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Photography by Zerin Dube

Price: $33,030
Major equipment: : 1.3L RENESIS 6-port rotary engine, 6-speed manual transmission, Bilstein shock absorbers, HID headlamps 19-inch forged alloy wheels w/ 225/40R19 tires, R3 specific aero kit, Recaro seats, Sirius satellite radio ($430 option)

In the fleet: 12/11/2008 – 12/18/2008

Approximate mileage driven: 170

Z. DUBE: When the original Mazda RX-8 was launched in 2003, rotary fans across the world rejoiced. Mazda?s famous rotary engine design had found a new home, by way of a very unique four-door sports car. Since 2003, Mazda has changed very little on the RX-8 with the exception of a few special edition models to keep interested fresh. This lack of change comes with good reason, as Mazda has managed to form a very tight-knit community of RX-8 loyalists that simply love their cars.

For the 2009 model year, Mazda has refreshed the design of RX-8 to bring it more in line with the current corporate design language. A new front fascia and subtle body treatment changes like new mirrors and LED taillamps to add some much-needed aggressiveness to the design. The RX-8?s passenger cabin received a subtle update as well, starting with an all-new steering wheel that resembles those found on MX-5 and CX-7. Front and rear seats have been updated across all trim levels, and the dashboard layout has been restyled to achieve a better flow between the gauge cluster and the center stack. Under the skin, Mazda has fitted the RX-8 with a trapezoidal strut-tower bar and a revised front suspension tower to help improved body stiffness. The rear suspension has been updated to provide better handling while enhancing the ride quality.

More on the new R3, plus a competitive prediction from an SCCA National Solo driver, after the jump…

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One of the most significant and important changes for the 2009 RX-8 lineup is the addition of the R3 model. The R3 is Mazda?s gift to RX-8 enthusiasts who have been looking for a car that is ready for track duty right out of the box. Visually, the most obvious difference between the rest of the RX-8 lineup and the R3 is the addition of an aero kit that adds a rear spoiler, side skirts, enhanced lighting, and a new front bumper. R3-specific 19-inch charcoal grey forged aluminum wheels also add to the already sharp looks of the RX-8. Mazda has eliminated the automatic climate control system found in the touring models and replaced it with a manually controlled system instead. If reading this has already convinced you into finally calling this car your every own, knowing that you can do a quick search online into something like mazda Auto Precision Power to find used Maza R8’s.

On the business end of things the R3 gets a model-specific sport-tuned suspension with Bilstein shock absorbers. R3 front suspension cross members have been filled with urethane foam to further improve the ride quality and handling. Power is provided by the 1.3-liter, twin-rotor Wankle engine, producing 232 horsepower. Power is driven to the rear wheels by way of a very precise six-speed manual transmission.

Thanks again to Houston?s wonderful weather this time of year, my RX-8 driving impressions were mostly limited to 5 days full of wet roads and grey skies. In the few hours of dry road driving, I was able to squeeze in, I fell in love with the responsive handling of the R3. There was never a lack of grip, and cornering was relatively flat. The electrically assisted steering provided great feedback and I always was in touch with what the car was doing. In the rain though, the R3 felt a bit disconnected, and I found the stability control kicking in quite a few times when making simple turns at normal speeds.

I also found the R3?s high-revving, 9,000 RPM redline, rotary engine a bit difficult to live with. Though there is certainly no lack of horsepower on paper, the peak torque of 159lb-ft isn?t achieved till 5,500 rpm, which translates to frequent downshifting just to keep the car moving with traffic. I also found myself getting annoyed by the buzzy and unrefined sounds of the RX-8 R3?s rotary engine when winding it out. Thankfully, the 300-watt Bose stereo does wonders to cover up the engine noise.

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From a comfort standpoint the RX-8 R3 really delivers a decent ride despite the aggressively tuned suspension. The Recaro sport seats are snug and supportive, but they feel two sizes too small. At 5?8? and 150lbs, seating isn?t usually an issue for me. In the R3 however, I felt like I was wearing a corset every single time I stepped into the driver?s seat, and that my nether regions were being pinched together by a pair of vise-grips. These seats might be great on a track, but they are simply too aggressive for everyday use.

Though I enjoyed my week with the RX-8 R3, I think my enjoyment came more from the RX-8 in general, and less from the R3 upgrades. While I absolutely love the R3?s styling, the suspension is a bit too twitchy in the rain which is something we get a lot of here in Houston. While I can adapt to the way the car behaves in the wet, there is simply no way I can adapt to the Recaro seats in the R3 as trying to get comfortable in them is an exercise in futility.

So, would I buy an RX-8 R3 with MY hard-earned money? No, no I wouldn?t. I?m not a track junkie, and I spend most of my time behind the wheel driving on the fantastic public roads of Houston. The R3 is a bit too much for me as a daily driver. That?s not to say I wouldn?t buy ANY RX-8. Though I would lose the R3?s aero kit that I so love, the right RX-8 for me would be the Grand Touring model. It?s 90% of the fun of the RX-8 R3, with seats and a suspension that would keep me comfortable driving the car on a daily basis.

MARK BARUTH: For the last four years, the Mazda RX-8 has dominated its class in SCCA Solo competition like no other car — four straight national championships, with only the occasional MR2 Turbo, 350Z, or 968 even sneaking into the top ten. In the past three years, I have piloted my 2004-model-year RX-8 to some mid-pack and trophy position National finishes, showing that even an underprepared RX-8 with a green driver can be extremely competitive in B Stock.

Now, for the 2009 model year, Mazda is taking some inspiration from Honda’s S2000CR and introducing an enthusiast?s version of the RX-8 which sports the designation ?R3.? In addition to just looking, well, cool, the R3 boasts Bilstein shock absorbers, Recaro race seats (with adjustable backs), and 19? wheels. Unlike the S2000 CR however, the R3 package will never be found at the Cheetah in Atlanta — which is to say it’s no stripper.

So how will this new package affect the B Stock pecking order? Well, it?s mostly conjectured at this point, but we do know several things that can help us make an educated guess:

First, the 19? x 8? wheel size poses some interesting questions. The SCCA mandates that drivers must use the same size wheel with a similar offset to stock. The stock wheels might just be the best option since their +47ET offset severely limits what wheels can be used. With an estimated weight of 20 lbs per wheel, R3 drivers will be giving up a substantial amount of rotational mass to 04-08 RX-8 drivers on SSR or even O.Z. Ultraleggera wheels.

Second, the Bilsteins that are included with the car will almost certainly be changed out for a different shock by the time any national-level autocrosser prepares the car for competition, so any advantage that they may have over the OEM shocks is null and void. The local autocrosser will certainly gain an advantage here over his bone-stock 04-08 competitors, but that?s it.

Third, the gearing of the car has been adjusted to be peppier in lower RPM ranges, pulling much harder from 30-60 than the previous model. However, this seems to indicate that the car will require a 2-3 shift before 60 MPH (although independent testing has concluded otherwise-stay tuned). The older 8?s didn?t need to go to 3rd until roughly 63 MPH, which could be a huge advantage on faster, national-level courses.

And fourth (and this is a big one), that the R3 is considerably heavier than the sport version of previous models, weighing in at a mind-boggling 3064 lbs. Can it be reduced to less than 2800 lbs in autocross trim like the 04-05? Seems unlikely. Will the same engine producing the same HP and TQ tug along with an extra 200 lbs just as quickly? Or are we looking at another Shinka — a fabulous-looking special-edition RX-8 that can’t cut the auto crossing mustard?

All that being said, when I heard that Jason Saini (former B Stock and MX-5 cup champion) had bought one, it made me realize that the driver will still make all the difference. In what will likely be the last year before the RX-8 is forced to compete with the Z0K Solstice and the MS-R Miata, why not go down with both guns blazing? While I believe the 04-05 RX-8 is still the car to have for B Stock, you?ll still be competitive AND look much cooler Monday through Friday in the R3.

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Zerin Dube

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