Levy: At the breakfast spot during the recent 2009 Mazda6 media intro, Mazda lined up their full range for us to take in over the usual junket fair of lukewarm scrambled eggs and chicken sausage. Smack in the middle was the scowling face of the refreshed for 2009 RX8 in red you see here. The fat rim/tire package and Recaro seat badges tipped me off that it was no run of the mill RX, but the new for ‘09 R3 package. As a fan of the RX8 I quizzed one of the PR dudes on what I was looking at. Slightly stripped and tuned for track was the answer, so I immediately put in my reservation for one from the press fleet. Unusually, we actually got bumped to the front of the line (thanks, Eric) and the same little beastie that was sitting on the lawn of the Westlake Village Four Seasons was delivered to Overamerica Towers just last week. Jonny and I smacked over 600 miles on her in short order, a lot of that going up and down what is becoming the Autofiends unofficial test track, Little Tujunga Canyon. Both of us are fighting over who’s buying one first…
Lieberman: Levy ain’t fibbing. I’d driven the older RX-8s, and while fine, they’re nothing to start saving your pennies about. The RX8 R3 is different. I’m still excited. I’m still having trouble comprehending how utterly wonderful this car is. I mean, I’m really, actually, truly 100% surprised by this car. When you and I took the EVO X over Little Tujunga I thought we had found the perfect car. And while the EVO is still fantastically great, the RX-8 R3 might be better. I mean, when you strip all the hype away, the EVO is an econo-box tuned to within an inch of its life. The Lancer’s FWD chassis still wants to understeer first, and Mitsubishi has to deploy an army of engineers and supercomputers to make the rally star behave the way it does on the Play Station. Flip that coin and it’s clear that the RX-8′s platform is born to carve corners, and the R3 removes all short comings. What I’m saying is, I enjoyed the RX-8 R3 more than the EVO. Am I crazy?
Levy: No, not crazy. Before I get into the driving experience lets talk about what’s new. For 2009 all RX-8s get a facelift — a more angular and aggressive front end. Combined with the car’s already prominent front fenders and there’s some Furai-ness to the look. R3 adds only side skirts, fog lights, “sporty” front bumper and a tasteful rear spoiler along with the 19-inch dark gray forged rims wrapped up in sticky Bridgestone Potenza rubber. The sum of those parts telegraph its clear purpose making you look. Inside there’s a pair of super-snug, lightweight, cloth covered Recaro chairs and a pumped up 300 watt Bose sound system with Bluetooth — but inexcusably, no iPod connection. The seats are clearly the JDM models as, unlike those in the EVO you and I dig so much, these are slightly snug for our USDM girth. Even at my 200 lbs plus they are useable, but at 6 feet tall, they could be mounted a couple of inches lower. Under the skin, not a whole lot is changed. R3 specific Bilsteins shocks are tethered to a body that’s stiffened by some additional structural reinforcements including a trapezoidal strut tower bar. Rear suspension across the range for ‘09 gets a slight makeover with revised geometry and the final drive is dropped from 4.444:1 to 4.777:1 for extra snap off the line from the rotary. All small changes that add up to a mind-blowing difference. Right Jonny?
Lieberman: Mind-blowing, mind-melting, myth-shattering, paradigm shifting — however you want to term it, you’re absolutely right. I’m also too fat for the Recaros, but one thing I like about ‘em is the crazy ribcage bolstering forces your elbows up so that your wrists are just hanging there at 9 and 3. There’s no iPod because you can’t bend your elbow down enough to grab the thing. I had a hard time drinking a soda or looking at my phone. And that’s good. The R3 is for driving, real driving, and nothing else. The best handling car I’ve ever driven is a Se7en built out of Miata components. I got to run it over the Tail of the Dragon and a year and a half on, I’m sill in a bit of shock at how direct it drove. I managed to stay on a Yamaha R1′s butt the whole way up and if there was no oncoming traffic, woulda passed him. And I imagine I’ll be saying the same thing about the R3 a few seasons from now. This 4-door Mazda drives like a race car. The R3 doesn’t fight you at any point along the way. And just like Se7ens, don’t let the perceived lack of power deceive you. The R3 is light — weighing in at just 3,056 pounds. The 232 hp and 159 lb-ft or torque is perfectly suited to carving canyons or track day work. Sure, it’s not that fast 0-60, but then again, that’s not really the point, is it?
Levy: I find it bizarre. The last RX-8 I drove was the 40th Anniversary model which Chris Hull managed to get pinched in doing 85 in a 35 on downtown LA streets!! It was also a great car to drive. I personally enjoy the RX-8s because they wrap around you, go where you point them, grip well and communicate what’s going on. But with seemingly minor tweaks, the R3 jumps into new territory and achieves driver’s car greatness. There’s some voodoo going on here, somewhere. The pure mechanical grip that the front end has when you rail into a turn can’t be matched by an AWD rally replica that’s harnessed by electronics. The steering is light, but loads perfectly, and, with your elbows backed into the Recaro bolsters, lets you adjust your line millimeter by millimeter.