Instead, the car comes standard with a 300-watt Bose audio system. We've never been a fan of Mazda's stereo controls, which uses three knobs instead of the standard two. With this layout, the volume knob is high up in the center, the tuning knob is on the lower left, and audio settings are controlled on the lower right. We found ourselves frequently reaching for the tuning knob when we wanted to change the volume.
For audio sources, the RX-8 R3 comes with an in-dash six-CD changer, auxiliary input, and optional Sirius satellite radio. From our testing, we found that the CD changer doesn't read MP3 CDs, a very strange omission in this age. As for the satellite radio, the interface is good through the stereo, but it feels a little tacked on, as the antenna is just stuck to the trunk lid, similar to if you bought a kit and installed it yourself.
The audio quality was good, though, as this Bose system has plenty of power, and makes use of a center fill speaker and subwoofer to complement the six side speakers. With its CenterPoint digital processing, it fills the cabin nicely, delivering reasonable clarity. The highs aren't as brilliant as they could be, but the bass will shake the doors.
Other tech touches for the RX-8 R3 include a standard smart key system and Bluetooth cell phone integration. Operation of the cell phone system is through voice command, but you do get to see the number you've told it to dial on the car's central display. This kind of feedback is nice to have.
Under the hood
A lot of what makes the 2009 Mazda RX-8 R3 different from the other trim levels has to do with the suspension. First, 19-inch wheels with a really cool spoke pattern come standard. Bilstein shocks dampen out the rough spots and keep the tires on the asphalt, and Mazda filled the front cross-member of the suspension with urethane. While we could feel that the car has a very rigid, sports car suspension, we also noticed that, where we would expect a hard bump, the edge was softened. It's far from a luxury car suspension, but it also won't make you bite your tongue off.
Getting into the car, feeling the Recaro seats hug your sides, and putting your hand on the short shifter for the six-speed manual lets you know the RX-8 R3 is a sports car. It's only when you hit the gas that you start wondering if you've been had. But get beyond 30 mph and you won't care about that lack of acceleration. With the revs up and the wheels turning, the RX-8 R3 is in its element. The steering wheel delivers a sharp response with good road feedback. Jab the car into a turn and you feel it pivot, the suspension keeping it close to the ground.
With the RX-8 R3, we found that it take some practice to bring out its potential. For example, when going into a corner you can't let the revs drop much at the downshift, as you'll need the tach needle up around 7,000 to pull through the other side. You also have to work the shifter a lot. Sure, fifth gear will still pull the car along if you drop down to 25 mph, but the rpms will be down at 2,000, and the RX-8 R3 will take a long time to build that engine speed back up.
We discussed engine specs and acceleration above. If you thought that 1.3-liter displacement figure was a typo, it wasn't: the Renesis rotary engine in the RX-8 R3 has some curious characteristics. For one, it revs very high, with an 8,500rpm redline. Its 232 horsepower is very impressive, considering the displacement, but as we've seen, it doesn't produce much torque. Another area where the rotary engine lags is in economy. The EPA rates it at 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway, not very impressive for the horsepower. Our numbers were worse, though, with the car showing just 11.7 mpg for mixed city and freeway driving, before we did our zero-to-60-mph tests.
The nice thing about the 2009 Mazda RX-8 R3 is that you get all of its performance features and the little tech it has for one price, $31,930. The only option we had was satellite radio, for $430. Throw on a $670 destination charge, and our car totaled $33,030. For that kind of money, you could get a fully loaded Honda Accord Coupe with a V-6, trading handling for better acceleration. Or, for a couple thousand more, there's the fully loaded Subaru WRX STI. You won't sacrifice handling, but the RX-8 R3 looks better.
Coming up with our rating for the RX-8 R3, we have to knock it for lack of navigation and MP3 capability, although its Bluetooth and audio system help it bounce back a little. For performance, we like its handling, ride, and transmission, but ding it for bad fuel economy and poor acceleration. Maybe Mazda should reconsider the rotary. For design, we understand that some might not like the looks, but we do. It's a very distinct car, in a good way. But we also take that rating down a few notches for its interface design.