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RX-8 R3 to E90 M3

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    RX-8 R3 to E90 M3

    This is an updated version of a post I made on M3F and M3P in Dec. 2018. It’s basically a story about coming to the E9x M3 with tastes I wouldn't have thought the car would satisfy, and having the car open my mind with a sledgehammer. I initially wrote it for a very different audience, but some M3F/M3P members asked me to post it; I’m still not sure why, but it generated at least some interesting discussion. I’ve been thinking it was due for an update, and this new forum needs content, so here it is.

    Fair warning: This is long, and it needs a preface.

    Necessary Background

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    Car shopping is weird when the things you value most are rare. On the plus side, having few cars to choose from makes the process simple. But if the few cars on your list are deeply flawed – or, worse, if there’s only one car and it’s practically made of downsides – you kind of just have to deal with it.

    My most-valued-things list is two items long:

    1. Manual transmission
    2. Excellent handling

    #2 really makes things interesting.

    I don’t have a reason for it other than strong personal taste. I just like cars that are low, light, agile, responsive, feelsome, focused, and faster in a corner than they are down a straight. Or, maybe more to the point, I dislike cars that aren't. Either way, as long as a car checks those boxes, nothing else about it has to be good; it just has to be good enough to withstand.

    The catch: My car is my family’s only car, so it needs back seats big enough to fit a rear-facing child seat behind my wife.

    Enter the Mazda RX-8. It only clears the back-seat bar by millimeters, but hey, winning’s winning, right? And in R3 trim, as far as I can tell, it out-handles any MT-equipped car with equal or bigger back seats, stock-vs.-stock or mod-for-mod – at any price, ever. At least, that's how it seemed in 2010, and it still seemed that way a few years later when my old E36 M3 decided it no longer needed its head gasket. So, after that sad and unsettlingly smoky event, I picked up the 2011 RX-8 R3 you see above.

    To get this out of the way: this was no tow-truck queen. It was a Series 2 car – basically LCI on steroids, addressing every common pain point and fixing things most people didn’t even realize were broken. To that, the R3 package added Recaros, forged BBS wheels, and a bunch of suspension improvements including bespoke Bilsteins. This particular example had low miles and tons of warranty on it when I bought it. For someone who values chassis dynamics above all else but still needs back seats, this was one of the best-kept secrets on the market.

    Yes, the engine was still crap. Yes, it still felt like an economy car in many ways. Yes, it still had EPAS, which undermined the one thing it was good at. Don’t care, don’t care, don’t care. Never did, maybe never will.

    See that giant derpy shit-eating grin on its front facia? That’s how the car felt to drive, all day, every day, everywhere. And man, did it kick some ass on a backroad. Mechanically, it’s basically a stretched NC Miata with the torsional rigidity of a supercar (30k Nm/deg), and it shows. Even on 225-square tires, it made so many legit performance cars feel like blunt instruments. Damn good car to have for my first open track day, too. Just a perfect platform to learn on.

    It was also really frustrating in a lot of ways, many of them obvious. It annoyed the shit out of my wife and was a tight fit for her and the kid. But I had long since convinced myself that I’d be intolerably frustrated with any bigger or more comfortable car, so even with a second kid on the way, I assumed we were stuck with the RX-8 whether any of us liked it or not.

    That assumption didn’t even crack until I sent the car sideways into a concrete barrier.

    The crash was 100% my fault. Thankfully no one else was involved, and there were no physical injuries. But the car was totaled, and I had a lot of hard questions to ask myself. Out of that self-criticism came the suspicion that it was half-past-about-damn-time to see if I could grow up a little and tolerate a car that didn’t make my family miserable. Maybe (this was an opportunity to act as if) everything happens for a reason.

    So, what happens if you apply basically the same formula that drove me to the RX-8 R3, except now you want an actual 4-door car? And what happens if you let that single concession to practicality serve as a surrogate for the reasonableness you ought to adopt after wrecking your car?

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    Quite a stroke of luck that this was on the market when I was looking. MT, slicktop, no iDrive, no EDC, 219Ms, IBM on black Novillo with carbon leather trim, one owner, decent service records. Only options are cold weather package, rear PDC, fold-down rear seats, and rear sunshades. Basically, driving-enthusiast-with-spouse-and-kids spec. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t much else worth considering next to this; all the other candidates were either much more expensive without being more fun (e.g. F80, CTS-V), way older with all the issues that brings (e.g. E28), or basically nonexistent in clean well-maintained form (e.g. E46 ZHP). The dealership that had this car was pretty heinous, but things worked out just well enough for me to drive it home.

