It never fails. Whenever my girlfriend introduces me to guys at parties, I hear the same nine words: “Dude, you have the best job in the world.” And it’s true. I’ve driven some of this planet’s finest, fastest and most deeply addictive automobiles. But for every Audi RS4 there’s a Suzuki XL7. And a MINI Cooper Clubman S (trust me, it’s wretched). True, sometimes I’m surprised by how much I like a car; the Pontiac G8 GT springs to mind. And sometimes my socks are completely blown off my feet, like they were last week by a special edition Mazda RX-8, the R3.
I’m telling you up front that the Mazda RX-8 R3 is not for everyone. Like every modern Mazda, the company’s Nagare (flow?) design language is creeping in. Which makes the “sporty front bumper” that’s unique to the R3 package look like a demonic Pokemon. You also get a rear spoiler. I happen to think the exterior treatment looks wikkid awesome killer cool. But I understand why [some] folks over the age of 18 may not. At least we can all agree that ditching the RX-8’s ludicrous triangular anus was the best move Mazda’s made in years.
I could make the RX-8”s interior perfect in 10 minutes– with a crow bar. Out goes the goofy stereo unit, most of the crummy plastic and the useless back seats. But here’s the good part: any surface that actually involves driving is near perfect, if not actually so. The leather shrouded steering wheel’s my new best friend. The six-speed manual (only tranny available on the R3!) may not be as snick-snick perfect as the Miata’s, but it’s damn close. And you won’t find a better dead pedal on any car. I’m too fat for the Japanese market racing Recaros. But hey, I should lose 25 pounds (though I’d still be too fat).
All RX-8s now come with a brilliant new 1.3-liter RENESIS two-rotor rotary engine that’s good for 232 hp and 159 lb-ft of torque. If that doesn’t sound like much to you, you’ve never driven a Wankel. You don’t take rotaries to drag strips where their obvious lack of torque is a handicap. You take rotary-powered cars to tracks, where a 9,000 rpm redline and humongous usable power band means you can leave the car in third and forget about it ’til you win the race. That’s essentially what I did while carving through some of LA’s best canyons.
Like all RX Mazda’s, the R3’s engine is up front, driving the rear wheels. There’s no performance compromise. Up until this weekend, the EVO X MR was the best-handling car I’ve ever reviewed. But remember: the mighty EVO begins life as a humble FWD econo-box, before Mitsubishi gives it a make over with fancy computers and even fancier mechanicals. Sure, the Active Yaw Control and twin-clutches in the rear half-shafts allow the best-ever EVO to run roads faster than the RX-8 (or most exotics). But underneath all the trickery the Mitsubishi’s still an upright, upper lower middle-class family car. The RX-8 R3, on the other hand, is a sports car first, second and last.
Mazda claims that all they did to tweak the R3’s handling over lesser RX-8s was to add a set of Bilsteins, 19” forged wheels and a Urethane-foam-injected front suspension cross member (whatever that is). But you know what? The results are mind altering. The R3 comes with traction control that I had on for maybe 30 seconds. You simply don’t need it. You cannot make this car break loose. I tried very hard to do so, and with the exception of making childish donuts in a parking lot, the R3 simply doesn’t surrender grip.
The R3 feels like you’re driving a closed cockpit racecar; let’s say a Lotus Se7en with a hard top and decent AC. Looking out over the hood, I kept expecting to see open wheels. Words like “direct” and “communicative” don’t begin to do the intuitive steering justice. Every crank and tug of the wheel results in total, benign compliance. One caveat: the ride is extremely hard, brutal even. But the teeth-chattering suspension’s perfectly-suited to the R3’s nature.
And here’s the cincher: $32k. For the same price as the aforementioned awful MINI Cooper Clubman S, you can have one of the world’s finest-handling sports cars. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that the RX-8 R3 handles well for a $32k car. I’m saying it handles better than a $320k car. Or, more importantly, whatever you’re driving.
[Mazda supplied the vehicle reviewed, insurance and a tank of gas.]