2010 Mazda RX-8 Review

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Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
September 18, 2009

The 2010 Mazda RX-8 is one of the few true track-ready sports cars you can get that actually has a backseat; the RX-8 is practical, but not too much so.

TheCarConnection.com looked at a wide range of reviews in order to compile this full review covering the 2010 Mazda RX-8. The editors at TheCarConnection.com have driven the RX-8 on the street and out on the racetrack and have included their firsthand driving impressions—including those on the track-oriented R3.

Whether you look at its design and profile or its spec details, the 2010 Mazda RX-8 is like no other vehicle on the market. It’s a small sports car with seating for up to four, two small rear-hinged back doors, a unique Wankel rotary engine layout, and rear-wheel drive. It follows a long line of rotary Mazdas, including the best-known RX-7.

After getting some minor styling changes, equipment and powertrain improvements, and a new track-oriented R3 model for 2009, the Mazda RX-8 continues into 2010 with no significant changes.

The RX-8 has changed very little in the six years since its introduction, yet it still turns heads. From a distance, it looks like a low-slung coupe with a long hoodline, lipped wheel wells, and low-profile tires. Get up close and you’ll no doubt notice the two small rear-hinged back doors, which provide access to the small backseat. The RX-8’s rakish side profile is unusual for any vehicle with a backseat; the roofline arcs over the back and smoothly meets the rear decklid.

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Inside, it’s all sports car. The cockpit-oriented interior of the 2010 Mazda RX-8 feels low-slung, and you’re seated mere inches above the road; the instrument panel flows smoothly into a matte-metallic-trimmed center console that runs from the instrument panel all the way back. There’s actually plenty of legroom and just enough headroom for taller occupants—wider drivers might find the seats rather narrow—yet in back, the two rear bucket seats are just for kids. It’s just more than a 2+2, but they’re not normal-sized backseats either.

Shorter than usual and hinged at the back, the two odd, rear-hinged back doors are opened together with the front doors to 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.

A compact but very potent 1.3-liter, twin-rotor engine powers the 2010 Mazda RX-8, providing 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 very neat-shifting standard six-speed manual gearbox is the best choice of the two. The RX-8 is much more enjoyable this way, as the rotary engine has to be revved high to access the most excitement. 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.

Steering and handling of the RX-8 are top-notch, with a responsive and direct feel you’ll find in just a handful of cars. Worth noting is that the RX-8 is confident in high-speed cruising; it’s not twitchy as some other small sports cars can be. At the same time, you’re so low to the ground that you don’t have to break speed limits to feel like you’re going fast. There’s very little body lean, grip is tenacious, and the quick-ratio, electric-boost steering has good feedback and unwinds nicely. The ride can be a bit jittery on uneven surfaces, but in all, it's a very fun, precise car to drive.

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.

The 2010 Mazda RX-8 hasn’t been crash-tested by the insurance-industry-based IIHS, but federal government gives the RX-8 four and five stars. 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. Rollover is a bright spot; it’s one of just a handful of vehicles to get a perfect five-star score in NHTSA’s rollover rating. One disappointment is that electronic stability control—a standard feature on nearly every other sports car now isn’t available on the base Sport model (it’s included in the other Touring, Grand Touring, and R3 models).

The Mazda RX-8 remains available four different models: Sport, Touring, Grand Touring, and R3. Power accessories, air conditioning, keyless entry, and attractive alloy wheels are all standard on the Sport, 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 2010 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. A 300-watt Bose Centerpoint audio system, Bluetooth interface, and smoky forged-alloy wheels are other R3 extras.

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2010 Mazda RX-8

Styling

It’s been six years since the Mazda RX-8 was first introduced, yet it looks like no other—and quite contemporary.

The Mazda RX-8 received a few slight styling changes for last 2009, but it rolls into 2010 unchanged. That’s actually fine, as six years after its introduction, this racy car still manages to look fresh—possibly because it’s a relatively rare sight.

The RX-8 combines the silhouette of a classic sports car with some very unusual details—such as the rear-hinged half-doors in back. 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 RX-8 Mazda as "weird in good ways and bad," with the styling leaning more toward the former than the latter.

Last year, the RX-8 received a few minor styling changes inside, but the same goes here; very little change is a good thing, as it still feels contemporary. Most reviewers appreciate the look of the interior. 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." 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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2010 Mazda RX-8

Performance

The 2010 Mazda RX-8 is thirsty and lacks the pin-to-your-seat punch of low-end torque, but you’re certain to have fun on a twisty road.