    Between my particular preferences, reeling from the crash, a bunch of dealer-related drama around the purchase, and having to swap to winter tires almost immediately, it took me a while to get used to the car and form some opinions I could trust. Now, over a year and 20,000 miles later, I finally feel like I’m there.

    On One Hand...

    This definitely wasn’t the kind of car I had thought I’d be driving. It still isn’t what I come up with when I try to imagine my perfect 4-door sedan. Too big, too heavy, too serious-feeling all the time.

    Driven hard, it’s informative and agile enough, but not alive-feeling in the way I’d prefer. I like the sounds it makes a lot more than I used to, but all else equal I still think I’d prefer the sweeping power chord of a 6-banger to the dissonant growl of a cross-plane crank V8. Loafing around town, it’s a damn sight better than the R3 but you can still tell that's not what it's for. The suspension is firm (though not uncomfortable), the engine is constantly growling at you, and there's no escaping the heavy-machinery feeling. Overall, it kind of feels like a very agile freight train.

    The gauge cluster sucks compared to the R3's – by which I mean it's decent whereas the R3's is basically perfect. Small detail, big impact. The M3’s analog homage to its ancestors has its charm, but the Series 2 RX-8’s cluster is a masterclass in maximal readability and minimal distraction.

    Shockingly given the brands involved, the M3’s voice commands and non-Logic7 sound system are big downgrades. The R3 wasn't great in those departments, but at least the system understood what you were saying and the audio sounded better than a telephone.

    I do like the M3’s power, upscale interior, and relative status – how could a warm-blooded human being not? – but I’d never have sought them. I’d rather have the kind of responsiveness and exploitability that can't really be replicated with this kind of power and weight.

    On The Other Hand...

    For someone with my taste in cars, owning this one has been a hell of a gut check. The depth of engineering in it is insane, and it rewarded my long-overdue open-mindedness by destroying a lot of my preconceptions. At the very least, I'm pretty sure there's no stock 4-door car I'd rather have.

    First and foremost, it does a better job than almost anything I’ve ever driven at combining real engagement and sensation of speed with reasonable NVH and minimal fatigue. Every time I think about how well it does this, it completely blows me away. Cars this comfortable, this heavy, and this dynamically capable tend to hide speed, which makes them boring to drive below felony speeds. Conversely, cars that are this exciting and engaging at low-to-moderate speeds tend to suck when you’re just cruising. I wish I could understand how this car avoids either fate. It’s awe-inspiring to me. If there’s one thing that’ll keep me in this car for as long as I need a dual-purpose vehicle, I think this is it. By comparison, the R3 was laughable in this respect. I struggled to admit this, but it was genuinely stressful to drive. Long journeys in it made me feel like I had endured some kind of hardship. Getting out of the M3 after the same kinds of trips, I just feel like I’ve arrived, usually having had some fun along the way.

    The M3 owes a lot to its steering. I expected it to be a step down from the R3’s, and at first I thought I was right because the M3’s helm didn't feel quite as alive overall. How could it, with so much more mass and a higher CoG to cope with? Boy, was I wrong. Its feedback is richer and more authentic, and its gain curve feels more natural. The difference is especially pronounced and impactful at low steering angles. Both cars have a lot of initial gain, which is a ton of fun but can make a car feel nervous and twitchy – unless it also has enough self-centering and feedback to make course corrections minimally necessary and maximally intuitive. The R3 didn’t have those things. The M3 does. That makes the M3 feel a hell of a lot more trustworthy and less tiring to drive. In retrospect, none of this is surprising given that the RX-8 has an early iteration of EPAS. It’s far from the worst implementation from before or since, but that’s an awfully low bar. Worse, I’m now pretty sure a lot of its feedback about cornering loads was fake. Either way, for a 3700 lb sport sedan to have such comprehensively better steering than a sub-3100 lb apex-seeking missile is pretty extraordinary.

