Mazda has been producing rotary engines since the year dot and they’ve become the company’s trademark long after others have given up on the idea. Yet rotary engines – like the new Mazda RX-8’s – are hard to justify.
Compared to a piston engine, they were always known for gobbling fuel, using oil and suffering from premature wear. The upside is they sound fantastic and go like the clappers, the RX-8’s revving to 9000rpm before the rev limiter calls time.
The Mazda RX-8 was originally launched in 2003 and has just undergone a facelift emerging as the RX8 R3. It’s got the latest RENESIS twin-rotor engine in which, after donkeys years of development, most of those problems have been licked. It’s also had a makeover in other areas too.
Right, so what’s new on the Mazda RX-8 R3?
Externally, there’s a standard Sports Styling Pack with new front bumper, side skirts, rear wing and the RX-8 also gets 19-inch wheels clad with 225/40 tyres. But as you discover from the driving seat in the first half mile, there have been a few changes under the skin.
The bodyshell has been stiffened and dampers, springs, bushes and anti-roll bars revised including the use of Bilstein sports suspension and a urethane-filled front cross member. At the rear, the multi-link suspension has been tuned to improve both the ride and handling.
The RENESIS rotary engine has undergone a few subtle changes too, such as an improved oil metering system (the engine mixes tiny amounts of oil with the fuel to lubricate the rotor tips) and there’s a new type of knock sensor.
Click ‘Next’ to read our on-road driving impressions of the Mazda RX-8 R3
Isn’t the RX-8’s rotary engine outmoded now?
That thought evaporates with the first few gearshifts. The engine is protected by sensors from over-revving when cold but when it’s not, there’s 9000rpm and 228bhp on tap.
The RENESIS makes a noise like a mini F1 engine, accelerating with a smooth whine which at maximum revs sounds more like 17,000rpm. It pulls well from around 4000rpm but then there’s a definite step at around 7000rpm and it really takes off, accelerating to 62mph in 6.4 seconds and reaching a top speed of 146mph.
The downsides are maximum torque of just 156lb ft, which peaks at a high 5500rpm, so there’s not much low-down punch and this engine needs to be worked hard to have fun.
Hasn’t the gearbox been improved too?
The gearshift feels more precise than before and the short, stumpy gearlever wiggles around slightly in its socket slightly as you drive, conjuring up memories of classic MGs.
Shift quality is an underrated aspect of what makes a high-performance car feel good to drive and close ratio gears are no fun if selection is sloppy and bus-like.
The RX8’s gate is sharp and crisp and under full-power acceleration it’s easy to flick through the ‘box and keep the engine on full song. The gearbox also has carbon synchronisers on the first four gears so it won’t baulk at fast shifts either.
Click ‘Next’ to read about the new Mazda RX-8’s handling prowess
So what about the RX-8’s handling?
The steering quality is immediately obvious. The original RX-8 was fine but the quality of its steering and chassis wasn’t super-special; it didn’t jump up and slap you around the face with its brilliance after the first few corners.
This one’s good. It’s not too touchy around the straight-ahead and the car doesn’t feel nervous, but at the same time there’s not even a hint of vagueness about it.
The feeling is consistent with a combination of stiffer shell lack and lack of compliance in the suspension’s mountings. So the RX-8 is pointy yet stable, making nimble changes of direction in response to steering input.
That, combined with very little body roll and a reasonably supple ride, makes the RX8 R3’s chassis a bit of a triumph and cross-country drives are guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Brakes stop well with a good, firm pedal ideal for heel and toe.
Click ‘Next’ for CAR’s first drive verdict on the new Mazda RX-8
The RX-8 remains a one-off, its engine sees to that, but the engineering culture that spawned it really shines through in this car. The overall package hasn’t changed so you’ve got boot space that’s not too shabby for a sports tin-top. It’s still a four-door too, those rear ‘suicide’ doors giving access to two rear seats that make optimistic use of space. The interior is cool as well, with extremely supportive Recaros and leather trim to all four seats.
Overall, it’s a unique package and the powertrain really hits the spot if you want to drive quickly. Thanks to the laws of physics, rotary engines will always suffer when it comes to torque and extracting any performance means keeping them spinning fast.
That may not be particularly good for the wallet because the RENESIS is still a bit of a thirsty beast with a combined fuel consumption of 24.9mpg. You need to keep an eye on oil consumption, too.
That said, the RX-8 is a high-spec, one-model car in the UK so there’s no options list. Fuel penalties aside, it’s a unique, exhilarating drive and a lot of car for the money.