The Mazda RX-8 bulges with style if not grace. It's about the most aggressive shape technically possible in stamped steel. From the rear it looks good, with upswept lines, notable fender flares, large exhaust outlets and LED taillights. The inflated-triangle shape on the aft half of the hood perfectly mirrors the shape of the rotary engine beneath it.
R3 models use a more aggressive front bumper and a small stand-off wing rather than the attached small lip spoiler of other RX-8s.
From the side you see big, sharp wheel arches; plus a small vent/signal repeater angled behind the front wheel.
The front and rear doors open in opposite directions, which Mazda calls the Free-style door system. With no pillar between the doors, this allows very easy ingress and egress for the rear-seat passengers. This design also makes the RX-8 surprisingly versatile in its ability to carry cargo. As with similar systems in pickups, the front door must be opened before the rear door can open. Unlike similar systems in pickups, the RX-8 structure does not creak and groan over uneven surfaces or steep driveway entrances.
To compensate for the lack of a B-pillar, Mazda carefully designed the structure with supporting steel crossmembers and braces, as well as reinforcements around the door perimeter for rigidity and safety against a side impact. Structural rigidity was further stiffened for 2009, and the RX-8 compares well with conventional two-door coupes. The RX-8 achieved four stars out of five in NHTSA side impact tests.
Standard 18-inch alloy wheels offer a variety of designs, which like the gray-painted 19-inch forged aluminum units on the R3, use rotary engine shapes as design themes.
The Mazda RX-8 cabin is comfortable and surprisingly roomy. The seats are very good, a nice fit with good bolstering. Soft-touch surfaces are used on armrests and consoles, with hard plastics along lower surfaces that look satisfactory and help keep the weight down. The standard cloth seat material wasn't as attractive to our eyes as it might have been, however.
Recaro builds the superb sport seats in the R3, upholstered with leather around the edges and cloth centers for breathability. They feature stout bolsters so good that assist handles become redundant, cutouts for shoulder harnesses, and excellent long-term spine support so you can concentrate on driving. The passenger's seat backrest tilts forward, hence the different backrest adjusters left and right. R3 models wrap all major controls in leather.
The rear bucket seats in the RX-8 are comfortable. We've found even large adults find plenty of elbow room thanks to the transmission tunnel/console that separates them, and surprisingly good toe room under the front seats. Getting into and out of the rear seat is easy. Due to the high front seatbacks, rear-seat passengers can't see much out front without leaning inboard, but they can see out the side windows. Unlike some coupes with fixed rear side windows, the RX-8 rear windows pop-out for some ventilation. Rear passengers also have their own padded-armrest center console, dual cupholders, and plenty of room for child seats. These features make the RX-8 more practical than the Nissan Z and other sports cars.
The rear-hinged back door and the pillar-less door configuration allows loading of large, awkward items into the back seat area that simply cannot be handled by other sports cars and sedans. We were able to fit a desk stool and a storage crate inside, without using the front seat, a very impressive feat for a sports car. At times, especially in close quarters, the counter-swinging doors can be cumbersome. There are reasons rear-hinged doors have had limited appeal over the years, but apart from seating a fourth person or vacuuming the back, you never have to open them.
The trunk is a true trunk, not a hatchback area, and we found it can carry two sets of golf clubs or a 24-inch roller suitcase and smaller bags. A vertical compartment door (pass-through) opens from the trunk to the rear seat area to allow the carrying of skis and such.
The driver is treated to a stitched leather three-spoke steering wheel that we liked both for its style and feel. Also nice were the aluminum pedals and the solid dead pedal. The brake pedal is designed to make rotation of your right foot easier, for heel-and-toe downshifting. Each knee is comfortably and firmly supported during hard cornering. Those with large hands may find the brake lever a bit close to the shifter and brush their knuckles in-and-out of fifth gear.
The instrument panel sacrifices a bit of efficiency for style. There are three big rings, dominated by the 10,000-rpm tachometer in the center, with a digital speedometer readout on the tach face. We miss having a separate analog speedometer; analog gauges can be interpreted at a glance, however, digital readouts are more precise for watching the limit than compact analog displays. The two large outside rings include gauges for water temp, fuel level and assorted warning lights. The instruments are illuminated from behind and above, so needles leave shadows in some conditions; if you adjust intensity downward at night they do not automatically return to full bright in daylight.
The panel forward of the shift lever is trimmed in glossy piano-black plastic like the steering wheel spokes. The controls for the Bose Centerpoint audio system are grouped in a CD-sized circle and have redundant controls on the steering wheel spokes. Climate controls of more conventional design are below; the air conditioning frequently needs a higher fan speed than usual, especially in traffic where the high-revving engine isn't.
For some models the key need not be placed in a switch, merely in the car, and you rotate a switch as you would a regular key. This gives the convenience of keeping the key in your bag or pocket without the confusion of which button to press and how many times. Our preference is for a traditional key, however.
The navigation system is DVD-based and features a dedicated, retractable seven-inch screen on top of the dash above the radio and climate controls. We found the system easy to operate. The interface is clear, thanks in part to the fact that it does not incorporate radio and climate controls into the screen, as do many other navigation systems.
The doors and seatbacks have ample pockets and cranny space, and four CDs can fit in the console, but there aren't a lot of cubbies up front. The soft triangular shape of the engine rotors are a design theme found throughout the car, most noticeably in the standard seats and atop the shift lever.