The Mazda RX-8 has always combined excellent sports car handling with a truly unique look, and also suffered from poor torque, making its off-the-line performance distinctly unimpressive. For 2009 the car gets a new trim level, the R3, which mixes elements of a touring and track car and attempts to solve that torque problem through revised gear ratios.
Although the car loses nothing in handling, Mazda managed to smooth out the ride a little. But the RX-8 R3 loses some tech in translation from Japan to the U.S., giving up a navigation system. But the U.S. version keeps Bluetooth cell phone integration as a standard feature and adds a 300-watt Bose audio system. It might make a good tech car, but its audio sources remain limited.
Test the tech: Where's that low-end?
When we tested the 2008 Mazda RX-8, we noted its lack of acceleration, because of the rotary engine's low torque. The 2009 Mazda RX-8 R3 is supposed to make up for slow off-the-line performance with revised gear ratios. Where the standard RX-8 uses a 1 to 3.76 first gear, the R3 ups that a little, with a 1 to 3.815 first gear ratio. The engine is unchanged, though, with the 1.3-liter rotary putting out 159 pound-feet of torque at 5,500rpm and 232 horsepower at 8,500rpm.
To find out whether the R3 gear ratio change makes a difference, we ran some zero-to-60-mph tests. In general driving, we still noticed a lack of punch off the line. To quantify the acceleration, we took the car out to a testing area and hooked up a performance computer. We knew we would have to let the engine speed build before dropping it into first, but we also weren't keen on sending the RX-8 R3 back to Mazda with a burnt-up clutch.
For our first run, we left the traction control on, built up the rpms to about 4,000, and let go. The RX-8 R3 took off sedately, with little drama. We let the tach needle cross 7,000 before the shift to second, then had to shift to third to get over 60 mph. As we expected, our first time was dismal, coming in at 8.23 seconds. We set the car up again, this time disengaging traction control, and aimed for the same shift points. Although it felt a little faster, the second run was a complete failure, turning up a 10.05-second time. We were in Honda Fit territory.
On the final run, we vowed to get more aggressive, building up the rpms to around 5,500 before letting it rip. This time we heard screeching tires, but the car still didn't feel like it was leaping forward. Letting the tach run up near redline before the second and third gear shifts, we achieved our best time, 7.9 seconds, with 2.38 seconds taken to get to 30 mph. We still weren't impressed. Anecdotally, we've heard the car can get to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds, but that would take some serious pounding, and even that's not particularly fast.
In the cabin
The 2009 Mazda RX-8 R3 employs the same unique doors as the previous generation, with full front doors and half suicide doors in the rear, allowing easy access to the back seats. But in the R3 you get Recaro seats standard, with prominent side bolsters that grip nicely. Otherwise, the interior differs little from the standard model. Although you can get a navigation system with the Grand Touring trim, and it comes standard in the Japanese version of the R3, it is not available in the U.S. RX-8 R3.
Instead, the car comes standard with a 300-watt Bose audio system. We've never been a fan of Mazda's stereo controls, which uses three knobs instead of the standard two. With this layout, the volume knob is high up in the center, the tuning knob is on the lower left, and audio settings are controlled on the lower right. We found ourselves frequently reaching for the tuning knob when we wanted to change the volume.