New RX-8 is an improvement, but even the RS model hasn't progressed enough

What is it?

Mazda's new facelifted RX-8. Now on sale in Japan and heading to the UK this summer.

This latest makeover package sees a whole series of detail tweaks, including freshened up styling, better quality interior and improved suspension. Up ahead the RX-8's unique two-rotor engine is also subtly breathed on.

Visually, the immediate giveaway is the RX-8's new egg-crate grille with bar on top. The revamp also brings new front and rear bumpers, reshaped head and tail lights and those more aggressive air vents. Alloy wheels are new for 2008 duty, too. There's more facelift action inside with new-look sloping centre console, steering wheel and seat design.

So far, so good, but what about the rotary engine, long criticised for its heavy thirst, poor oil consumption and lack of low-end torque? Mazda has made only minor changes this time round, introducing a new oil pump to improve its addiction to the black stuff, and new water pump.

Torque, mpg and C02 all stay unchanged, and power in Japan for the 6-speed manual RX-8 actually drops from 247bhp down to 232bhp. That's progress?

A big hello, though, to a new top enthusiast version in Japan called the Type RS. This gets the statutory body kit, harder suspension, 19-inch forged alloys, stiffer body, Recaro bucket seats and all the other RX-8 tweaks. It should, on paper, be the best RX-8 yet.

What's it like?

First off, there's still nothing else like an RX-8. That low, sleek coupé shape, those wacky suicide rear doors and two-rotor engine that sounds like a hoover on full chat continue to make it a unique proposition.

Installed in this new-shape Type RS, the rotary remains is mesmerisingly smooth and free-revving as ever. It spins so fast, in fact, that within seconds you're bumping on the red line bleeper at 8500rpm and that's without really trying too hard. It's another of the RX-8's fun little idiosyncrasies but it does start to get tiring after a while.

Yes, power's down by 15bhp, but as a trade-off, Mazda's shortened the gearing, so off-the-line and through the gears, the RX-8 doesn't feel noticeably slower. You still need plenty of revs, though, for the rotary's high torque peak stays exactly the same.

All new RX-8s get reworked springs, dampers, roll bars and bushing to improve stability and ride. A new front tower bar and stronger suspension towers also enter the picture, all of which makes the RX-8 immediately sharper and tauter all round.

The Type RS takes it all further with its unique Bilsteins, which significantly stiffen up the ride. It also gets Mazda's favoured foam-filled front crossmember to further improve steering response.

Does it work? Absolutely. The RX-8 feels really well balanced, eager to turn in, gripping more strongly at the front and with body roll now much reduced. The back end sticks very well, but switch the DSC off and as you exit a tight bend with power on, round it comes. And that's in the dry. But it's all well telegraphed and easy to catch.

The RS chassis treatment is pretty hardcore. Low speed ride is knobbly, there's even less body movement on the suspension and the stiff Recaro driver's seat is not the last word in comfort. So it's fairly hard work but true petrolheads won't complain.

Alternatively, there is the new RX-8 Type S which gets the standard suspension, leaves out the body kit, has the same engine and is cheaper. For many, it might be the better everyday compromise.

Should I buy one?

Yes, if you like RX-8s, but five years after its launch, quite a few would have expected Mazda to pour more into the RX-8 and not least, dramatically improve the rotary engine to make it cleaner, greener and torquier all round.

That hasn't happened. Instead all the cash went this time on tweaking the body, interior and chassis. Why? Because Mazda is a small company with limited resources, so all the R&D work and money is going on the next generation 16X rotary engine that's due out in early 2010s in the next RX-8.

That won't help current day RX-8 buyers much, so for now it's a case of hold the revolution. In the big picture this 2008 Mazda RX-8 is an improvement, just not as much as we'd all hoped for.

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