Driven: 2009 Mazda RX-8 GT

By Winding Road Staff

October 21, 2008

The Mazda RX-8 continues to have us puzzled as to why more of these aren’t on the road. No, the rotary engine isn’t four-season friendly, and neither is the car’s rear-wheel-drive, but when the weather is right, the RX-8 really shines. For 2009, a re-worked exterior sports a slightly more aggressive fascia, and while our Grand Touring model doesn’t have all of the beefy visual add-ons found on the R3 (a new model for ’09), we still had a lot of fun throwing this Mazda into bends and revving the twin-rotor engine way up past 8000 rpm.

Chris Paukert
Editor-In-Chief

The last time I drove an RX-8, it was in decidedly wet and frigid, and the driving experience was every bit as unpleasant as the weather. The RX-8 I drove last year was so cold that it felt like the gearbox and suspension were filled with molasses, the car rode hard and creaked and flexed noticeably over rough pavement (leading me to suspect the robustness of the chassis), and the 1.3-liter rotary lacked its characteristic quick-revving fizz. Even the defroster was uncooperative.

What a difference a change in weather makes.

Whether down to the update for 2009 or the markedly better climate conditions, this was the RX-8 we were promised: With useful—but not exactly overwhelming—power from the zero-inertia Wankel, excellent steering feel and accuracy (perhaps the best electrically-assisted setup we’ve encountered), and easily modulated brakes, the RX-8 was a willing dance partner. Further, the structure felt stiffer, evincing only a hint of chassis flex. It might have been the warmer temperatures, or it might have been the new trapezoidal front strut brace and rear suspension fiddling, but our tester was an unbridled joy on back roads and a sensible ride over Detroit’s badly broken pavement.

I definitely wouldn’t want this to be a year ‘round ride, but for about three seasons in these parts, this would be a boatload of fun. Bring on the R3, please.

Seyth Miersma
Senior Editor

It has been a while now since the eye-catching design and innovative four-door (two and two-half doors?) layout of the RX-8 was helping to generate a lot of ink for Mazda, but the car is no less spectacular for the maturity. One of the reasons is that the RX-8 has rather timeless driving dynamics, with perfect weight distribution, a near complete lack of body roll, and some of the most sublimely nimble steering I’ve yet had the pleasure to sample. The six-speed manual was a fine complement to this package, offering accurate and super-fast shifts through the Wankel engine rotor-shaped (re: a sort of curvy triangle) shift lever. The clutch pedal was far too light for my liking, however.
 
The 1.3-liter rotary engine won’t overwhelm anyone with its urge—though it has a rather addictive, turbine-like howl at high revs—the Mazda feels as though it could keep up with just about anything on any road more interestingly shaped than pin-straight.
 
Meanwhile the rear-opening half doors are as useful as ever, not only for passengers, but also for the assorted laptop bags, groceries, and miscellanea that follow us through life. More sports car shoppers should consider the RX-8.

Nate Luzod
Art Director

Despite having driven one on three separate occasions, I never really "got" the RX-8 until this most recent drive. In the vehicle's defense, every time prior was in rain, and a car like this has no surprises in store as far as coping with inclement weather is concerned.

The triangular shape of the small, palm-of-your-hand short throw shifter takes some getting used to, but is actually quite ergonomically friendly. The 232-horsepower, 1.3-liter rotary engine revs high and it does so quickly. Smooth acceleration from first to second takes some practice and is best worked on without your moody girlfriend riding shotgun. Second gear to 3rd is surprisingly smooth, and fourth and fifth gear are where the car seems to shine. The high-pitched whine of the engine at 8000 rpm is interesting to say the least, but probably not a selling point for this driver.

Handling is tight and the car feels wider and sportier than it actually looks. 80 miles-per-hour is effortless, and the car's confidence at speed encourages you to push the annoying digital speedometer closer and closer to triple digits. That said, the vehicle's inside is reasonably comfortable and well-styled, though there are some areas drivers are likely to take issue with.

The low seating position has us peering out over what seems to be a massive nose, and the Zoom-Zoom styled bulbous wheel wells only accentuate this. That, coupled with not great rear visibility may make for more-careful-than-necessary lane changing, but the entertainment value of the drive more than makes up for this.

Steven J. Ewing
Production and Test Fleet Manager

Although I was only able to spend a few moments in the RX-8, I was reminded of how much I really enjoy driving this little car. It’s a good alternative to a Nissan 350Z, and the added rear doors make it more useful than one would imagine. This car is immensely fun to throw into tight bends with excellent response from the steering wheel, and the six-speed manual transmission is a real joy to use. While the R3 will be the pure enthusiast’s choice, this GT model is still quite stylish and refined without being over-the-top bold. If I lived in a warmer climate, I’d love to have one in my garage.

2009 MAZDA RX-8 GRAND TOURING

Engine: Rotary, 1.3 liters, 2 rotors
Output: 232 hp/159 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
0-60 MPH: 5.9 seconds (est.)
Top Speed: 155 mph (electronically limited)
Weight: 3064 lb

Price as Tested: $34,570