2009 Mazda RX-8 (R3 Sport Package)

Jonny Lieberman
by Jonny Lieberman

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.]

Jonny Lieberman
Jonny Lieberman

Cleanup driver for Team Black Metal V8olvo.

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  • JamesRX-8 JamesRX-8 on May 13, 2010

    wow i am truely happy to hear about this r3 i only have one question..... where can i get one??? can anyone send me a link??? also i'm looking for a way to buy a euro facelift version of the rx-8 a link to a website that you can buy them from would also be aprreciated.

  • A5TR4L A5TR4L on Jun 06, 2016

    It never fails to amaze me. So many haters of rotaries and only about a handful of them have even owned one. The only negative thing about them is the fuel consumption....15mpg for a modern sports car isn't great however Mazda are constantly working on trying to improve this, showing that the rotary engine can be a success. The Myth on the poor reliability is just that. People don't understand the engine hence why they fail....like anything in life, when you know how to look after something properly, it will last. Most people do not. I've owned rotaries for 15 years. I currently have an FC FD rx7 and an r3 8. People talk about, and I quote from a poster above (the apex seal is just not a reliable design) this isn't true. A rotary engine has 3 moving parts compared to a piston engine, you don't get more reliable than that. As before, apex seals suffer when the car isn't warmed up or allowed to cool down properly, the carbon build over time is what can damage them. Hence why every owners manual states this and also states the car needs to be redlined every so often.....people neglect to do this and then say (the rotaries are crap they always break) throw a brick through a window it will break....don't, and it won't -__-. Also aftermarket rebuild kits have come along way, my current rx7 is 490bhp rebuilt with the new viton seals and ceramic apex seals. That engine is on 87k at the moment and compression test results are still on point....so a renesis rebuilt with these parts should last forever as its not tirbocharged I am not biased but I just feel a little shamed that Mazda has decided to split from the crowed and take a brilliant engine design and incorporate it into a car....they took a huge risk to be different and I applaud that. With now modern tech they will improve fuel consumption, they will improve torque and when they do it'll be s milestone for the company. Maybe some people on here should do the same....split from the crowd and actually drive these cars for yourself, own one....you will be surprised.

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