Since its debut in 2003, I’ve been intrigued by the Mazda RX-8. It’s an evolution of the famous RX-7 with a powerful, small-displacement rotary engine inside a light, nimble sports car. The RX-8 features a clever “freestyle,” rear-hinged door system allowing for easy rear seat access while maintaining the 2-door coupe appearance.
Since it came out, however, Mazda really hasn’t done much with the RX-8. A special edition here, a minor appearance change there, but no true generational changes. For 2009, Mazda implemented a fairly significant facelift for the RX-8 consisting of new LED tail lights, a more aggressive front-end with new headlights, bigger exhaust pipes. The 2009 model also got an improved suspension, new gear ratios to improve off-the-line acceleration, and is 90 lbs lighter than the 2008 model. In addition to those changes and some new tech features, Mazda also added a new trim level to the lineup: the RX-8 R3 Edition featuring a sport-tuned suspension, body kit, special 19-inch alloy wheels, upgraded audio, and Recaro sport seats.
Luckily, we got to try out the new 2010 RX-8 R3 for a week…
The 2010 Mazda RX-8 features a 1.3-liter rotary engine producing 232 horsepower and 152 lb-ft of torque, all going to the rear wheels. If you choose the automatic RX-8 (please don’t,) power drops to 212 hp. The 6-speed manual transmission is a really good one. Despite Mazda’s new gear ratios, the power still lacks, especially off the line. Once you get closer to the incredible 9,000 RPM redline, the car pulls hard, but you really have to push it. The disappointing 152 lb-ft of torque really hurts it. What makes it even worse is the abysmal fuel economy: 16 city, 22 hwy MPG on premium fuel.
Luckily, the RX-8 R3 is a blast to drive. Mazda got the handling perfect on this car, which touts a near-perfect 50/50 weight distribution. Turning hard into corners with the R3’s upgraded suspension feels like you’re on a roller coaster, and steering input is smooth, not too boosted. While the RX-8 can’t touch any of its competitor’s power levels, it blows them away in the handling department. You really have to push the RX-8 to realize its potential, which means it’s a great car for the track. The standard six-speed manual transmission, though it takes a bit of getting used to, is a great performer with a short throw, close ratios, and smooth clutch. Brakes are excellent – responsive but not jerky.
The 1.3-liter Wankel rotary engine is an interesting machine. The highly efficient spinning movement (instead of the traditional up/down cylinder motion) produces big power from a small size (232 hp from a 1.3-liter is great,) but lacks torque and fuel efficiency. The rotary also creates an interesting driving experience; acceleration is linear and smooth throughout the power band, and the exhaust note is a strange high-pitched hum. It’s not unpleasant at all though, giving a very precise mechanical note throughout the RPM range and while shifting.
Inside, the 2010 RX-8 is all sports car. The R3’s Recaro seats look great with leather trim and red stitching. Although they have very limited adjustability, the seats give the driver and front passenger excellent lateral support in the turns. Warning: these seats are not for wide butts. Limited storage space inside is typical for a car this size, although Mazda cleverly uses the center console for drink holders and storage room with a sliding and opening arm rest. The center control panel is used for audio and climate control. I’m not a fan of the audio control layout, as Mazda uses a strange 3-knob system and I constantly found myself trying to adjust audio volume (center knob) with the Tune (left) knob. A small area below the climate controls feature a 12V outlet and small cubby hole. Anything plugged into the outlet will require a cord, which inevitably gets in the way of the shift knob and parking brake. The instrument panel is beautiful, with a digital speedometer placed with the large, center-mounted tach gauge.
Rear seats, as they are with most small sports cars, are of limited use. We managed to squeeze in four adults for a short trip, but that’s only recommended in a pinch; everyone was uncomfortable. Luckily, the rearward-swinging doors made entry and exit easier. Trunk space is, as you’d expect, pretty minimal. It’s enough to haul a grocery trip’s worth of food, but don’t count on much more than that.
The 2010 Mazda RX-8’s styling, as it’s always been, is controversial. The R3 trim adds to the aggressiveness with the addition of a front and rear spoiler, side skirts, fog lights, and incredibly attractive 19-inch gunmetal wheels with a “rotary” spoke design. New round LED tail lights are hit-or-miss for people, but I like the older design better. While the RX-8 is in need of a redesign, the minor styling changes keep it fresh. The R3 is available in “Velocity Red Mica,” which was the color of our test car, or R3-only “Aurora Blue Mica,” which I recommend.
You can get into a 2010 Mazda RX-8 for $27,245 (including destination) for a base model, or upgrade to the Grand Touring trim for about $5,500 more. The R3 model will run you at least $32,740, our as-tested price is $33,170.
For the week that we had the RX-8 R3, I was consistently disappointed at the lack of low-end power and extremely high fuel consumption. However I did find myself constantly wanting to drive it. Keeping the RPMs above 5000 and running through the short-throw shifter’s gears around a windy road is pure driving pleasure. While this car would excel in a track setting, everyday driving is pleasant at all speeds.
Overall the 2010 Mazda RX-8 R3 is a fun alternative to other $25-30k sport coupes. It offers exceptional handling abilities with a smooth powertrain, however fuel-thirsty and torque-deficient. For many, the go-cart handling will more than make up for the lack of power, but others will gravitate towards the 370Z or Genesis Coupe.
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Competitors include the 2010 Chevy Camaro and BMW 128i, but the real thorn in the RX-8’s side is the Nissan 370Z and Hyundai Genesis Coupe. Both offer more power and better fuel economy for similar or less money, though neither handles quite as well.