    Other aspects of the handling comparison have been almost as surprising. Even a base RX-8 made my old E36 M3 feel woolly and crude on a twisty road; the R3 handles way better than that base car did, and it's a good 600 lbs lighter than the E90 M3, so I really didn’t expect the E90 to be able to hang except maybe in terms of balls-out lateral grip. I wasn’t entirely wrong there. The M3 is at least as capable as the R3 by the numbers, though it still feels less eager and incisive. Not a surprise given its wider tires, higher mass, higher CoG, and slower-reacting diff. When you’re driving like a hooligan, though, the M3 is the friendlier of the two. It doesn't yaw as much with wheelspin and, once you get used to the weight transfer, it feels safer in a slide. It has a bunch more forward traction, too. Overall, whereas the RX-8 feels like it owes its talents largely to the soundness of its fundamentals – low, light, rigid chassis, and a compact powertrain allowing plenty of room for a great suspension – the M3 feels like its handling engineers started with a more challenging foundation but did a better job. It may or may not be as talented as the R3 in a corner, depending on how you look at it, but it’s probably the better package for most drivers.

    Another thing I struggled to admit to myself about the RX-8: its throttle response sucked. You’d think a low-inertia naturally aspirated engine would be good in this respect, especially with a single-mass flywheel, carbon fiber driveshaft (stock!), and a giant brace solidly connecting the trans and diff. Despite all that, the car jerked and bucked with throttle modulation, especially at low throttle and RPM, no matter what you did. The M3's throttle response is electric-motor smooth and linear by comparison. It’s just so much better to use. I guess that makes sense given its ITBs and the fact that piston engines are so much more mature than rotaries. But the fact that the M3 gives you better control over 414 horsepower than the RX-8 gives you over 230 is quite something.

    No point belaboring the difference in speed. 414 genuine horsepower is a far cry from 230-on-a-good-day-except-maybe-not-because-rotaries-are-hand-made-and-weird. The real story for me is power delivery. Sufficient torque, flat torque curve, stratospheric redline, short gearing: exactly what I want. There’s nothing I’m in a hurry to change about this powertrain.

    EPA fuel economy is slightly worse than the RX-8’s, but I’ve seen basically the same average mpg in real use. Being able to drive mildly without worrying about carbon buildup is a game changer.

    Overall shift feel isn't as nice as the RX-8's. Hard to compete with the NC Miata's transmission on that score. However, downshifting into 2nd without grinding is somehow much easier. Not sure how that works, but I'll take it.

    Clutch feel is way better – by which I mean there is some, whereas the RX-8 bafflingly had none whatsoever.

    Holy hell do I enjoy having a reasonable oil temp gauge instead of a coolant temp dummy gauge.

    Aside from the gauge cluster, the M3’s interior is dead-on. So much nicer without being overly designed or distracting, and ergonomically good. The carbon leather trim – or more exactly, the lack of a contrasting trim color – really helps.

    The M3’s seats are a mixed bag, but for DD duty they’re much better than the R3’s Recaros. They’re not as well bolstered, but adequate in that respect and far more comfortable.

    Hard to overstate how much better the community and aftermarket are for the M3. RX-8 owners with both discernment and money are a rare breed, as are late-model RX-8s like the R3. You can probably guess the implications for the quality of aftermarket parts and info. The M3 community is a revelation by comparison. Much bigger, with more people who know WTF they’re doing, care about real functional improvements, and are willing and able to commit the resources to follow through.

    At the same time, because my particular M3 has a rare spec, I still get to feel like I’m driving something unique even though it’s part of a much bigger community.

    Having FCP Euro as a parts source is a quality-of-life upgrade for obvious reasons.

    Another quality-of-life upgrade: not having to explain my car choice to anyone. As much as I pride myself on not buying a car based on what other people think, I was getting tired of dealing with the RX-8’s unreliable-shitbox image.

    And of course, being an E90, the M3 has real practicality. My wife is really enjoying having more than a few millimeters between her knees and the glove box, and it’s nice to have a trunk you can describe without having to lead with “you’d be surprised…”


    As far as I can tell, the point of a good driver’s car is to disappear into the background of your perception. When that happens, you no longer perceive the car any more than you perceive your limbs. Everything happens intuitively. You don’t feel like you’re trying to make a machine travel along the road; you feel like you are doing the traveling. The car is like Iron Man’s suit: it may be doing the work, but you’re the one who feels like the hero. If there’s one thing I want out of driving, it’s this.

