The Mazda RX8 R3 was Mazda’s last rotary-powered sports car before the Japanese manufacturer decided to discontinue the RX range in 2012. In this article, I’ll tell you everything there is to know about the R3, highlighting its exterior, interior, and performance, before delving into some common issues and what an RX8 is like to own. Here’s a short overview of what you can expect to find in this article:
History of the Mazda RX8
The Mazda RX-8 story begins with its predecessors, namely the now-iconic RX-7. Heralded as one of the best and most unique sports cars to come out of Japan, the RX-7 holds a very special place in JDM culture.
It’s the car which kick-started the entire JDM craze back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, along with the Toyota Supra and the Nissan R34 GT-R.
A lot of people know the RX-7 because of its appearance in the third instalment of the ‘Fast and Furious’ movies, called ‘Tokyo Drift’. In the movie, the character Han drifts an orange Veilside-equipped RX-7 through a busy Tokyo intersection as the crowd disperses and steps aside as the car is approaching.
The RX-8 story doesn’t begin until 2002 though when it first made its debut at the North American International Auto Show. Despite some negative feedback criticizing it for its contemporary styling and bulkier size, people were generally pleased to hear that Mazda decided to stick with a “Wankel” rotary engine instead of a conventional piston motor.
Advertised as a 2+2 quad coupe, the RX-8 is a unique proposition in its segment not just because of its bespoke engine, but because it’s got four doors. Throughout the years the RX-8 went through several minor upgrades, but most were special editions either specifically built for the UK or Japan.
I recently did a full article highlighting every single RX-8 edition ever built, where I discuss specs and what makes each edition so special.
Everything new about the R3
In 2008 Mazda introduced the ‘second-gen’ RX-8, but it was more of a facelift really. Mazda themselves were calling it a mid-cycle refresh at the time, which accurately portrayed what it was.
The R3 version first made its appearance in Japan as an extremely limited model. It was then reintroduced worldwide in 2009 as the R3 face-lift. The most significant change was a standard Sports Styling Pack which included a new front bumper, new side skirts, and a new and much sportier rear wing. It also got bigger 19-inch wheels and 225/40 tyres all-around.
The changes are more than just skin-deep though, as Mazda worked extremely hard to make the new R3 drive a lot better than its predecessor, but we’ll get to that later on in the article.
Visually, the R3 upgrades do wonders for the car’s styling in terms of making it look more modern and new. Of course, a lot of people still prefer the way the first-gen RX-8 looks, but most will agree the newer car is the better-looking one.
The front fascia’s all-new bumper includes a much wider grille in the middle with even bigger air dams on either side. The air dams incorporate small plastic shrouds which hide the foglights inside.
Sitting behind the large air openings you can actually see the radiators, so they’re not just there for show, but are completely functional. I’m not the biggest fan of the little horizontal plastic trim piece above the main grille, but that’s a minor complaint really.
The Mazda RX8 R3 also gets new headlights which are noticeably larger than the ones found on the pre-facelift model. They’ve also replaced the black shrouds inside the housing with silver ones, to open up the front end and give it a more modern look.
I love that they’ve kept the same triangle-shaped bulge in the hood indicating that it’s hiding a rotary engine underneath. People loved that about the first-gen RX-8, so it’s great that Mazda listened to its customers and their feedback, and decided to leave it untouched.
From the side, the larger and more sculpted skirts do a much better job of connecting the front and the back wheel arches. Thanks to them, the R3 looks lower and more hunkered down compared to its predecessor (although it actually is slightly lower).
At the back, the first thing you’ll probably notice are the new taillights. The first-gen RX-8 was famed for having those extraordinary clear taillights with intricate housing design. Many people thought they look a bit ricer-y (Race Inspired Cosmetic Enhancement), but some loved them.
Well, if you’re one of those people who didn’t like the slightly funky taillights, then you’ll probably prefer the R3’s units because they’re much more restrained. Instead of having a single central shroud inside, the new taillights have two central pieces aside.
Obviously, they’ve also kept the twin exhaust outlets and the central rotor-shaped foglight, once again reminding people following you that this is a Wankel-powered Mazda. Personally, I don’t like the reflective lights just above the exhaust tips, so I think the old RX-8’s rear bumper was cleaner in that regard but to each their own.
Size and dimensions
The Mazda RX-8 R3 has a wheelbase of 2,703 mm (106.4 inches) and is 4,470 mm (176 in) long, making it less than half of an inch longer than a BMW M2. Seeing them in isolation, you’d definitely think the RX-8 is the bigger car, but line them up next to each other and there’s really nothing in it.
I’m not trying to compare the RX-8 to the M2 since they’re in very different price and performance brackets, but it just goes to show how compact the RX-8 is despite what some people on the internet would have you believe.
