Full 2009 Mazda RX-8 Review
What's New for 2009
The Mazda RX-8 undergoes its first significant update since its introduction five years ago. The exterior receives a new front end with a wider grille and a lightly massaged tail. The interior's center stack is restyled slightly and there are several significant new available features like Bluetooth, an auxiliary audio jack and a new touchscreen navigation system. A new performance-oriented trim level known as R3 also debuts.
The 2009 Mazda RX-8 is weird. Its body style? Weird. Its engine? Weirder. Its styling? Yep, that's pretty strange too. Since its introduction five years ago, the RX-8 has served as an automotive asterisk. However, weird can be a good thing. Jim Carrey's weird and so is Japan, but plenty of people saw "Ace Ventura" and vacation in Tokyo. At the same time, though, those two entities also produced "23" and cucumber-flavored Pepsi (respectively, of course). So goes the Mazda RX-8 -- weird in good ways and bad.
The RX-8's coupe-like body features a pair of rear-hinged doors that grant easy access to the surprisingly roomy backseat. If you've ever seen an extended-cab pickup, it's the same idea. Given the car's performance and handling capabilities, that old marketing cliché of "four-door sports car" actually applies here. Under the hood is not a sports car's typical inline-4 or V6, but instead, Mazda's signature rotary engine. The number of other cars that feature this type of engine is exactly zero, but the resulting effect is that the RX-8 behaves like nothing else. With the manual transmission, the rotary engine spins up to 9,000 rpm with the ease of a blowtorch through Country Crock. The sounds are glorious, and playing with such a free-flowing, high-strung engine is a lot of fun.
All of this would be weird in a good way except that the rotary can also get tiresome in everyday use, as it produces very little low-end torque. Drive sedately and the RX-8 feels like a slug. That high-spinning nature also hammers fuel consumption to the point that the 3,000-pound, 232-horsepower Mazda RX-8 gets the same fuel economy as the 4,300-pound, 273-hp Mazda CX-9 crossover. That's weird in a bad way.
That last point is truly the 2009 Mazda RX-8's Achilles' heel. We could probably live with the rotary's less-than-stellar straight-line performance, given the fun derived from the RX-8's superb handling, but the fuel economy and dearth of low-end power are hard to reconcile. The BMW 128i, Nissan 350Z and Mustang GT provide better performance and/or fuel economy for a similar price. Of course, none of those cars provide the practical four-door coupe body style or that one-of-a-kind styling inside and out. In other words, if the RX-8's your type of weird, there's no other choice.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2009 Mazda RX-8 is a four-seat coupe with a pair of rear-hinged "suicide" doors that ease access to the backseats. There are four trim levels: Sport, Touring, Grand Touring and R3. The base Sport features 18-inch wheels and performance tires, a rear lip spoiler (manual transmission models only), air-conditioning, cruise control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, full power accessories and a six-speaker stereo with CD player and auxiliary audio jack. The Touring trim adds a limited-slip rear differential, xenon headlights, foglights, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and an in-dash six-CD changer.
Grand Touring RX-8s have this equipment plus automatic headlights, heated side mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, an eight-way power driver seat with memory, heated front seats, leather upholstery, automatic climate control, keyless ignition/entry, Bluetooth and a nine-speaker Bose surround-sound system. The new-for-2009 R3 trim level is essentially a Touring model with a more aggressively tuned suspension, 19-inch wheels, a rear wing spoiler, a revised front bumper, Recaro front sport seats, keyless ignition/entry, Bluetooth and the upgraded Bose stereo.
The Touring and Grand Touring can be equipped with a premium package that includes a sunroof, satellite radio and the Bose stereo (Touring). Also optional on the Grand Touring is a new touchscreen navigation system with voice commands and a dedicated iPod connection.
Powertrains and Performance
The rear-wheel-drive Mazda RX-8 is powered by a 1.3-liter rotary engine. The engine's output depends on the transmission selected. Models with the six-speed automatic (with paddle shifters) receive 212 hp and a redline of 7,500 rpm. The six-speed manual version has 232 hp and an atmospheric redline of 9,000 rpm. All RX-8 engines produce a rather meager 152 pound-feet of torque.
Although generally quick by most measures, acceleration is hardly impressive for a sports car. In our tests, a manual-equipped RX-8 went from zero to 60 mph in 7 seconds. Fuel economy is unimpressive at 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway and 18 mpg combined.
The 2009 Mazda RX-8 comes standard with antilock brakes, front side airbags and front side curtain airbags. All but the Sport model get stability control standard. In government crash testing, the RX-8 earned a four-star rating (out of a possible five) for driver protection in frontal impacts and five stars for the front passenger. In side-impact testing, the RX-8 received four stars.
Interior Design and Special Features
Giving the 2009 RX-8 a serious advantage over class rivals is its true four-passenger capacity. The "free style" reverse-opening rear doors make loading people and cargo much easier. Provided they are shorter than 6 feet tall, those seated in the back will find supportive seating and ample room all around. The rear compartment is equally accommodating for luggage or grocery bags. The trunk is a different matter, as its opening is small and no flip-down rear seat function exists to increase that luggage capacity.
The RX-8's cockpit features a circular theme, with three round gauges and a circular central dash control stack that houses the stereo and climate control functions. Look closely and you'll also spot numerous circle and triangle details throughout the cabin, a visual homage to the car's rotary engine design. Although the gauges are easily read, we've had mixed feelings about the central display used for the audio system and climate control, which some find to be too crowded with information. The optional navigation system is now operated through a touchscreen and voice recognition interface, which works well and is a welcome improvement.
Although the 2009 Mazda RX-8 has the look of a race-tuned sports car, its demeanor on the road is considerably more docile. There's plenty of grip in the corners and solid feedback through the steering wheel, but a compliant ride means that it won't beat you up on the daily commute. The rotary engine requires high engine speeds to make serious power, but the delivery is virtually vibration-free and noise levels are subdued. If you like a smooth engine (in feel, sound and delivery), there's none smoother. Overall, the RX-8 is one of the best examples of a car that's both fun to drive and very livable on a day-to-day basis -- just be prepared to pay at the pump.