Mazda RX-8 R3
The R3 retains the neat RX-8 bodyshape
- Useable rear seats
- Rev-happy and powerful engine
- Highly appealing exterior styling
- Excellent steering and gear shift
- Rotary unit lacks torque low down
- Slightly offset pedals distort driving position
- Body flex still present
- Shiny interior plastics not to everyone's taste
Mazda's RX-8 remains the world's only production rotary engined vehicle. As well as that distinction it holds further tricks up it sleeve - chiefly the clever body and door layout that provides a sporty profile plus room for four. The R3 variant is the new range-topper, adding extra equipment, a styling package and revised suspension to the existing high power model.
The RX-8 is Mazda's flagship sports coupe and one that has re-written the rule book on what can be achieved within the segment. The use of the unconventional rotary design of engine is the model's chief talking point. Using technology derived from winning race-cars and three previous generations of rotary powered RX-7, Mazda has weaned 228bhp from a little over 1.3-litres. The primary benefit of such a small but powerful engine is one of weight saving, which aids both handling and performance and has helped Mazda achieve a near perfect 50/50 weight distribution. In addition, the lack of moving parts in the rotary design theoretically means there is less to go wrong.
Using the higher powered version of the two units available, the RX-8 R3 adds a number of improvements. The exterior receives a body-kit with additional side skirts, a rear spoiler, unique 19-inch alloy wheels and a modified front spoiler with repositioned foglamps to accommodate the larger vents for oil cooling.
The clever door layout with rear suicide doors providing easy access to the back seats remains, but the interior also benefits from additional equipment including half-leather Recaro bucket seats and a premium Bose sound system with integrated Bluetooth. The dials have also been upgraded allowing greater focus on the driving experience.
Technical modifications have been made too, starting with the suspension. Flex has been something of a bugbear for the RX-8, so efforts have been made to increase the stiffness of the chassis; Mazda says torsional (twisting) and flexural (bending) rigidity have been increased by 5.4 and 8.7 respectively. Bilstein has provided up-rated damping for a more responsive driving experience. The engine has also undergone changes to make the unconventional design more user-friendly and reliable. Oil and fuel capacity have both been increased and cooling improved courtesy of the reshaped front.
Our verdict on the Mazda RX-8 R3
Featuring a healthy combination of great looks, practicality and sporting performance, the RX-8 was already a highly desirable sports coupe. The additions and revisions for the R3 variant improve on that great recipe to offer a vehicle with even more kerb appeal and an improved driving and ownership experience. The rotary engine and suicide doors are more than just dinner party topics, they're also important elements in the car's distinctive character and practical nature.
Despite its meagre capacity, the RX-8's rotary engine comes with quite a thirst. Wankel units also have a propensity for oil usage and owners are advised to check levels regularly. This has been made easier on the R3 with a relocated dipstick. Regular maintenance is a must for rotary engines, but the simple design should help keep costs reasonable. The low profile tyres on the R3 will be more expensive to replace, although insurance is not unreasonably high for a performance car.
Space and practicality
One of the most spacious and practical compact sports coupes available, the RX-8's neatest trick is to offer two useable rear seats. Although best suited to children, adults will find the rear accommodating for short periods. Headroom is particularly generous, but legroom falls short. The boot is of an impressive size and there is storage to be found in the front and rear along with cup holders for all.
Controls and display
The RX-8 R3's dials have been especially designed to minimise the strain on driver's eyes and the rev-counter now features an adaptable red zone that informs the driver where the safe limit is according to engine temperature. With no natural limiter the driver relies on a buzzer and the dials to inform them of the approaching red line. Incorporated into a neat and compact three-dial binnacle, information is efficiently delivered. Controls are conventionally positioned and the triangular theme of the seat adjustment knobs, gearlever and handbrake is a nice touch.
Driver and passengers should find the RX-8 a comfortable car to travel in front and rear. Impressive ride quality is matched by a high level of equipment including automatic air-con. For the driver, the R3 offers a raft of labour saving devices including auto headlamps, auto wipers and cruise control.
