Monday, February 09, 2009

Automobile Reivew: 2009 MazdaRX-8 R3

Here at The Official Blog of Team Grondul, we like to offer a car review approximately annually,* so it's about time for one. For this post, I thought I would expand on my recent, brief comments about my test-drive of a 2009 Mazda RX-8 R3. This review is also based, in part, on my test-drive of an RX-8 Grand Touring toward the end of last year.


The RX-8 is the latest in the long line of Mazda's RX cars, which were all powered by rotary, or Wankel, engines. I recently posted a "rotary primer" to this blog; in that post, I discussed the features and history of the rotary engine and Mazda's RE-powered cars in some detail. If you are interested in that material, you might want to read that post.

The Car

In an effort to expand the RX-8's sales over those of its predecessor, the RX-7, the '8 was designed with 4 seats, rather than 2, and unusual suicide doors** through which to access the rear seats. The extra seats and doors make the RX-8 into a unique---to my knowledge--4-door "coupe." It was the coupe-like shape, size, weight, and wheelbase, combined with the extra doors---and, of course, the rotary engine---that attracted my attention to this car. Eventually, I plan to need a car with rear seats, so that I can haul Grondulspawn about, but I'd like that car to have rear- or all-wheel-rive and to be as fun-to-drive as possible.

The R3 trim line is priced almost a thousand bucks above the Grand Touring trim with manual-transmission, but it ditches some of the luxury features in favor of numerous performance-enhancing and appearance-"enhancing" changes. These difference include but are not limited to Bilstien dampers, a foam-injected shock-tower brace, a shorter final-drive ratio, reclining Recaro seats, larger, allegedly lighter 19-inch wheels with rotor-shaped spokes, 225/40R19 tires, a small rear wing (instead of a lip spoiler), restyled front bumper cover, side skirts, red stitching and gray mesh on the interior, and some "exclusive" paint colors.

The pricing? The MSRP for the cheapest RX-8, the Sport trim level with manual transmission, is $27,105, while the Grand Touring trim with with manual is $31,670. The Touring trim will be somewhere in between. You can add an automatic transmission to any of those trim levels for about 800 bucks, but, as I will explain below, I strongly recommend against the slushbox. The R3 is only available with a stick, and its MSRP is $32,600.

