover — despite assorted documented troubles and less than stellar gas mileage — that owners have very few unkind words.

Seldom have we researched such loyalty over a car even as people admit to problems.
It seems with a smile on their face and a song in their heart they take their quirky four-door rotary engine sports car in for repairs.

And then once running smoothly again they happily motor along.

Listen to a couple of enthusiastic RX-8 owners: “I think this vehicle has been as close to perfect for my needs. Can’t tell you how much people admire it. I hear it at work almost everyday, how nice a vehicle it is. Glad I did not get the Mustang, it does not stand out as well.” This lovingly comes from the owner of a 2006 model RX-8.

Another owner: “Already done things in the 8 that would have got me flipped and or wrapped around a pole/tree or killed in (other cars). The car definitely sets the standard for sports cars under $50,000. (It is an) awesome piece of engineering and a sheer joy to drive!”

If you think these comments border on loyalty stretched to the breaking point, then you haven’t spent time behind the wheel. We rediscovered that the RX-8 is a sports car that’s a hoot to drive.
It’s fun with a capital F.

And then there is the following uncharacteristic upbeat tidbit about the new-for-2009 R3 handling package from an automotive Web site that lives to trash all forms of motorized transportation: “The RX-8 R3 is a sports car first, second and last. The R3 feels like you’re driving a closed cockpit race-car. Looking out over the hood, I kept expecting to see open wheels. Words like ‘direct’ and ‘communicative’ don’t begin to do the intuitive steering justice. Every crank and tug of the wheel results in total, benign compliance.” Wow! And while think we could have said it better, why bother when you can quote some other happy curmudgeon.

The RX-8 has a very un-sports-car-like four seats and four doors including rear “suicide” half doors.

The engine doesn’t have cylinders, it has rotors.

And the rotary engine is smaller than those found in virtually every economy car on the road with only 1.3 liters of displacement.

It’s the rotary engine that had been somewhat of a problem, prone to “flooding” in earlier editions, and with gas mileage ratings more befitting an SUV than a small sports car — 16 city and 22 highway. But like the RX-8 bleeders, who cares! This car is too cool.

Mazda says it has fixed the engine flooding problem, but to ease fears the rotary engine for ’09 comes with an eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty. People who are experienced with rotary engines say there is nothing wrong with the design and, in fact, with proper maintenance rotary engines can run 200,000 or more miles.

Mazda has always had a bent for building unconventional vehicles and the RX-8 is just a continuation of its unconventionality. It is different, but it’s different in a very desirable way.

In 2004 it became the first Mazda vehicle powered by a rotary engine since the departure of the RX-7 in 1995.

While the rotary RX-7 featured twin turbochargers to gain 250 horsepower, the RX-8 manufacturers almost as much power — 232 horses with the 6-speed manual transmission — without turbocharging and with better gas mileage figures.

Rotary engines differ from conventional engines in that it makes power via triangular rotors spinning in oval chambers, instead of from pistons moving up and down in cylinders. And they make only a fraction of the torque produced by conventional engines.

Torque is what moves a car from a standstill, and the rotary’s rather meager 159 pound-feet makes the RX-8 rather sluggish from stoplight-to- stoplight.

But get the RX-8 engine wound up and it will rocket ahead much like the high-revving 4-cylinder in the Honda S2000 roadster. Peak torque comes at about 5,500 rpm and you must be willing to wind it out close to its 9,000 rpm redline to get the full benefit of the engine.

Achieving that feat will result in 0 to 60 times of around 6 seconds flat.

All this performance originates with the 6-speed manual transmission. Opt for the less-expensive 6-speed automatic and horsepower drops to 212 and performance falls off accordingly.

But to those who seek everything automated, be advised that this is a sports car that begs to be shifted, that loves to run on the edge of red in second gear and then wind back toward the upper reaches in third. All this is accomplished with a short-throw slick-shifting transmission that falls neatly into the next gear.
New for 2009 is a worthwhile R3 package — worthwhile if you want to enhance the already highly capable handling attributes of the RX-8.

It includes 19-inch forged-aluminum wheels wrapped with high- performance tires, performance-tuned suspension, a rear wing spoiler and Recarao front sports seats.

One caveat on the sports seats, the bolsters are tight for wide bodies. And the steering wheel gets awfully close if you have short legs. We would hate to give up the R3 package because of the seats, but we advise a 15-minute test drive to make sure they are adequately comfortable. And sitting sideways in the seat to avoid the bolster and get your foot on the clutch is not highly recommended.

One of the most unconventional aspects of the RX-8 is its smallish rear seats, which can be reached by the rear-hinged doors. Although the rear accommodations are tight for adults, the rear seats allow for children or a child seat. How many sports cars can claim that attribute?

In addition to the R3 package, the RX-8 got some minor styling tweaks on the exterior for ’09 including a new front end with a wider grille and a restyled rear end. Inside, the center stack has been restyled. 

Such in demand features as Bluetooth, navigation and auxiliary audio jacks are now available.

The RX-8 comes in four trim levels — Sport, Touring, Grand Touring and R3 — starting at $27,085 including destination charge and climbing to $32,580 for the R3. Even the base trim offers a wide assortment of features including antilock brakes, front side airbags and side- curtain airbags. All but the base Sport model comes with stability control as standard equipment.

Opt for the Grand Touring model and touchscreen navigation can be added for the first time.

Our very vibrant blue R3 test car came with no options and a $32,580 pricetag.

If you desire the ultimate driving experience for less than 35 grand and you need the convenience of two extra seats and more storage space than that found in most sports cars, take an RX-8 test drive. You will be rewarded with a hard to wipe off smile-inducing experience.


Base price, $27,085; as driven, $32,580
Engine: 1.3-liter rotary
Horsepower: 232 @ 8,500 rpm
Torque: 159 foot-pounds @ 5,500 rpm
Drive: rear wheel
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Seating: 2/2
Wheelbase: 106.4 inches
Length: 175.6 inches
Curb weight: 3,064 pounds
Turning circle: 34.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 7.6 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 16.9 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 22 mpg highway, 16 city
0-60: 6 seconds (MotorWeek)
Also consider: Ford Mustang GT, Nissan 370Z, Mitsubishi Eclipse

The Good
• Clings to the road like a slot car
• Sports car with four-passenger capability
• High-revving performance from rotary engine

The Bad
• Low-end torque can be detriment in stop and go driving

The Ugly
• Gas mileage of a full-sized SUV