Time waits for no man, nor car. So even when we love one as much as the Mazda RX-8 sports car, there comes a time for change. But while at first glance it may look like the 2009 Mazda RX-8 has just had a much-needed facelift, the freshening is much more than skin deep. Mazda has spruced up its rotary wonder with a new enthusiast-tuned R3 model, and we just couldn’t wait to put it through the Roebling Road twisties for a proper test.

It would be easy to forgive Mazda if they had just left the RX-8 alone, or even cut it from the lineup altogether, and just chalk it up as another victim of today’s dismal automotive economy.

But for now at least, Mazda is sticking with its 4-door sports car, as a near track-ready 2009 RX-8 R3 roams the streets with a renewed sense of sporting purpose. 

Visually, styling is updated with a new front clip that juts out further at the bottom and has larger brake-cooling ducts below standard self-leveling xenon headlights.

Meanwhile, twin round LED tail lights are added at the rear. Side sill extensions and a low hoop spoiler add to the aggressive look while improving high-speed stability.

But the work done under the car is what we noticed around Roebling Road’s high-speed corners.  A stiffer driveshaft and urethane-foam-injected front suspension cross-member reduce vibration, while Bilstein shock absorbers and revised suspension geometry upgrade the R3’s handling.

The R3 rides on lightweight 19-inch alloy wheels, an inch larger than other RX-8s, and wears sticky 225/40-series Bridgestone Potenza tires.

Inside, the R3 driver sits snugly in well-bolstered Recaro buckets and faces a mixture of analog and digital gauges. We’ve always liked the RX-8 cockpit as a well-laid-out and cozy place to spend time and that hasn’t changed.  The rear seat is unchanged too, and remains 2+2 tight for anyone.

While you won’t find a sunroof, heated mirrors or Nav system on the R3, not all creature comforts are sacrificed to the gods of lightweight and handling:  The R3 still boasts a hands-free Bluetooth phone setup and 300-watt Bose sound system to keep its occupants in touch and entertained. 

And while the RX-8 has always been an entertaining car on the race track, the R3 makes a great-handling car even greater, without the penalty of harsher ride that so often accompanies a super-tuned suspension. 

Google the words “steering response” and you should find a link to this car: turn-ins are crisp, steering is direct but never darty, and feel for the road is superb. 

In fast S-bends, the RX-8 R3 arcs between apexes with great agility, composure and consistency.  But great handling will only carry you so far. To truly be a track star, a car needs a good power to weight ratio, and here the RX-8 is still sorely lacking.  There’s just not enough oomph under the hood to fully exploit the car’s handling potential.

The Rotary engine is as much a part of Mazda’s heritage as the flat-6 is to Porsche or the V-12 to Ferrari. 

We’ve long been smitten by its high-revving nature and bulletproof reputation, so we can understand why Mazda sticks with this “little engine that could” even when more modern designs could do the job better.

Coupled to a 6-speed manual gearbox, the 1.3 liter, 2-rotor unit spins out 232 horsepower to the rear wheels.  Automatic-equipped cars make do with just 212 horsepower, and both produce a paltry 159 pound-feet of torque.

In straight line performance, that low torque number translates into no bottom end, and a 6.6 second jog to 60 miles-per-hour.  The quarter-mile takes a full 15 seconds at 95 miles-per-hour. 

The engine revs quickly and is super smooth, but peak power hits at a lofty 8500 RPM.  More to our liking is the slick action of our car’s 6-speed manual shifter.  Throws are short and precise, while clutch engagement is soft but easy to master.

Braking feel is a little on the soft side too, but delivered consistent worry-free performance lap after lap.  Stops from 60 averaged a short 118 feet thanks to four-wheel discs with ABS.

Government fuel economy ratings for the RX-8 are 16 city and 22 highway on premium gas - okay numbers but not great. Also not terrific is the Energy Impact Score of 19 barrels of oil per year with a carbon footprint rating of 10.2 tons of CO2 emitted annually.

Pricing numbers for the RX-8 R3 are pretty good at $32,600.  That’s a modest $930 above the RX-8 Grand Touring package but swaps some luxury bits for suspension, bodywork and seating upgrades.

Even with some shortcomings, we commend Mazda for staying true to their rotary heritage with the RX-8.  The R3 package widens the car’s appeal to weekend track warriors and mountain road runners, and reminds us what a well-balanced, great handling machine the RX-8 remains.



  • Engine: 1.3 Liter, 2-rotor Unit
  • Horsepower: 212
  • Torque: 159 Lb Feet
  • 0-60 MPH: 6.6 Seconds
  • 1/4 Mile: 15.0 Seconds @ 95 MPH
  • 60-0 MPH: 118 Feet
  • EPA: 16 MPG City/ 22 MPG Highway
  • Energy Impact: 19.0 Barrels Oil/Yr
  • CO2 Emissions: 10.2 Tons/Yr