2009 Mazda RX-8 Review

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Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
November 3, 2008

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.

In putting together this comprehensive review covering the 2009 Mazda RX-8 sportscar, the experts at TheCarConnection.com turned to a wide range of critical review voices. TheCarConnection.com's editors also included their firsthand experience driving the new, high-performance R3 variant.

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.

Review continues below

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.

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2009 Mazda RX-8

Styling

A mild makeover for the 2009 Mazda RX-8 keeps all the important styling pieces intact and makes room for a navigation system.

After going nearly five years since its introduction without any hint of a restyle, the Mazda RX-8 arrives in dealer showrooms for 2009 with a slightly revised look.

The 2009 RX-8 Mazda is, in the words of Edmunds reviewers, "a four-seat coupe with a pair of rear-hinged 'suicide' doors" that comes in "four trim levels: Sport, Touring, Grand Touring and R3." Those who love the striking exterior design of previous Mazda RX-8s will be pleased to hear that "the RX-8 carries on with only minor changes to the exterior," according to Automobile Magazine. Otherwise, it's still what ConsumerGuide calls a "sporty coupe," and Cars.com loves the "longish hood" and "pronounced fender flares" that give it one of the most unique appearances on the road. Unique isn't always a good thing, though, and Car and Driver reports that "not everybody thinks it's pretty," but overall reviews read by TheCarConnection.com aren't overly critical of the styling. Edmunds sums it up perfectly by describing the 2009 RX-8 Mazda as "weird in good ways and bad," with the styling leaning more toward the former than the latter.

The interior of the 2009 Mazda RX-8 has been restyled as well, though some reviewers still have a few complaints about the layout. Automobile Magazine devotes quite a bit of space to criticizing the stereo controls and is disappointed to find that in the 2009 Mazda RX-8, "the channel selector is on the left, and the volume control is a large, centrally located knob," which results in reviewers "changing the station when [they] really only wanted to change the volume." Aside from that criticism, other reviews read by TheCarConnection.com appreciate the new styling touches. Road & Track points out that "the instrument panel was redesigned to 'give a feeling of dynamic movement,'" while some gauge changes for the 2009 Mazda RX-8 include a "variable red-zone, which should keep drivers from using too many revs when the engine is cold." ConsumerGuide lists a few pros and cons with the styling; while they love that "the navigation system doesn't incorporate any other functions, which is a plus," they don't like that "when the console cupholders are in use, shifting the manual transmission is awkward." Other styling touches on the interior of the Mazda RX-8 include "numerous circle and triangle details throughout the cabin," which Edmunds says are "a visual homage to the car's rotary engine design."

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2009 Mazda RX-8

Performance

You'll get the most out of the 2009 Mazda RX-8 on a twisting road, but make sure there are plenty of gas stations along the route.

When it comes to sportscars, looks can usually tell a lot. Some cars just appear fast, others come across like purebred handling machines, and some, like the 2009 Mazda RX-8 seem like a perfect combination of both. With its low-slung appearance and aggressive stance and styling, the Mazda RX-8 looks ready to pin drivers back in their seats and still circle skid pads with tenacious grip. Looks can be deceiving, though, and TheCarConnection.com has discovered that the 2009 RX-8 Mazda only lives up to half of its visual impression.

The 2009 Mazda RX-8 is unique in several ways, but none more striking than its engine. Edmunds says the Mazda RX-8 "is powered by a 1.3-liter rotary engine," and "the number of other cars that feature this type of engine is exactly zero." The single engine actually produces two different power numbers, as noted by Automobile Magazine, which reports that "with the six-speed manual transmission, the engine develops 232 hp and 159 lb-ft of torque," though "only 212 hp" when equipped with the six-speed automatic. Either way, the complaints about the engine are the same—it's underpowered. ConsumerGuide claims "low- and mid-range power is lacking, making it difficult at times to negotiate heavy traffic," and Car and Driver agrees, adding that there's "not much punch for diving into holes in traffic." Automobile Magazine explains that "the small engine needs to be revved to the mean for any real forward thrust," and when fully loaded, the Mazda RX-8 "is downright slow." In terms of hard acceleration data, Edmunds reports that "a manual-equipped RX-8 went from zero to 60 mph in 7 seconds."