What I Liked
  • Layout. I really like the 4-door-coupe layout of the '8, as I mentioned before. That layout is very well executed. In particular, the car lacks fixed B-pillars; the front edges of the suicide doors latch into the unibody, forming movable B-pillars into which the front doors latch. The absence of B-pillars makes rear-seat ingress and egress very easy, even with smallish rear doors. Thankfully, because the front door latches to the rear door and not to the unibody, you cannot inadvertently close the front door before the rear, which could result in expensive damage to the front door.
  • Engine. The 1.3-liter, 2-rotor 13B-MSP Renesis rotary engine powering the car has all the advantages I discussed in my rotary primer: High specific power and torque output, smooth running, very high engine speeds, small size, and light weight. The Renesis puts out 232 BHP and 159 lb-ft, and it redlines at 9000 RPM. The 232 horsepower is plenty to push this car around, but that power comes on only at high engine speeds, and the 159 lb-ft of torque means that powerplant seems anemic at lower revs. Because of the low-torque, high-redline nature of the rotary, the RX-8 can't be driven the way you might drive a piston-powered car. You can't just push your right foot to the floor and expect the car to shoot off. You must keep the engine "on the boil," somewhere past about 5000 RPM. There's no being lazy with the shifting; your left leg and right arm will get a workout when you drive this car correctly. This description may sound like a criticism, but it's not, at least not entirely. A car with this engine is very engaging and rewarding to drive. You know when you are driving it well. The small size of the engine allows the powerplant to be located entirely aft of the front axle, making the RX-8 a (front) mid-engined car. The front mid-engine, rear-wheel drive layout gives the car a balanced weight distribution and a small yaw moment of inertia. The light weight of the mill also contributes to the light overall weight of the vehicle.
  • Transmission. Given how much you have to use the shift lever and clutch pedal in this car, the tranny had better be a good one. And it is. The throws are short and precise. Reverse is positioned out of the way, to the left of first gear, and it requires the knob be pushed down, toward the ground, before being engaged. I humbly suggest that under no circumstances should you buy an RX-8 with a slushbox; if you like automatics, this is not the car for you. Besides, the automatic RX-8 has a lower, 7500-RPM redline and thus reduced power (but the same torque).
  • Size. I like the overall size of the car. The RX-8's tidy dimensions---4470 x 1770 x 1340 mm, with a 2700-mm wheelbase---contribute to its feeling of agility. In particular, the low height gives the vehicle a low center of mass and makes me feel very comfortable and planted. By contrast, the 2009 Subaru Imprezza WRX STI that I drove immediately afterward felt tall and "tippy," like an SUV. Yes, the STI is far from an SUV---but if feels a bit like one by comparison.
  • Weight. I also appreciated the weight of the '8. Manual '8s are specced at 3064 pounds. That's about 200 pounds more than the heaviest car I've ever owned, but that heaviest car, a 1977 280Z was a 2-door 2-seater, and it lacked modern safety equipment. The RX-8 is quite light compare to modern 4-seat coupes, and I can't think of another RWD, 4-door sporty car that is anywhere near as light.
  • Weight distribution. The weight distribution of the vehicle---52% front, 48% rear---is near ideal.
  • Chassis stiffness. The car certainly felt much stiffer and more solid than my Miata. Most of that stiffness surely is due to the presence of a roof on the car, but still, that solidity is appreciated.
  • Handling. The low weight, low yaw moment of inertia, stiff chassis, and Bilstien shocks yield excellent handling characteristics. I didn't push the car too hard, being on public roads with the saleschick in the passenger seat, and especially since it wasn't my car, but the vehicle felt very agile. The '8 seems ready to go wherever you point it. OK, so it isn't as tossible as my little Miata, but that car is the lightest sports car you can buy, short of a Lotus. You can't really expect the same go-kart feel from a 4-door car.
  • Styling. Although the basic design of the car is now 5 years old, the styling still looks contemporary, even futuristic. The '8 received a facelift for the 2009 model year. The changes are confined, I believe, to front and rear bumper covers and the front fenders which now have awkward-looking triangular vents with inset triangular turn signals. The vents on the 2004-2008 models were larger, vertical, rectangular shapes located just behind the wheel wells, and they were much better looking, in my opinion. One plus to the facelift is that the gratuitous rotor-shaped styling element at the bottom center of both the front and rear bumper covers is now absent. Overall, the RX-8's appearance, before or after the facelift, is more cutting-edge and more attractive than that of most cars on the road.
  • Seating. The RX-8's front Recaros are far from full-bucket race seats, but they do provide better support than the base seats, which, in my experience, where pretty decent. They might be somewhat narrow for larger-waisted drivers---they were for the saleswoman---but they felt fine for my 29-inch middle. The rear seats offer adequate room for someone of my 65-inch height, as long as the driver is under around 6 feet tall. With the driver's seat set for me, legroom in the back is more than sufficient for someone up to, say 68 inches tall, at which point, the roof imposes a hard limit. Since I'm planning to put smaller humans in the back, there's more than enough space for my application. One downside to the seating results, perhaps surprisingly, from the emissions issues of the engine. You see, the catalytic converter is positioned to the passenger side of the transmission and forms a lump in the passenger footwell that could be annoying. I read somewhere that the cat must be positioned close to engine to be warm enough to do it's job, so it can't be moved aft to a more convenient spot. I believe that it can't practicaly be moved forward without impinging on the passenger compartment even more, because the transmission flares toward the front of the car.
  • Instrumentation. The gauges in the '8 are arranged in 3 separate little binnacles behind the wheel. They are easy-to-read and attractive. I especially like the center hood, which contains an analog tachometer with an inset digital speedometer. That arrangement may sound like a gimmick, but I find that it makes it easy to read out the engine speed and ground speed quickly. The tach has one feature that I'd like to see in every car. The redline is not permanently painted on the gauge but is formed by an arc of LEDs shining through it. When the car is started, the redline is low, perhaps 6000 or 7000 RPM. As the engine warms up, the redline advances, stepwise, until it reaches 9000 RPM. I can only assume the rev limiter, which cuts fuel to avoid over-reving, tracks the redline.
  • Trunk. OK the trunk isn't huge, but it's decent-sized for a sports car.

