The Mazda RX-8 is a sporty little car with a funky rotary engine that loves to get out and play on the pavement

2009, Mazda, RX-8

It's a compact - very compact - sports coupe, with a tiny back seat, but it packs a wallop of a performance punch, and at a price a bit lower than that of some other cars that like to tout their performance credentials.

The RX-8 comes with a rotary engine - basically one that has rotors inside that circulate and combustion chambers but no cylinders.

For 2009, the RX-8 gets a few styling modifications, as well as some technical revisions.

The RX-8's design speaks to its performance - sinewy and aggressive.

One of our favorite features about its design, though, remains intact: the "clam-shell" doors that provide easy access to the back seat.

The doors open from the center outward, and there is no middle pillar to impede entry.

So getting back there is pretty simple.

Sitting back there, however, is not particularly easy for adults of average size or above.

But if you're just putting kids back there, they'll be fine.

It's in the performance arena where this car really shines.

The 1.3-liter engine produces a robust 232 horsepower and is linked to a six-speed manual transmission that shifts quite smartly.

An automatic transmission is available, and the engine with that gearbox makes 212 horsepower.

Handling on the RX-8, which comes with rear-wheel drive, is superb.

Take it out on some curvy roads and you will be rewarded handsomely.

The electric power steering is directly responsive, and the wide, low tires also contribute to the strong on-road performance.

You'll feel some of the road, to be sure, but only enough to remind you that you're enjoying an invigorating ride.

Even when you are cruising along a highway, there's a refinement to be admired.

The downside is that fuel economy is disappointing; 16 mpg city, 22 highway, according to EPA.

The interior has quality materials and is quite comfortable (for front passengers anyway).

Our tester had the optional R3 sports package, which in addition to a firmer suspension included Recaro front bucket seats, a Bose audio system, Bluetooth wireless phone connectivity and keyless ignition.

On the outside, the sport package offers a rear spoiler, 19-inch aluminum wheels and high-performance tires.

The dashboard controls are a bit cluttered, but fairly easy to use.

The RX-8's price tag can mostly be justified by its performance and its uniqueness.

The tester, which was loaded with just about everything, went for $32,580. Mazda continues to churn out impressive products.

A few months ago, we tested the new version of the Mazda6 midsize sedan, and found it to be better than its predecessor.

The CX-7 and CX-9 crossovers are fun, functional and follow the "Zoom-Zoom" credo that Mazda is known for.

And the MX-5 Miata remains a favorite of roadster lovers.

By Rob Douthit

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Images of the 2009, Mazda RX-8

2009 Mazda RX-8 front view
2009 Mazda RX-8 front view
2009 Mazda RX-8 interior shot
2009 Mazda RX-8 interior shot
2009 Mazda RX-8 center console
2009 Mazda RX-8 center console
2009 Mazda RX-8 rear view
2009 Mazda RX-8 rear view