A Thatcham Category 1 alarm and immobiliser is standard fit for the R3 and rear window tints help add an extra element of security. Items stored in the boot will remain out of sight and there's additional storage in the cabin.
Nimble handling and excellent brakes are the key components to the RX-8 R3's safety, but the power is also reined in with switchable traction and dynamic stability control. EBD is included alongside ABS. The RX-8 shell incorporates the Mazda Advanced Impact Distribution and Absorption System to disperse energy around the occupants in the event of an accident while driver and passenger front airbags, front side airbags and full-length curtain airbags provide additional protection along with an intrusion-minimising brake pedal.
The RX-8s fast-revving and powerful rotary engine offers a genuinely exciting driving experience. The power and torque are to be found near the top of the rev-range, which encourages holding on to gears for a more sporty drive. The steering offers excellent feedback and the short-throw six speed gearbox has a pleasing mechanical feel to its slick changes. An easy car to drive quickly, the sports suspension offers a responsive chassis while remaining comfortable. The only negatives are a small amount of flex that results from the unusual body style despite work on stiffening the chassis and slightly offset pedals that distort the driving position slightly. Low speed manoeuvring can be a little jerky due to the lack of low down torque.
Family car appeal
Families should be able to live with the RX-8, particularly those with young children who will find the rear doors a real bonus. The RX-8 goes someway to proving that sports coupes and family life needn't be mutually exclusive, although running costs may men that it falls outside of some family budgets.
First car appeal
Although a highly appealing model, purchase price and insurance will doubtless shatter the illusions of most young drivers. For those young drivers lucky enough to be able to afford one, the RX-8 R3 offers enough practicality to make it useable everyday and is easy to drive once into the habit of allowing the engine to rev.
Quality and image
The RX-8 R3's kerb appeal is astronomical. Smart looks backed by impressive performance and equipment levels ought to inspire envious looks. Build quality is good on the whole, although the small amount of chassis flex that is still present can translate into the occasional squeak from the interior. Although the shiny black interior plastics won't be to everyone's taste, materials are of good quality and piano black plastic is balanced well with leather.
The suicide rear doors of the RX-8 offer unrivalled access to the rear seats. The front seats are equally simple to get to thanks to large front doors that open to a decent angle. The R3 is a low-slung car, however, so requires a certain amount flexibility to exit and enter. It shouldn't pose a problem for most reasonably agile people and the raised edges to the bucket seats are soft enough to not cause and issue.
Stereo and ICE (In car entertainment)
An impressive new sound system is included as standard in the R3. The Bose setup features Centrepoint surround sound with noise compensation technology tuned specifically for the model. Nine speakers and a six-disc CD-changer mean there ought to be no shortage of entertainment. An MP3 unit can be plugged in via a built in jack and Bluetooth is incorporated for hands-free phone use. Audio controls are present on the steering wheel and the centre console setup is simple enough to use with an uncomplicated selection of knobs and buttons.
Colours and trim
The R3 variant benefits from revised trim inside and out. A more aggressive styling kit and unique 19-inch alloy wheels adorn the exterior giving the already smartly styled coupe even more presence. Inside, Recaro bucket seats feature half leather and additional trim includes aluminium inserts in the scuff plates. Owners will certainly feel that they have received something a little special for their additional investment, especially as four new metallic and mica body colours have been introduced for the model.
A compact body makes the RX-8 reasonably easy to park, but wide arches need to be kept track of in mirrors when manoeuvring in tight spaces. Large alloys with low profile tyres might be prone to kerbing if careless. Rear visibility is average for a coupe, with a wide but narrow window and chunky C-pillars. The boot mounted spoiler helps gauge where the car ends and the turning circle is very good.
Emergency tyre inflation kit fitted as standard.
Petrol engine options - 1.3-litre (189bhp); 1.3-litre (228bhp). Transmission options: five-speed manual gearbox (189bhp only), six-speed manual gearbox. Trim levels: RX-8, RX-8 R3.
Honda S2000 Only two seats, but available with a folding hard top
Nissan 350Z Brutal performance but two-seater only
BMW Z4 Controversially styled two-seater is more expensive
Audi TT Good looking coupe drives well and potentially seats four