While the engine may not be a favorite among reviewers, the transmission options both score well. As noted earlier, the 2009 RX-8 Mazda offers both a six-speed manual and automatic transmission, both of which are linked to a "rear-wheel-drive" system, according to Edmunds. Automobile Magazine praises the manual transmission for being "fun to work as you try to stay in the engine's power band," and ConsumerGuide similarly calls the manual "smooth and precise." Cars.com reports that drivers who choose the automatic transmission still have the option to control the gears, thanks to "shift paddles on the steering wheel for driver-initiated gear changes."

A small, low-output engine combined with a lightweight vehicle is usually a formula for respectable fuel economy, but the Mazda RX-8's rotary engine conspires against this tried-and-true recipe. According to the official EPA estimates, the 2009 Mazda RX-8 gets just 16 mpg in the city and 22 mpg on the highway with the manual transmission, while the automatic is just 1 mpg better on the highway. Edmunds calls these numbers "unimpressive," and in real-world testing, ConsumerGuide reviewers only "averaged 16.2 mpg."

For all its drawbacks in the acceleration and fuel economy department, few cars can match the 2009 Mazda RX-8's virtues when it comes to handling. Car and Driver is largely critical of the Mazda RX-8, but even they concede it "is perfect if the mountain road starts at the end of your driveway." ConsumerGuide finds that the 2009 RX-8 Mazda's "firm, direct steering, along with great grip and balance make RX-8 a delight." They add that the Mazda RX-8 "exhibits minimal body lean while cornering." Aside from top-notch handling, many reviewers are impressed by the ride quality in the Mazda RX-8. Edmunds loves the balance between "plenty of grip in the corners and solid feedback through the steering wheel." The brakes are commendable as well, with ConsumerGuide proclaiming that "the brakes deliver good overall stopping control."

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2009 Mazda RX-8

Comfort & Quality

The 2009 Mazda RX-8 surprises many with its seating capacity, but in many ways, it still suffers from the traditional cramped confines of a small sportscar.

If you want a sportscar with incredible handling that you can show off to three friends at once, the 2009 Mazda RX-8 might be what you need. While it may not appear to seat more than two from the outside, the inclusion of a pair of rear-opening doors and a decent-sized backseat means this 2009 RX-8 Mazda is more practical than you'd think.

Cars.com states that the 2009 Mazda RX-8's "cabin has room for up to four people" thanks to the "bucket seats in front and back." Many reviews read by TheCarConnection.com point out that the seats have been restyled for the 2009 RX-8 Mazda, but even still, ConsumerGuide reports that most "testers found it difficult to find a comfortable driving position." They add that "the sunroof housing cramps headroom for even average-size adults," while "legroom is just adequate." Automobile Magazine finds "the seats are supportive but the side bolsters are so large and firm and protrude so far off the seat that shifting [is] difficult." Contrary to the cramped space in back that TheCarConnection.com found, Car and Driver remarks that the Mazda RX-8 features "useable back seats," and Edmunds claims the 2009 Mazda RX-8 gets "a serious advantage over its class rivals," thanks to "its true four-passenger capacity." Edmunds goes on to note that "those seated in the back will find supportive seating and ample room all around."

While the backseats may be great for passengers, there is little back there in the way of storage space. ConsumerGuide criticizes the Mazda RX-8 for the fact that "interior storage is very poor," finding "the door pockets are virtually useless, and the center console is shallow and located in an inconvenient spot aft of the front seats." The trunk isn't much help either, as Edmunds notes that "its opening is small and no flip-down rear seat function exists to increase that luggage capacity."

Overall build and materials quality on the 2009 Mazda RX-8 is neither good nor bad, as evidenced by the general lack of commentary in reviews read by TheCarConnection.com. ConsumerGuide does devote a little space to the quality issue, reporting that the Mazda RX-8's "interior is composed of mostly hard plastic," though "appearance and quality of the interior materials is a cut above those of the Ford Mustang and Nissan 350Z." Automobile Magazine reviewers also mention that "the fit and finish on [their] test car was quite nice."

