2009 Mazda RX-8 R3
2009 Mazda RX-8 R3. Click image to enlarge

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2009 Mazda RX-8

Ottawa, Ontario – There are certain cars that never seem to stop attracting attention, even years after they were last redesigned. Most of these are exotics of course, but a handful come from manufacturers best known for much lower-key vehicles.

The Mazda RX-8 is one of those cars. This rotary-powered sportster has always been unique thanks to its engine, and its low sale volume has ensured that it isn’t something you see every day.

Yes, this nearly six-year-old design – the RX-8 was new for the 2003 model year – still turns heads. While stopped at a red light, I thought one kid in an SUV one lane over and a car ahead was going to hurt himself, he was craning his neck so sharply to get a look.

2009 Mazda RX-8 R3
2009 Mazda RX-8 R3
2009 Mazda RX-8 R3
2009 Mazda RX-8 R3. Click image to enlarge

It’s a looker, for sure. The bulging front fenders still zing me, especially looking out over them from the driver’s seat. My tester wore a new-for-2009 R3 trim that brings 19-inch wheels, unique front bumper, side sills and skirts to enhance the RX-8’s already shapely exterior.

Interior add-ons include Recaro seats and special red-stitched door and console trim. Stability and traction control (otherwise only available in the top-line GT model), a front strut crossmember brace, self-levelling Xenon headlights and Bilstein dampers are the functional extras.

Otherwise, this RX-8 looks and feels just like it has since day one. The major controls – steering, shifter, brakes – are all tight and ready for action. The steering is super-quick – you don’t have to go far off centre to make directional changes. This is a good thing in a sports car, but on Ottawa’s mostly straight roads (you’d think the whole city was designed around public servants, or something), it can make the daily slog a bit tiring.

The brakes are strong, and the binders bite early – the touchy pedal makes tricky work out of smooth stops. The clutch is equally tough to use smoothly. Full engagement takes place during what feels like about an inch of pedal travel (in reality, it’s more than that), so be prepared to lurch away from stoplights the first few times you drive this car.

The shifter, though, is a joy. The stubby lever is right where you want it to be, and it moves through the gates with short throws and the gears engage positively – missed shifts are a rarity in this car.

On the road, the RX-8 handles just as it looks like it should: flat, fast and light on its feet. The effects of that quick, direct steering are magnified by the R3’s larger wheels and tires. Road feel is very good.

The Bilstein-boosted suspension is tight and firm, and while it was pretty comfortable over smooth roads, it causes quite a lot of head-tossing over broken or rough pavement.

2009 Mazda RX-8 R3
2009 Mazda RX-8 R3 (engine cover removed to show detail). Click image to enlarge

The RX-8’s rotary engine is a rarity (Mazda has long been the only automaker brave enough to use a rotary in a mass-produced car) and it feels the part in its operation. It’s virtually vibration-free, and it sounds unlike much else available in a sub-$40,000 car, particularly when being wound out to its 9,000 rpm redline.

That’s a good thing, because the motor’s power characteristics mean you have to explore the mid- to upper reaches of the tach to exploit the engine’s 232 horsepower. It’s gutless below about 3,000 rpm, but comes into its own above that. Power delivery is smooth and even all over, without the steep torque drop-off that many piston engines exhibit at higher revs.

Rotary technology has its downsides, though. As anyone who’s owned a rotary car knows, these engines consume quite a lot of oil, not to mention gasoline: the RX-8’s EnerGuide ratings are 12.8/9.2 L/100 km (city/highway), while my tester drank at the rate of 14.5 L/100 km. And that’s premium fuel only, thank-you-very-much. Chalk that up partly to this being a fun car to drive, and partly to the short gearing: on the highway, 100 km/h in sixth gear works out to 3,200 rpm on the tach. The exhaust sound is a treat during the Stoplight Grand Prix, but it gets tiresome on the highway.

2009 Mazda RX-8 R3
2009 Mazda RX-8 R3
2009 Mazda RX-8 R3
2009 Mazda RX-8 R3
2009 Mazda RX-8 R3
2009 Mazda RX-8 R3. Click image to enlarge

The leather-trimmed Recaro seats look pretty, and they do a terrific job of holding driver and front passenger in place in the twisties, but they’re not ideal for daily driving. This is especially true if you’re a little wider in the hips, as you wind up sitting more on the side bolsters than between them. The aggressive bolsters also make getting in and out a chore. The lack of a driver’s seat height adjustment and telescopic steering are knocks against, as well.

Visibility is good to the front and sides, but the trunklid spoiler, well, spoils the view out the back window (I think the car would look better without it, anyway). The thick C-pillars (this is the area between the rear-most side glass and the rear window) make for big blind spots, and the tall Recaros block the driver’s view out of the right-side rear window, making lane changes in traffic a touchy affair.

On the plus side, the RX-8’s gauges are easy to read – it’s hard to misread the digital speedometer nestled in the central tach. The cabin is snug – Miata drivers will feel right at home – and as a result, all secondary controls are within easy reach. Fit and finish are very good as well, save for the sliding centre console cover, which felt chintzy.

Headroom in front is surprisingly good, and front-seat legroom decent, at least for the driver; a large protrusion in the passenger-side footwell takes a chunk out of that space.

The real surprise in the RX-8 has always been the rear seat, though, which is actually useful by average people, with decent leg and headroom. The rear-hinged rear half-doors also make getting in and out of the aft seats quite easy.

The trunk is shallow, but there was plenty of room for my weekly grocery run. The back seat doesn’t fold to expand cargo space, but there is a pass-through for longer objects. Mazda doesn’t bother trying to fit a spare tire under the trunk floor; rather, you get a tire inflation kit packaged in a briefcase-sized box that straps to one side of the cargo hold.

On the whole, the RX-8 is a sports car that presents few compromises to its driver and passengers, with a surprisingly useful interior. And while the rotary engine is a unique bit of tech, its quirks – high fuel consumption and finicky nature particularly as the kilometres rack up – will be enough to turn off some buyers. I’d have a hard time justifying this car over, say, a BMW 1 series.

That car, with a torque-rich, twin-turbo six-cylinder engine, can be had for about a grand more than my RX-8 tester was worth. And if the Bimmer gives something up in rear-seat space and accessibility, it more than makes up for that with straight-line performance that the RX-8 can’t match. Then, there are the facts that the 135i is easier on gas – I averaged 11.5 L/100 km in one earlier this year – and easier to drive, period.

Sometimes, being unique just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Pricing: 2009 Mazda RX-8 R3

Base price: $40,780
Options: $105 (Galaxy Grey Mica paint)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,395

Price as tested: $42,280
Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives

Specifications
  • Specifications: 2009 Mazda RX-8

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