What I Disliked
  • Fuel efficiency. Fuel consumption is the Achilles heal of the Rx-8. The manual '8 is rated by the EPA at 16/22 miles per gallon city/highway, and I'm sure that, if I drove it for a full tank the way I did during my test-drive, I'd come in below that rating. This fuel efficiency is in supercar territory, without supercar power or torque, and that's inexcusable.
  • Engine. Yes, the engine is both an asset and a detriment. The RX-8's mill sadly suffers from most of the shortcomings I mentioned in my rotary primer, most obviously comparatively low torque. 159 ft-lbs is a lot of torque for a naturally aspirated 1.3-l engine, but it's not much for a 3000-lb car. As I mentioned, the weak torque output can be worked around; it can even be fun to work around the issue. However, that lack of torque could become wearisome in stop-and-go traffic, or if you just don't feel like working so hard to get everything out of the motor.
  • All the Wankelry. The exterior and interior is decorated with what one automotive review called "Wankelry:" gratuitously rotor-shaped design elements. I'm a believer in form following function. Wankel rotors are shape the way they are because they need to be. That doesn't mean the wheel spokes, shift knob, seat-recline knob, and other elements of the car need to be shaped that way, too. The knob is the worst offender; it's downright uncomfortable. Fortunately, you can easily and cheaply install an aftermarket knob in whatever shape you find most comfortable. To be honest, I actually found the rotor-shaped seat-recliner to give better leverage than a round one would, but 3 or 4 large splines would accomplish that end without being so silly.

The Bottom Line

The RX-8 is great fun to drive. It's a true driver's car that rewards attention to engine speed, awareness of weight transfer, and husbanding of momentum. The '8 is light and sure-footed, and it begs to be wound to its 9000-RPM redline and tossed down a canyon road or a hustled around a race track. And the R3 is clearly the trim to have.*** Plus, it offers 4 seats, 4 doors, and decent-sized trunk. All that for an MSRP of 27 to 32 grand. The car's torque production isn't great, but the only real drawback to the RX-8, in my opinion, is the terrible fuel consumption.

Hope exists, however, for increased torque and reduced fuel thirst, as well as improved power and lower emissions. That hope's name is 16X. The 16X engine is currently being prototyped by Mazda, and, as I detailed in the primer, it features several improvements designed to addressed the usual shortcomings of REs:
  • The new engine has increased displacement---1.6 l---and reworked geometry to produce more torque and higher thermal---and thus fuel---efficiency.
  • The 16X also features direct injection, which should improve power, torque, efficiency and emissions.
  • New aluminum housings are used to reduce engine weight, which is always good.
Conveniently, the 16X is sized to be dropped into the current RX-8 with few changes. Many "rotar heads" hoped that this next-gen RE would have reached dealers in the engine bay of the 2009 '8, but they were disappointed. Perhaps it will appear in 2010, or perhaps it won't show its face until the next RX car is released, whenever that turns out to be.

But none of that 16X stuff applies to the car as it exists now. How do I rate it? Overall, including cost, driving experience, practicality, and fuel efficiency, I give the 2009 Mazda RX-9 R3 7.5 out 10. If it had a somewhat more modest thirst for fuel, I'd have given it at least 8.5. I've put this vehicle at the top of my family-car shopping list, and I'm hopping that the next-gen RX features the same 4-door-coupe layout and a 16X engine. And 200 pounds less weight would be nice, too.

