- New styling details and a design that still turns heads
- Go-kart-like handling
- Smooth, rev-happy rotary engine
- Excellent manual transmission
- Tight-as-a-drum build quality
- Very thirsty
- Lack of torque requires frequent downshifting
- Jiggly ride
- Electronic stability control not standard
If you want a sprightly, track-ready sports coupe with head-turning looks and a little extra space, the 2009 Mazda RX-8 will put a smile on your face.
The Mazda RX-8 is a compact sportscar with a unique engine configuration and an unusual passenger layout. The RX-8 is powered by a Wankel rotary engine and follows a long line of Mazda models (including the respected RX-7) powered by rotary engines. Furthermore, even though it has a very coupelike profile, the RX-8 has seating for four along with two small backdoors that are hinged at the back.
For 2009, the RX-8 gets some minor alterations to improve performance and ride quality, several new features, and subtle styling changes inside and out; furthermore, a new high-end R3 model joins the lineup, adding a track-ready appearance and more performance goodies.
Even five years after its introduction, the Mazda RX-8 still has an exterior design that turns heads. The low-slung coupe has a rather long, low hoodline and lipped wheel wells that help accentuate sporty wheel designs and low-profile performance tires. Especially notable is the RX-8's rakish side profile, with rear glass that continues the same smooth arc of the roofline to meet the rear decklid. For 2009, there are a number of minor changes on the outside, including turn signal lamps that have been integrated into larger headlamps units, a redesigned front fascia and grille, and a slightly different tail lamp design.
The interior has a unified low-slung, cockpit-centric appearance, with a matte-metallic-trimmed center console that runs from the instrument panel all the way back. The instrument panel flows smoothly. Generously bolstered front seats provide plenty of comfort and support, along with enough space for taller adults, but the two rear bucket seats are only for kids. The 2009 RX-8 Mazda also gets freshened a bit inside, with a new steering wheel design, a more smoothly contoured instrument panel, and improved materials.
Most noteworthy are the backdoors; they're shorter and hinged at the back, and opened together with the front doors allow impressive access. However, entry and exit for backseat occupants is still difficult; adults need to contort a bit to get into position, and they must especially watch their heads, as the low roofline curves downward at the back. While the seating position in the 2009 Mazda RX-8 is rather low, there's plenty of headroom to afford an upright driving position, so outward visibility isn't an issue, as it is in some other sportscars.
The 2009 Mazda RX-8 is powered by a compact but potent 1.3-liter, twin-rotor engine, making 232 horsepower with the standard six-speed manual transmission but detuned to 212 horsepower with the available six-speed Sport A/T automatic transmission.
The automatic transmission available in the 2009 Mazda RX-8 includes steering-wheel paddle-shifters, but the standard six-speed manual gearbox is the best choice of the two. The stick has very short throws and snicks neatly into each gear, with a light and progressive clutch. It's also the way to get the most enjoyment out of the rotary engine, which needs to rev high to take advantage of the power on tap and the great steering and maneuverability.
The engine has a throaty and mild-mannered sound in leisurely driving, but at full wail, it develops the urgent tone of a speed bike. Fortunately, if you tire of the sounds, you can simply shift up to sixth gear and cruise in relative quiet. One downside, no matter which transmission, is fuel economy; with an EPA city fuel economy rating of 16 mpg, the 2009 Mazda RX-8 is far from frugal.
Outside of the novel personality of the rotary engine and the odd backseat arrangement, the very low center of mass and go-kart-like feel on the road are the main selling points for the 2009 Mazda RX-8. You're low and close to the road and don't need to double speed limits to have fun. The front tires keep a tenacious grip, the body rarely leans, and the quick ratio and the electric-boost steering unwind nicely and bring good feedback. The ride can be a bit jittery on uneven surfaces, but in all, it's a very fun, precise car to drive.
The 2009 Mazda RX-8 is offered in four different models: Sport, Touring, Grand Touring, and R3. Even base Sport models come with power accessories, air conditioning, keyless entry, and attractive alloy wheels, but Grand Touring models pile on extras like HID headlamps, fog lamps, rain-sensing wipers, automatic climate control, upgraded sound systems, a Bluetooth interface, and a keyless start system.
The high-performance 2009 Mazda RX-8 R3 gets a sport-tuned suspension, Bilstein shocks, and high-performance tires on 19-inch wheels, along with foam-filled front-suspension crossmembers, which help quiet the stiffer ride and aid control. It also comes with wider side sills, forged alloy wheels finished in a smoky gray hue, a 300-watt Bose Centerpoint sound system, and a Bluetooth interface.
The insurance-based IIHS has not crash-tested the 2009 Mazda RX-8, but NHTSA rates the RX-8's frontal protection with four and five stars, and gives it four stars for side-impact protection. Both side airbags and head-protecting side-curtain bags covering the driver and front passenger positions are standard, but neither of the side airbags covers rear-occupant positions. Electronic stability control comes standard in Touring, Grand Touring, and R3 models, but it's not available on the base Sport—a model that should be avoided by those who drive on wintry roads. One advantage of the RX-8's very low center of mass and wide stance is its very slight chance of rollover; it's one of the few vehicles to get the top five-star rollover rating from the federal government.