The reason the RX-8 looks so long is because it’s actually a very narrow car. Measuring in at 1,770 mm (69.7 in) wide, it’s a dwarf in comparison to the M2’s 1,984 mm (78.1 in) width. The RX-8 is a product of an era when large body kits and flared arches weren’t as much of a thing as they are today, so it’s no wonder it’s more constrained.
That being said, the RX-8 is relatively low compared to most other cars on the road, as Mazda’s whole philosophy with the Wankel engine, and the RX-series as a matter of fact, was lightweight and a low centre of gravity. The Mazda RX8 R3 is 1,340 mm (52.8 in) tall, some 3.2 inches lower than the BMW M2.
It tips the scales at anywhere between 1,309 and 1,373 kilograms depending on trim and optional equipment, which is a relative lightweight by today’s standards. The automatic variant is obviously a little heavier at 1,384 kilograms.
For reference, consider this: a BMW M2 weighs 1,495 kilograms, and the M2 Competition is a right porker at 1,625 kg. The GT-86, a car many people often compare to the RX-8, is 100 kg lighter than the Mazda, but then again it’s physically a lot smaller (5 inches shorter wheelbase) and it has less power.
Stepping inside the cabin feels like walking into some revolutionary new concept car the first time you do it. Open up the large front door and the suicide-opening rear door, and you’re suddenly greeted by a large cabin opening that wouldn’t look out of place on a Rolls-Royce.
The moment you step inside you realize this is a well thought-out cabin with excellent build quality. The materials feel great for what the car is, and bar a few cheap plastics here and there, nothing really feels out of place or squeaks and rattles.
The dashboard is simple and elegant, and although you might call it boring or dull, it’s withstood the test of time and it still looks great. A lot of cars trying to innovate in this segment will end up feeling dated after a decade, but not the RX-8.
The centre console has a great layout too. All of the buttons are where you’d expect them to be (and they’re actual physical buttons) and operating everything inside the car feels as easy as one-two-three. It’s an extremely ergonomic design, but I wouldn’t have expected anything else from a company like Mazda.
For a sportscar of this size, the Mazda RX8 R3 is ridiculously roomy inside. You’d have to be a 10-year-old child or have absolutely no legs to climb in the back of an M2, and the GT-86 isn’t much better either.
The RX-8, by comparison, can accommodate four adults in relative comfort with ease. It’s not a 7-Series by any stretch of the imagination, but rear legroom is adequate to the point where even taller drivers don’t have to scoot forwards to give passengers in the back more room.
Despite being suspiciously narrow on paper, the cabin feels wide once you’re inside. This isn’t a Lotus-like ordeal where you’ll be touching shoulders with your passenger constantly and occasionally rubbing legs.
Because of how flat the RX-8’s sides are, designers have been able to maximize interior space and stretch out the cabin nearly as much as the car is wide.
What’s really surprising is the amount of boot space the RX-8 offers. At 290-litres and change, the RX-8 won’t win any practicality tests any time soon, but it does offer decent room for a weekend getaway or for doing the weekly shopping.
Features and Gadgets
Being a ten-year-old car at this point, the Mazda RX8 R3 is starting to show its age in terms of gadgets and features, or the lack thereof to be precise. You won’t find any fancy touchscreen display with Android Auto or Apple CarPlay here. In fact, you won’t even find a central display at all.
You control everything through various buttons either on the console or the steering wheel, and most of the information is presented to you on the small display lodged in the top of the dashboard.
That being said, the instrument cluster looks surprisingly modern despite the fact that it’s analogue. Divided into three separate sections with circular shrouds, it gives the car a sporty feel. The dials are also clear to read and the colours are vibrant.
As far as features go, it won’t wow you with lane keep assist or automatic cruise control, but it does have the bare necessities such as A/C, a radio, remote boot release, and an excellent 9-speaker Bose surround sound system.
An incredible driving position
Too often I get inside a car and think to myself how the driving position is all wrong. I don’t care if it has 1,000 horsepower. If the seating position is rubbish then you’re not going to enjoy the driving experience, end of.
Mazda’s engineers were obviously well aware of this when designing the RX-8, so they crafted what must be one of the loveliest seating positions ever made. You sit nice and low in the car, giving you that cocooned experience we all crave for.
I don’t want to say become one with the car because that’s a bit cliché, but you do genuinely get to experience how the car behaves and moves underneath you a lot better exactly because of the driving position.
The seats are wonderfully comfortable but they manage to be supportive at the same time. You can cover a lot of ground in an RX-8 without getting too tired, but that’s not what this car was made for.
If I’m honest, I have to say that the steering wheel looks dated but it feels great. It’s exactly the right size and shape, with a great three-spoke design. The M2’s steering wheel, for instance, feels too thick, almost like it was made for the Hulk, but not so the one in the RX8.
The pedals are perfectly offset for heel-and-toe and the shifter is in exactly the right place so that you never miss a gear when you go for a gear change. You get what I’m aiming at, don’t you? It may not have the best features but everything that truly matters for a great driving experience is spot on in the Mazda RX8 R3.