One area where the build quality is evident is cockpit noise, which is also average in the 2009 Mazda RX-8. ConsumerGuide reports that "wind rush is minimal, but the tires roar over most pavement surfaces." Edmunds reviewers add that "noise levels are subdued" inside the cabin, both in terms of engine noise and exterior intrusions.

And although the RX-8 has a firmly tuned suspension, as most sporty cars do, it isn’t too jarring; Edmunds notes that "a compliant ride means that it won't beat you up on the daily commute."

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2009 Mazda RX-8

Safety

The 2009 Mazda RX-8 lacks the electronic stability control that most sportscars have, and driver visibility needs some serious improvement.

With a small engine and relatively low power numbers to work with, saving weight is critical in the design of the 2009 Mazda RX-8. Fortunately, Mazda engineers are thoughtful enough to include some critical safety features on the 2009 RX-8 Mazda, so drivers won't be completely vulnerable during an accident.

The 2009 Mazda RX-8 scores well in government crash tests. NHTSA fully tested the 2009 RX-8 Mazda and awarded it four out of a possible five stars for front driver impacts and side impacts on both sides. The Mazda RX-8 also earned a perfect five-star rating from NHTSA in the front passenger side impact category. As of this writing, the Mazda RX-8 has not been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, most likely due to the fact that Mazda sells a relatively small number of RX-8s each year.

Most versions of the 2009 Mazda RX-8 come equipped with Mazda's full range of safety features. As Edmunds reviewers point out, "all but the Sport model" of the 2009 Mazda RX-8 "get stability control standard." Cars.com adds that "antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags" are standard as well on the Mazda RX-8. ConsumerGuide reports that the remaining standard safety features on the 2009 Mazda RX-8 include "dual front airbags" and a "tire-pressure monitor," which can also be used to help improve fuel economy (and the Mazda RX-8 needs all the help it can get).

The Mazda RX-8 is, for the most part, a relatively safe sportscar. However, reviews read by TheCarConnection.com reveal one critical shortcoming that safety-conscious buyers should consider: poor driver visibility. ConsumerGuide reviewers are particularly critical, finding that the "thick rear roof pillars severely compromise aft visibility." This issue is of even greater concern on a car as small as the Mazda RX-8.

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2009 Mazda RX-8

Features

The included and available features on the 2009 Mazda RX-8 are nice, but it would be great to see a longer options list.

Cheap thrills—that's what the 2009 Mazda RX-8 promises, and it delivers for the driving enthusiast who craves corners. Daily drivers aren't entirely forgotten, though, as evidenced by the features list on the Mazda RX-8.

The 2009 Mazda RX-8 offers a range of standard creature comforts across its four-trim lineup. While some automakers tend to skimp on their low-end models, reviews read by TheCarConnection.com show that even the Mazda RX-8 Sport offers more standard equipment than some competitors. Edmunds reports that the 2009 RX-8 Mazda Sport comes standard with "air-conditioning, cruise control...full power accessories and a six-speaker stereo with CD player." ConsumerGuide also notes that a "digital-media player connection" is included on the Mazda RX-8 Sport, while upgrading to the Touring model brings an "in-dash six-disc CD changer." For those interested in the 2009 RX-8 Mazda in Grand Touring trim, Edmunds says the standard features grow to include "automatic headlights, heated side mirrors...an eight-way power driver seat with memory," and "heated front seats." New for 2009 is the Mazda RX-8 R3, which offers standard "Bluetooth, Bose audio, and a keyless entry and starting system," according to Automobile Magazine.

Mazda is well aware that many 2009 Mazda RX-8 buyers want more than just the standard features, so the company has included an optional package and a few stand-alone upgrades for the Mazda RX-8. However, in order to keep prices down, the overall selection of options is quite limited. ConsumerGuide states that a Premium Package is available for both Mazda RX-8 Touring and Grand Touring vehicles that includes a "power sunroof, Bose sound system (Touring), [and] satellite radio." In terms of stand-alone features, Edmunds says the most noteworthy are "a new touchscreen navigation system with voice commands and a dedicated iPod connection."

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7.8
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Styling 8.0
Performance 8.0
Comfort & Quality 7.0
Safety 8.0
Features 8.0
Fuel Economy N/A
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