You can’t help but wonder how much longer the rotary-powered Mazda RX-8 will survive. The unique engine burns through far too much fuel (and, historically, oil) for its small, 1.3-liter displacement. That’s not a good thing given the price of gasoline these days. On top of that, the ever-increasing need (and want) for weight-adding luxury and safety items in modern cars severely dulls the rev-happy nature of the low-torque rotary engine. But we still like the RX-8 for its light, nimble handling and surprising functionality. For 2009, Mazda splashed a bit more life into the RX-8 by gifting it with a few notable upgrades including a driver-focused R3 model.
The RX-8 carries on with only minor changes to the exterior. The bumpers, headlights, and taillights are new. R3 models get a more aggressive front fascia, side sills, a rear spoiler, and larger wheels. Inside, we find a redesigned instrument panel center stack as well as a variable redline based upon the engine operating temperature.
The R3 model has aggressive Recaro seats and comes standard with Bluetooth, Bose audio, and a keyless entry and starting system. Other RX-8 models gain redesigned seats and are available with a new navigation system. The RX-8’s rear seats remain a defining feature. The Mazda is a proper low and small, rear-wheel-drive sports car yet it can carry four adults. There is even enough room in back for a child seat or two and the clamshell doors make it easy to plug junior in.
All RX-8 models receive some minor engine changes including revisions to the oiling system. Horsepower and torque remained unchanged. With the six-speed manual transmission, the engine develops 232 hp and 159 lb-ft of torque. Cars equipped with the six-speed automatic have only 212 hp, but that maximum is reached at a lower RPM. Finally, a seven-percent shorter rear axle ratio is fitted to manual-transmission-equipped cars for better off-the-line performance.
The big news for 2009 is the RX-8 R3. The name harks back to the R1 and R2 models of the old RX-7 two-seat sports car. Think of the R3 as a very focused sport package and you get the picture. Nineteen-inch forged aluminum wheels with performance tires save three pounds at each corner compared to the standard eighteen-inch wheels. Bilstein dampers are fitted and the front cross member is filled with urethane foam for increased suspension control. Also, body rigidity is increased and the rear suspension geometry has been fiddled with for better handling on all RX-8 models.
Those looking for gut-wrenching power will still be disappointed in the RX-8. The small engine needs to be revved to the moon for any real forward thrust. At least the positive six-speed manual transmission is fun to work as you try to stay in the engine’s power band. But throw in four people, a load of luggage, and the A/C running on a hot day and the Mazda is downright slow. At least you can toss the RX-8 into a corner and feel the advantage of its light weight. The car has loads of grip and is extremely nimble. This is especially true in the R3 model. The minor changes to the chassis increase steering feel and the nineteen-inch wheels do little to hurt ride quality because of their light weight and the excellent Bilstein dampers. Sure, major expansion joints on the horrible Michigan highways still send a shudder into the cabin but the majority of the time the RX-8 R3 is surprisingly compliant. But the chassis is actually so good that it really accentuates the car’s need for more power.
If you’re looking for an inexpensive sports car, but need room for child seats or extra passengers, the RX-8 is worth a look. Additionally, the R3 model has turned the RX-8 into a true driver’s car with a chassis that is up there with the greats like the Mitsubishi EVO. Still, we can’t help thinking that the RX-8 needs something and that something is power. We’d love to see a turbocharged version of the rotary, but that would likely make the fuel economy of the RX-8 even worse. On the other hand, if you always wanted a high-revving, rotary-engined, rear-wheel-drive sports car with an excellent chassis and need some extra room for the family, you may want to scoop up an RX-8 while you can, because we suspect the rotary engine might not be around forever.
2009 Mazda RX-8
Base Price: $27,105
Engine: 1.3-liter 2-rotor rotary
Horsepower: 232 hp @ 8500 rpm
Torque: 159 lb-ft @ 5500 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Dimensions (L x W x H): 175.6 x 69.7 x 52.8 in
Legroom (F/R): 42.7/32.2 in
Headroom F/R: 38.2/36.8 in
Cargo capacity: 7.6 cu ft
Curb Weight: 3064 lb
EPA Rating (city/highway): 16/22 mpg (manual)