The engine in the Mazda RX8 R3 is a 1.3-litre naturally-aspirated two-rotor producing 228 bhp and 156 lb-ft of torque. It’s an evolution of the engine in the pre-facelift model, introducing an improved oil-metering system and a new knock sensor.
It’s basically the same engine from the first-gen RX-8 but with a few alterations to make it more reliable and sort out some of the kinks Mazda was able to find throughout the car’s first lifecycle.
To drive and enjoy on the road, rotaries have to be the sweetest engines ever made. Because it’s only got 156 lb-ft of torque, you have to absolutely rev its nuts off to get anywhere, which is exactly why so many people love the Wankel motor.
The redline is a staunching 9,000 rpm and it’ll happily go up and down the rev range all day long. It absolutely loves to be thrashed and it’ll reward you kindly for doing so.
Whenever I drive a regular car hard I always feel slightly bad because I have this impression that I’m ruining the car. I know some of you share the same mechanical sympathy as me and probably feel the same.
Linear power delivery
With a rotary, you don’t get that because of how smooth the engine is. It feels just as buttery-smooth at 9,000 rpm as it does at 2,000. The only real difference is that at 9,000 rpm it makes a much sweeter noise and it propels you towards the horizon at a quicker pace.
The Mazda RX8 R3 sends its power to the rear wheels through a six-speed manual, but you can also find examples using a 6-speed auto as well. Personally, I think you’d have to be a bit mad to get an RX8 with an auto because of how much the driving experience it’s able to offer you depends on rowing gears yourself and wringing its neck.
The great thing is that you get to enjoy all of its power most of the time. Get a BMW M2 and you’d struggle to keep your foot in it for more than two seconds for fear of ending up in jail. The Mazda RX8 R3, by comparison, is a quick car, but not exceptionally fast. However a lot of owners do look at LS engine swaps or turbo kits if they want more power.
It’ll get to 62 mph in 6.4 seconds and top out at 146 mph. Both those figures are more than enough to have fun on the public highway without losing your license every time you go out for a spirited drive.
The new Mazda RX R3 features significant chassis improvements over its predecessor too. The bodyshell was stiffened by several percentage points and it also got new bushes, springs, stiffer dampers, and revised anti-roll bars. Mazda even brought in Bilstein to tune the sports suspension.
Elsewhere, we also saw a urethane-filled front cross member for better isolation and less noise, as well as a re-tuned rear multi-link suspension. All these changes add up to create a car that’s not just better on paper compared to its predecessor, but it feels it behind the wheel too.
The old RX-8 had great steering and chassis but it didn’t wow you from the get-go, hence why a lot of people criticized it and compared it to the RX-7. The Mazda RX8 R3, on the other hand, feels alive from the moment you get behind the wheel and turn the key.
The stiffer body means less body roll and even more cornering grip, but you can still get the rear to squirm around at corner exit if you give it a bootful of throttle. It’s wonderfully childish and utterly joyful at the same time, making you grin ear from ear each time you do it.
The brakes are decent, but I wouldn’t trust them to survive a whole track day if you plan on tracking the car. Maybe change the brake pads for a more aggressive compound or even replace the braking fluid for one with a higher boiling point.
Don’t even think about tweaking the suspension yourself or replacing the shocks since you’ll just make it worse. Unless you plan on making it a dedicated track car and know what you’re doing, it’s best to leave suspension setup alone as the car feels pretty much perfect as is.
The RX-8’s single biggest drawback is that it likes to guzzle fuel at a ridiculous rate. It’s not uncommon to see mid-to-high teens if you’re pressing on and low teens or even single figures on track.
Common faults with the Mazda RX8 R3 include but are not limited to poor compression, sticking SSV or tune valves, damaged catalyst, ignition coils, and bad/worn actuator on the manifold. Most of these can lead to the car flooding on startup.
Earlier cars also had issues with oil metering pump failures and starter motors, but by the time Mazda got round to making the facelifted R3 they had mostly sorted those out.
The most common ‘internet issue’ people like to discuss online are worn apex seals, but they can easily be diagnosed because they come with a variety of serious issues and tell-tale signs. Poor compression is one of them, as are hard cold starts and frequent misfires.
I recommend getting a third-party inspection before committing to any purchase as that’ll give you peace of mind and it’ll guarantee you don’t end up with a lemon. If you do end up with a lemon, not all is lost as there are lots of engine swap options for the RX8.
The RX’s main competitors are cars like the Audi TT and the Alfa Romeo Brera, but I’d argue they’re not in the same bracket as they’re both physically smaller cars, not to mention they’re way less fun to drive.
Comparing a Brera to an RX8 for the driving experience is like comparing a burger to dining at one of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants. You can’t compare the two.
The Mazda RX-8 R3’s main competitor is, in all honesty, the Toyota GT-86. Although they’re both excellent cars and I adore the 86, for sheer excitement, the RX-8 is the better car, simply because of that marvellous engine.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons