The Mazda RX-8 handles like a true sports car, with great balance and precise turn-in. Yet the suspension is soft enough for daily comfortable use and not as stiff as that of other sports cars that corner only slightly better but pay the price with a rigid ride.
The R3 is the best-handling RX-8 by virtue of its Bilstein shock absorbers and 40-series tires and yet it maintains a forgiving ride, merely stepping over bumps that super-stiff cars tend to crash over.
Greatly benefiting the RX-8's handling is its near-perfect balance, close to 50 percent of its weight on the front wheels and 50 percent on the rear with people on board. While some conventional, reciprocating-piston sports cars have also achieved this balance, it has usually been at the expense of interior space. The compact size of the rotary engine, about the size of a small computer monitor, makes it possible in a four-seater.
Extremely smooth and simple, the rotary has benefited from 40 years of development by Mazda engineers. The RX-8 features the latest and by far the best rotary engine design, which Mazda calls Renesis. This rotary engine is about 30 percent smaller than a comparable inline four-cylinder, and its compact dimensions allow it to be mounted in a low and rearward position for good weight distribution. It helps keep the center of gravity low and curb weight down to just 3,064 pounds. That's 500 pounds lighter than the lightest version of the two-seat Nissan 350Z, 200 pounds less than the four-seat rear-drive BMW 128i. It's just 200 pounds heavier than Honda's S2000 lightweight two-seater. Granted, the RX-8 is not the serious sports car that the third-generation RX-7 was, but nor is it as expensive.
The rotary engine offers a sweet unique sound under acceleration and the Renesis is very refined, with little of the rasp that characterized early RX-7s. The two three-sided rotors deliver six power pulses per turn of the output shaft, the same number as a V12 (and twice as many per revolution as a V6), resulting in an exhaust note that's almost hypnotic on a rhythmic road, and sport-bike-like under full steam. The rotary revs extremely quickly, but lacks the mid-range grunt of a V6. The axle ratio in manual transmission cars has been shortened to 4.78:1 for better acceleration, while the automatic is geared for cruising.
Despite the modest power, short gears and light weight allow the RX-8 to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in or less than 6 seconds, making it fully competitive with many four-seat coupes in the price range.
Downshifting is redefined by the rotary engine, especially when paired with the brilliant close-ratio 6-speed gearbox. You can drop the RX-8 into second gear at a speed that would cause many other cars on the planet to scream, and you can do so confident that you will never miss a shift.
The brakes work well. The fact that the RX-8 is so light, thanks not only to the rotary engine but also to the thoughtful use of aluminum in the hood and rear doors, reduces the stopping distance impressively, with performance comparable to that of the 350Z. Full electronic assists are standard.
Out on the open road the RX-8 feels even better. It hugs the pavement progressively, meaning the deeper it gets into a turn the harder it grips, which is wonderfully confidence-inspiring. Steering wheel inputs are answered quickly but without any nervousness and it's easily fine-tuned working through a bumpy or diminishing-radius corner. The RX-8 R3 may not set any benchmarks in test parameters but it is a very rewarding drive that won't get a novice into trouble or bore a pro, low weight and moderate torque help tires last longer, and it doesn't cost a king's ransom to replace them.
The optional Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) works effectively, yet allows the driver to work the tires without intruding. The RX-8 wasn't completely forgiving when driven hard on an autocross circuit. We found with too much throttle the Mazda would understeer (the front tires plowing, and the car going straight instead of turning). When we pushed it still harder, driving like hacks, the DSC would kick in to limit the understeer. What we learned is that the DSC is programmed to tolerate small errors but saves you from the big ones. In other words, it will let you get away with two feet of understeer in a curve, but not six feet. On winding, undulating mountain roads where stability systems often make themselves known the RX-8 merely remains on standby in the background. And when DSC does take over, it uses the brakes, slowing one or more wheels as needed to correct the imbalance. The electronic stability control systems in some other cars correct skidding by closing the throttle, which skilled drivers find intrusive. The RX-8's DSC will eventually cut the throttle too, but not so early that it frustrates you. When we switched the DSC off, we discovered two things that together seem paradoxical: how good the DSC is (because we could barely feel it when it was on), and how superb the balance of the RX-8 is when driven in its natural state.