There is little that’s unique in today’s automotive world of platform and drivetrain sharing. The Lotus Elise, a niche car that ought not share much in common with anything else, is in fact powered by a Toyota engine once also seen in the Pontiac Vibe. The Volvo C30 uses the same underpinnings as the Mazda 3. Which brings us to the 3’s flashier sibling, the RX-8. Here, at least, is a sports car that is not only affordable, it’s unique: it shares neither its platform nor its unconventional powertrain with anything else.
When it debuted in 2003, the RX-8’s clamshell doors, four adult-size seats, high-revving rotary engine, and lightweight body set it apart. For 2009, the RX-8 gets a minor freshening featuring new headlights and taillights, a slightly revised interior, and a driver-focused R3 model. After a couple of days thrashing an R3, we’re quite smitten.
The spec sheet for the R3 – which recalls the R1 and R2 versions of the third-generation RX-7 – reads much like that of a Evolution or a WRX STI. The Mazda gets a unique body kit, Recaro front seats, Bilstein dampers, a urethane-foam-reinforced front crossmember, and nineteen-inch, forged-aluminum wheels. The changes result in improved steering feel, excellent body control, and massive grip. But the even more accomplished chassis serves only to underscore the fact that the torque-challenged rotary powerplant gains zero grunt for ’09. And fuel economy remains poor, at 16/22 mpg city/highway.
Still, for just over $30,000, the RX-8 R3 is an impressive package that offers an excellent chassis and room for four adults. It may be flawed, but it enjoys the increasingly rare distinction of being one of a kind.