2009 Mazda RX-8 R3


Slicing through traffic on West Palm Beach's Okeechobee Boulevard while trying to avoid the blue-haired seniors in their Avalons, as well as the landscape contractors in their F250 pickups, is a high-art form in Mazda's flagship RX-8 R3. Our deep blue example attracts almost no attention except for those glancing up when hearing the high-pitched squeal emanating from the dual chrome-tipped exhausts.

Is the RX-8, successor to the RX-7, a car whose time has come and gone or is it still a viable alternative to the other players in this niche? We'll take a look and see how this man/child of a vehicle adds up.

A differently executed four-door coupe with a pair of supplemental ("don't call them suicide") doors in the rear to allow temporary access to little people or contortionists, who don't mind the "knees in the chest style of seating." It is a novel approach that manages to move away from the two-seater format of the RX-7 model that preceded it. It's also a sports car with a not-too-shabby reputation for great handling.

Competitors to the RX-8 include the BMW 128i, Nissan 350Z, Infiniti G37, and Mitsubishi Eclipse. If you squint hard enough, maybe you could squeeze in an Audi TT, too.

Not a new breakthrough, but something that virtually no other car has: The Renesis rotary engine. Similar in type to the original rotary engine as seen in various RX-7 models, it is compact enough to sit back in the car to the point where Mazda engineers have been able to achieve a 50/50 weight distribution. That type of weight distribution equals great handling. Based on our time with the RX8, we'd have to agree.

Weird. That's it in a nutshell. An aggressive stance, lent to it by large arched front fenders that appear rather pronounced from the side, but relatively subdued from the front. If Zoom-Zoom had a face, it's probably the one you see looking at the newly refreshed RX-8's front end. With the Xenon headlights mimicking eyes, and the main under bumper intake grille as the mouth, the face is nearly complete.

From behind the front wheels, mild ground effects wrap the rocker panels. The RX8 is a long car; it bears a passing resemblance to a long wheelbase sports car, but the use of a blacked-out B-pillar helps to minimize that feature. Bulging rear fenders lead to the rear bumper where the fascia ties things all back together again.

The RX-8's interior is all business to start with. The triangle shape of the rotary engine's rotor is carried over into the cockpit as the shape atop the short throw shift knob. Baseball stitching adds a red accent to the leather-covered steering wheel and e-brake handle. The addition of the R3 performance package brings several new features including Bluetooth, a nine-speaker Bose Surround System and a pair of Recaro seats with leather side bolsters. About that audio system: We wished the controls were more intuitive and easier to use than they turned out to be.

While picking nits, let's discuss the Recaros. We have sat in many different variations of Recaro sport seats through the years. We have loved most of them. But the seats in this RX-8 R3 are not for the corn-fed, or those who are broad of back.

The RX8 is gifted with a more powerful version of the Renesis engine than models sold prior to 2006. The 1.3-liter 2-rotor engine is sold in two versions contingent on which model and transmission you choose. Buy the RX-8 with an automatic tranny, and you'll get a Renesis with 212-horsepower. But when you opt for the RX-8 R3 with its standard six-speed, you are rewarded with 232-horsepower and 159 lb-ft of torque, which arrives at 5,500 rpm. All the better to push the 3084-pound RX-8 around with.

The Renesis engine is a high-revver with a 9,000-rpm redline. The trouble is that it has a rather thin power band that doesn't realize its maximum horsepower output until nearly 8,500 rpm. As a result you end up running at a high rpm, making the "Fast and Furious" exhaust note that goes with putting your foot in it. The six-speed manual that gets you up to speed is one of the best that we've driven, and the single-plate clutch makes it all the easier to do so. Despite the high-revving nature of the RX-8, it is not really a speed demon of a sports car, and you may find yourself on the losing end of a stoplight drag smack down. Take it to the twisties to experience where and how the RX-8 really shines.

With the 50/50 weight distribution and the double wishbones up front trailed by the multi-link suspension in the rear of the unibodied RX-8, this rotary rocket is one of the best at cutting the apex of a tight turn. Mazda has seen fit to tighten up the stiffness in the body by the addition of a strut tower brace on top and anti-sway bars down below. The rack and pinion steering with direct-drive electronic assist help the Mazda to track true through the turns and supply good feedback to the driver. Even more feedback can be had if you turn off the Dynamic Stability Control and Traction Control by its dashboard-mounted switch. Putting the RX8's power to the ground are R3-specific 19-inch forged alloys in a gunmetal metallic, which are covered with 225/40 R19s all around. With an EPA mileage rating of 16 mpg city and 22 mpg hwy, we would call the RX8 R3's mileage fairy average, an inherent downside to the rotary engine.

You would like the most "British-handling" of all Japanese sports cars available on the market today. That, and a certain cache of owning a car that you won't see on every block in the neighborhood.

The shape. The power. The hum of the high-pitched rotary.

2009 Mazda RX-8 R3 base price, $31,930. As tested, $33,010.
Sirius Satellite Radio, $430; Destination, $650.



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