The Mazda RX-8 has always combined excellent sports car handling with a truly unique look, and also suffered from poor torque, making its off-the-line performance distinctly unimpressive. For 2009 the car gets a new trim level, the R3, which mixes elements of a touring and track car and attempts to solve that torque problem through revised gear ratios.
Although the car loses nothing in handling, Mazda managed to smooth out the ride a little. But the RX-8 R3 loses some tech in translation from Japan to the U.S., giving up a navigation system. But the U.S. version keeps Bluetooth cell phone integration as a standard feature and adds a 300-watt Bose audio system. It might make a good tech car, but its audio sources remain limited.
Test the tech: Where's that low-end?
When we tested the 2008 Mazda RX-8, we noted its lack of acceleration, because of the rotary engine's low torque. The 2009 Mazda RX-8 R3 is supposed to make up for slow off-the-line performance with revised gear ratios. Where the standard RX-8 uses a 1 to 3.76 first gear, the R3 ups that a little, with a 1 to 3.815 first gear ratio. The engine is unchanged, though, with the 1.3-liter rotary putting out 159 pound-feet of torque at 5,500rpm and 232 horsepower at 8,500rpm.
We stop to check the numbers on our performance computer while doing acceleration tests.
To find out whether the R3 gear ratio change makes a difference, we ran some zero-to-60-mph tests. In general driving, we still noticed a lack of punch off the line. To quantify the acceleration, we took the car out to a testing area and hooked up a performance computer. We knew we would have to let the engine speed build before dropping it into first, but we also weren't keen on sending the RX-8 R3 back to Mazda with a burnt-up clutch.
For our first run, we left the traction control on, built up the rpms to about 4,000, and let go. The RX-8 R3 took off sedately, with little drama. We let the tach needle cross 7,000 before the shift to second, then had to shift to third to get over 60 mph. As we expected, our first time was dismal, coming in at 8.23 seconds. We set the car up again, this time disengaging traction control, and aimed for the same shift points. Although it felt a little faster, the second run was a complete failure, turning up a 10.05-second time. We were in Honda Fit territory.
The tach dominates the instrument cluster, with a redline at 8,500.
On the final run, we vowed to get more aggressive, building up the rpms to around 5,500 before letting it rip. This time we heard screeching tires, but the car still didn't feel like it was leaping forward. Letting the tach run up near redline before the second and third gear shifts, we achieved our best time, 7.9 seconds, with 2.38 seconds taken to get to 30 mph. We still weren't impressed. Anecdotally, we've heard the car can get to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds, but that would take some serious pounding, and even that's not particularly fast.
In the cabin
The 2009 Mazda RX-8 R3 employs the same unique doors as the previous generation, with full front doors and half suicide doors in the rear, allowing easy access to the back seats. But in the R3 you get Recaro seats standard, with prominent side bolsters that grip nicely. Otherwise, the interior differs little from the standard model. Although you can get a navigation system with the Grand Touring trim, and it comes standard in the Japanese version of the R3, it is not available in the U.S. RX-8 R3.
Mazda's unique stereo controls become annoying when you just want to adjust the volume.
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.
This center display offers some feedback for the Bluetooth cell phone system.
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.
The shifter is nice and short, letting you quickly snap it from one gear to the next.
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.
These 19-inch wheels come standard with the R3 trim.
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.