* See my review of the 2009 Ford Mustang V6 here and my review of the 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata here.

** Mazda calls these doors "freestyle" doors.

*** Unless you like modifying your car. In that case, you might want to buy an RX-8 Sport, put on an adjustable aftermarket suspension, some chassis bracing, and perhaps some heavily bolstered seats. You could probably do that for less than the cost of the R3, and you'd have a lighter car with a stiffer chassis and tunable handling.


  1. Not that I'm terribly likely to be buying a k$30 sportscar in the near future, but, do you have any feel for whether a 76-inch tall person (to pick a height at random) would be able to drive the thing?

    And let me just say that I find it hilarious that a 2+2 sport coupe qualifies as a "family car" in your lexicon. Does that make Lisa's Matrix a cargo hauler, then?

  2. Oh, Nick, you misunderstand! My next car will be a Matrix-type hatchback (I'm leaning toward the Mazda 3 5-door, although also considering the Fit and the Matrix). Thus, Michael's Miata will work great as long as we have 1 or fewer children. I'll just get to drive whenever all of us need to go somewhere. However, if we end up with 2 kids someday, then Michael will need at least 2 extra seats in his car. Enter the 2+2 sport coupe.

    I can't help but feel I'm somehow getting the short end of the stick here. I'm putting it in writing as of now...if we have twins unexpectedly, I'm officially blaming him and HE has to drive the minivan.

  3. The RX-8 is certainly much roomier than my Miata. There's more leg room, elbow room, and head room (at least, if the Miata's top is up). Folks a little over 62 inches should fit, no problem. As for you, well, I assume you fit pretty well in your Civic. Is that true? If so, I'd guess you'd be OK or close to it in the '8. The car is certainly lower, but you would also sit lower, so it might work out. Do measurements in Imperial units mean much to you? Here are some from Mazda's site:

    Headroom without moonroof, front/rear (inches)
    38.2 / 36.8

    Headroom with moonroof, front/rear (inches): 36.7 / 36.5.

    Shoulder room, front/rear (inches):
    54.8 / 54.9.

    Leg room, front/rear (inches):
    42.7 / 32.2.

    Hip room, front/rear (inches):
    53.3 / 48.1.

    Here are the same specs for the current-gen Civic, which should be close enough to yours:

    Headroom (in, front/rear): 39.4 / 37.4.
    Legroom (in, front/rear): 42.2 / 34.6.
    Shoulder Room (in, front/rear): 53.7 / 52.4.
    Hiproom (in, front/rear): 51.9 / 51.0.

    So, compared to an '09 Civic, you'd lose about an inch of head room, but gain half an inch in the legs. Might work, if, as I assumed, your car is very similar to its younger sibling.

  4. Alison,

    You certainly can't blame me if they are fraternal.

    Also, I don't care if we have quadruplets, we aren't getting a minivan. I'm willing to go as car as the Mazda5, but no further.

    And yes, I do consider a 4-door coupe as a family car. We'll just teach the kis at a young age to pack lightly.

  5. Crap, I've lost the ability to type, it seems. Not that I ever had it.

  6. The newer Civics are actually significantly headroomier (sic) than my car, and I fit just fine. So, it's likely that I could drive an RX-8 without difficulty.

    "And yes, I do consider a 4-door coupe as a family car. We'll just teach the kids at a young age to pack lightly."

    You'd also better hope that the kids don't get some anomalous tall genes and shoot up to 6' before their thirteenth birthdays...

  7. "You'd also better hope that the kids don't get some anomalous tall genes and shoot up to 6' before their thirteenth birthdays."

    If that happens, I'm going to have a long, private talk with Alison. And maybe some genetic testing.