With its low-slung appearance and aggressive stance and styling, the 2010 Mazda RX-8 looks ready to pin drivers back in their seats and still circle skid pads with tenacious grip. That’s mostly true, though reviewers at TheCarConnection.com and elsewhere think that shoppers should be aware that the powertrain won’t be appealing to everyone.

The 2010 Mazda RX-8 is the only new vehicle to offer a Wankel rotary engine, and according to a wide range of opinions, unless you know what you’re getting into and how to drive it, the RX-8 can feel underpowered at times. 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.

Here’s where reviewers get specific—in describing the engine’s lack of low-rev grunt. 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."

The RX-8 offers both a six-speed manual and automatic transmission, with rear-wheel drive, and although both transmissions rate well, the manual is clearly the favorite. 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."

You might expect the small engine to be extraordinarily fuel-efficient—especially considering its lack of torque—but according to official EPA estimates, the 2010 Mazda RX-8 gets just 16 mpg city, 22 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," and TheCarConnection.com hasn’t seen any higher than the upper teens.

Those powertrain gives and takes aside, handling is universally praised in the 2010 Mazda RX-8. Car and Driver concedes that the RX-8 "is perfect if the mountain road starts at the end of your driveway," while ConsumerGuide finds that the RX-8'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."

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2010 Mazda RX-8

Comfort & Quality

The 2010 Mazda RX-8 is in some ways a cramped sports car, in other ways surprisingly versatile.

With room for up to three passengers, the 2010 Mazda RX-8 is a rarity among sports cars. Without sacrificing its rakish sports-car roofline, the RX-8 includes a pair of rear-opening doors and a decent-sized backseat, making this coupe more practical than you might think.

The Mazda RX-8's "cabin has room for up to four people" thanks to the "bucket seats in front and back," says Cars.com. However, even though the seats were redesigned for 2009, 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 finds, 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." Given conflicts in the reported usable space, you’re going to need to check out the RX-8’s backseat yourself and assess whether it meets your needs.

Storage space is limited, according to all the reviewers who took a look back there. 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."

The RX-8 has a firmly tuned suspension, as most sporty cars do. It’s unsettled, but not too jarring. Edmunds notes that "a compliant ride means that it won't beat you up on the daily commute."

The 2010 Mazda RX-8 is neither good nor bad for build quality, but materials are an issue for some reviewers. ConsumerGuide notes that the "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." Noise could also be an issue to some shoppers. 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.

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2010 Mazda RX-8

Safety

A lack of stability control on all 2010 RX-8 models sours an otherwise decent safety roster.

The 2010 Mazda RX-8 is, for the most part, a safe sports car; even though it’s small, light, and low, it provides reasonably good protection and should have excellent accident-avoidance ability. The only sore point is that electronic stability control isn’t offered across the model line.

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. The federal government fully tested the 2010 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.

Most versions of the 2010 Mazda RX-8 come equipped with a decent number of safety features—though not everything that reviewers and shoppers alike expect to see. As Edmunds reviewers point out "all but the Sport model" of the 2009 Mazda RX-8 "get stability control standard." ConsumerGuide reports that the remaining standard safety features on the 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). 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 reviewers are particularly critical about visibility, finding that the "thick rear roof pillars severely compromise aft visibility" in the RX-8.

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2010 Mazda RX-8

Features

The 2010 Mazda RX-8 has a decent list of features for a sports car, but its options list is brief.

The 2010 Mazda RX-8 provides all the feature content necessary for cheap thrills, and those willing to move up in price can opt for some significant technology and entertainment features.

Most of the expected creature comforts are covered across the 2010 RX-8’s 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 2010 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." The rack-oriented Mazda RX-8 R3 also brings more conveniences, including standard "Bluetooth, Bose audio, and a keyless entry and starting system," according to Automobile Magazine.

Edmunds says that one of the most noteworthy stand-alone options is "a new touchscreen navigation system with voice commands," while 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."

There are, however, a few functional complaints with these features and ergonomics in general in the RX-8. ConsumerGuide doesn’t like that "when the console cupholders are in use, shifting the manual transmission is awkward." Automobile Magazine devotes quite a bit of space to criticizing the stereo controls and is disappointed to find that in the 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."

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