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First Drive 2009 Mazda RX-8 R3 - Best Performing RX-8 Yet

Apr 1, 2009

Specifications & Details
'09 Mazda Rx-8 R3

Engine 1.3-liter Renesis 13B-MSP 2-Rotor Wankel
Transmission 6-speed manual
Suspension Double-wishbone (f) multi-link (r) Bilstein shocks, coil springs, antiroll bars
Weight 3,060 lbs
Price $32,600 MSRP

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For 2009, Mazda has beefed up the entire RX-8 line. All models have received additional structural reinforcement to improve chassis rigidity and the rear suspension geometry has been tweaked to make it handle better. (Those are pretty much the things you would expect for a model nearing the end of its life cycle.) What you might not have anticipated is a new composite driveshaft and shorter final drive ratio on all manual transmission-equipped cars. Even better, they have finally released an R version with a deleted sunroof, stiffer suspension and stickier tires. Basically, everything that's been done to the R3 is what anyone reading this magazine would want on their RX-8, if they wanted one in the first place.

The RX-8 is one of those cars that people either love or hate. Everything about it is designed to be different. The styling is really out there. Its miniature suicide rear doors seem inappropriate on a sports car. Then there's that rotary engine the Mazda engineers just won't give up on. The car as a whole is pretty oddball, and for a long time, I was one of the haters.

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On paper, the car is a dud. The inside is a little too small for a four-door and the outside is a little too big for a coupe. The engine drinks premium fuel like a roaring V-8, but it spins dyno rollers like a mousy four-banger. I used to look at the people who drove them and feel bad for their ignorance. But then I spent some time behind the wheel, and I must say the experience was truly enlightening.

The view looking out from the cockpit offers a completely different perspective than looking in. From the driver seat you can't even see the emo-ish exterior. Your eyes are offered a tasteful array of gauges and an uninhibited view of the road ahead. If the driver were so inclined, he could look down at a thick-rimmed steering wheel and a surprisingly comfortable rotor-shaped shift knob. But really there's no need to because everything falls into your hands so perfectly. It's not just the things you can touch, though. The tires are evenly distanced fore and aft from the centrally located driver seat. And every component in between seems perfectly situated to communicate with the driver, including the low-slung rotary engine.

I've hated rotary engines since the first time I got stuck next to an RX-2 in the staging lanes. That ripping, oversized chainsaw sound has got to be one of the most audibly violating things ever. But when you're the one wielding the giant chainsaw, it's actually pretty frickin' bitchin'! Even with a factory exhaust system muffling its roar, the sound of that rotary engine is addictive. It's not a mild addiction like Pringles or crack. If it weren't for the 9000-rpm rev limiter, I never would have shifted. Physics be damned, I would have blown it up in first gear every time. The noise and power delivery were so foreign to me, all I wanted to do was see how fast that sucker could spin.

But does an obsession over a radically different powerplant compensate for a questionably styled body? Was I being distracted by gimmicks and missing the bigger picture? It wasn't until I drove one at the racetrack that it all came together.

The RX-8 is one of those cars that makes drivers look good. Its performance capabilities are significantly higher than what the stats would suggest. While the peak power may not be that high, the powerband is incredibly fat. That flat power curve really opens up your options as far as shift points are concerned. Go ahead and short shift before entering that rapidly approaching corner. You'll be rewarded by being able to stay on the gas all the way through that next series of turns. And turning is what the RX-8 does best.

With a nearly 50:50 weight distribution and almost all of that weight being located between the four tires, the RX-8 dances through transitions like no other. Its all-aluminum, double-wishbone front suspension keeps the front tires planted. Lifting off the gas quickly points the entire car toward wherever your hands are aimed at. There's just enough power to let you work the car through the corners. This is a momentum car, no mistake about it. But once you get a rhythm going, driving an RX-8 fast is an incredibly rewarding experience. And the extras that the R3 version includes make it even better.

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If you're into uniqueness, those bumpers, side skirts, rear spoiler and 19-inch forged wheels that you're staring at are all R3 offerings that you haven't seen before. For the techno geeks, it has structurally stiffening urethane foam injected into its front crossmembers and noise-canceling technology programmed into its Bose audio system. And for those who just want to go fast, the sport-tuned Bilstein dampers, stiffer springs and supportive Recaro seats all make this exhilarating ride even better. The sissies who complained about the stiff R1 and R2 versions of the third-generation RX-7 may not like the R3 RX-8. But for anyone who's comfortable daily driving a lowered car, I'd highly recommend the experience of pedaling an R3. Even if you don't buy one, at least snag one for an extended test drive.

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