    Given enough time, you can get to that point with any car. But a better driver’s car gets you there faster and keeps you there more of the time. Conversely, any additional weight, or any flaw in how the car’s various parts work together, makes that point harder to get to. In an MX-5 or Cayman, you’re there within minutes and you tend to stay there most of the time. The RX-8 R3 wasn’t quite that good, but it was surprisingly close.

    The M3 just isn’t in that league. Those sublime moments have been attainable for sure; just less often. Hopefully it’ll improve in that respect when I refresh the suspension, but I’m not holding my breath.

    What the M3 is is good enough to make me have a serious think about whether I’ve been a narrow-minded idiot about cars. Oddly enough, that’s pretty much what my E36 M3 did for me. In that case, the answer was an all-caps “YES” (long story). I don’t think I’m on quite the same trajectory here, but the journey has certainly been worthwhile.

    I miss driving a car that always felt eager and joyful. I don’t miss feeling like I had survived long drives rather than enjoyed them.

    I miss being able to go WOT to 9000 RPM at will without committing a felony. I don’t miss having torque like an econobox and throttle response like my engine mounts were busted.

    I miss that extra bit of handling and feel. I don’t miss the fact that handling and feel were my car’s only real talents.

    I'd prefer something a lot lighter, and I'd prefer 6 cylinders to 8. But that car doesn’t exist in stock 4-door form, barring big compromises. And if that’s the worst of my problems, maybe I’m in good shape.

    The pic below is from the Tail of the Dragon. Those drives were where I missed the RX-8 the most, and yet they produced my favorite pic of any car I've ever owned. I love the way this pic brings cohesion to so many dichotomies: dirty and beautiful, classy and aggressive, practical and dynamic. But I think the main reason I love it is that it's a visual metaphor of one of my favorite kinds of experience: finding a new, horizon-expanding, preconception-destroying way to enjoy my highest values. So, if there's a visual metaphor to roll up this whole post, maybe this is it.

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    Attached Files
    Last edited by IamFODI; 04-02-2020, 03:24 AM.
    2008 M3 Sedan
    6MT, slicktop, no iDrive, 18s

    Öhlins coilovers by 3DM Motorsport

    Excellent write up!

    2005 IR/IR M3 Coupe
    2004 JR/Black M3 Wagon
    2001 LMB/Black M5 Sedan
    2017 i3 Hatchback


      Absolutely! Love the detail. It's hard to beat an E90 M3 for an "all purpose" sports sedan that delivers the experience it does.


        Originally posted by IND-Distribution View Post
        Absolutely! Love the detail. It's hard to beat an E90 M3 for an "all purpose" sports sedan that delivers the experience it does.
        E39 M5.
        BMW / E46M Interior & Trim Restoration.


          Originally posted by TexaZ3 View Post

          E39 M5.
          Recirculating ball steering, +300 lbs, -1400 RPM...

          Different kind of car, no?
          2008 M3 Sedan
          6MT, slicktop, no iDrive, 18s

          Öhlins coilovers by 3DM Motorsport


            So here's something interesting: Tire-for-tire, I don't think the E90 M3 deals with heavy rain as well as the RX-8 R3.

            I was reserving judgment on this until I had a chance to drive the M3 on a fresh set of rear tires, which took until fairly recently because the car came to me with fairly healthy tires. Now, having run healthy examples of the exact same tires on both cars (though obviously in different (stock) sizes), I can confidently say the M3 hydroplanes more easily. This looms pretty large in the uncontrolled real world, where you can't always predict what's around the next backroad corner or on the next stretch of highway. The M3 still seems friendlier on the limit, but that's largely because of its mass and polar moment of inertia, which prolong the recovery period from any loss of grip. I've had a couple of real pucker moments in situations where the R3 would just twitch and drive on. And I'm not even talking about heavy throttle application around a low-speed corner; I've had moments like that just cruising at steady throttle.

            I guess this isn't surprising for wider tires, but I expected the higher ground pressure to even things out more than it evidently has. 🤷‍♂️
            2008 M3 Sedan
            6MT, slicktop, no iDrive, 18s

            Öhlins coilovers by 3DM Motorsport


              Originally posted by IamFODI View Post
              Recirculating ball steering, +300 lbs, -1400 RPM...

              Different kind of car, no?
              They are more similar than different. Try it.
              BMW / E46M Interior & Trim Restoration.