Review and photos by
Chris Chase, Autos.ca
The Mazda RX-8 is a cool-looking car, no doubt about it. But what sets it apart has nothing to do with aesthetics, but rather with the unique engine under its hood: the RX-8 is the only mass-produced vehicle of its time to use a Wankel rotary engine.
The Wankel dates back to 1951, when a German named Felix Wankel began developing it while working for automaker NSU. I’ll save you the history lesson and skip to 1967, when Mazda sold its first rotary-powered car, the Cosmo 110S. The RX-7, arguably the best-known rotary-engined car, period, debuted in 1979, lived through three generations, until 2002, when it went away and was replaced in 2004 with the RX-8.
Mazda initially stated power figures of 250 horsepower for cars with the six-speed manual transmission, and 212 hp with the automatic; these were revised just after the car’s launch to 238 and 197, respectively, with no impact on the car’s performance. The difference in horsepower between manual and automatic cars has to do with the intake port configuration on the engine; the engine used in manual cars had six intake ports, while the motor mated to the automatic had just four.A nifty thing about the RX-8, aside from the rotary motor, of course, is its clamshell-style, rear-hinged rear doors, which ease access to the small-but-usable back seat. The trunk, a decent size by sport coupe standards, added some more practicality (but not as much as a hatchback body style would have).
In 2006, Mazda replaced the four-speed auto with a six-speed automatic, which allowed for a horsepower increase to the original 212; this time, the change did correspond with improved performance.
Natural Resources Canada’s fuel consumption estimates were 12.8/9.2 L/100 km (city/highway). Automatic cars used a little more gas in the city cycle, but were nominally more efficient on the highway.
The RX-8 isn’t a volume seller, and because of that, Consumer Reports has limited reliability information on it. What it does have – for the 2004 and 2005 model years only – doesn’t recommend the car as a trouble-free daily driver; giving it the publication’s much-worse-than-average used car rating. Specific problems their data mentions include engine replacements, stalling/hesitation and bad spark plugs and ignition wires.
In 2006, Mazda voluntarily recalled 2004 and 2005 RX-8s for catalytic converter failures due to internal oil leaks inside the engine. Mazda said any engines that didn’t pass a “vacuum test” would have to be replaced, citing hot climates and the use of light-weight synthetic engine oil being two of the common predictors of trouble in this regard. The first post at this link offers a good explanation of the RX-8′s engine problems.
Manual transmission problems seem to be common , with one of the most common symptoms being a grind when shifting from first to second gears. In some cases, the transmissions have failed outright.
A low coolant warning light might be a red herring, thanks to a coolant level sensor that tends to go wonky.
The RX-8′s engine is programmed to run a rich fuel/air mixture when it’s cold, which lends it to flood (the combustion chambers flood with gasoline, without enough oxygen to promote combustion) easily when it’s started cold and then shut off again immediately without being allowed to warm up. The opinion here is that it won’t happen all the time, and may not affect you at all, but it’s apparently common enough that the owner’s manual has a procedure for curing a flooded engine.
This thread at RX8Club.com is a list of problems posters there have (or have not) had with their cars.
This links to an extensive FAQ thread at Mazdas247.com, including a list of diagnostic trouble codes, which are stored in the engine computer when the check engine light comes on.
This post lists the RX-8′s recommend maintenance intervals, plus part numbers for items like spark plugs and oil filters.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) didn’t conduct crash testing on the RX-8, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) did, and by their standards, the car holds up quite well in collisions: the RX-8 earned four and five stars for driver and passenger protection in frontal impacts, and four stars for front and rear seat protection in side impacts.
At publication time, Canadian Black Book pegged used RX-8 values between a low of $10,550 for a 2004 GS model, and a high of $31,900 for a 2010 GT with navigation. Depreciation is notable: that 2010 was worth $43,795 (without navigation) new. A 2008 GS is worth a little more than $20,000.
As a sports car, the RX-8 is like little else on the market, mostly thanks to its rotary engine; it’s pretty to look at, too. Rotary engines are high-maintenance machines, though, and not for the casual owner. This is a car best owned by someone who wants to get to know, intimately, about its quirks and foibles and be willing to get his or her hands dirty to keep it running smoothly. This car’s allure is understandable, but shop very carefully for a used one. Walk away if there are no maintenance records, and get the car checked out by a mechanic familiar with rotary engines.
Black Book Pricing (avg. retail) April, 2011:
|Year||Model||Price today||Price new|
Transport Canada Recall Number: 2004067; Units affected: 3,392 (includes other models)
2004: On certain vehicles, the front passenger-side airbag was improperly wired and may not provide adequate protection in the event of a crash. Correction: Dealer will install a short wiring harness kit.
Transport Canada Recall Number: 2004069; Units affected: 525
2004: On certain vehicles, the dynamic damper heat insulator on the manual transmission may crack. Should the driver continue to operate the vehicle with a cracked insulator on the dynamic damper, the insulator may drop from the vehicle and present a safety hazard to a following vehicle. Correction: Dealer will install a modified damper.
Transport Canada Recall Number: 2005220; Units affected: 4,449
2004-2005: On certain vehicles, if while parked the engine is operated at high RPM’s for an excessive length of time, some parts around the exhaust system can melt and produce a variety of malfunctions. The problems caused by the excessive heat build-up can range from an inoperative oxygen sensor, neutral switch and back-up lights, problems with the parking brakes, malfunctions of the gas gauge, and in the worst case, possible leaks from the fuel tank. Fuel leakage in the presence of an ignition source could result in a fire. Correction: Dealers will reprogram the Powertrain Control Module, install a heat insulator pad on the fuel tank, and inspect various components for heat damage.
Transport Canada Recall Number: 2005221; Units affected: 1,408
2004: On certain vehicles, improper forging of the front lower control arms may allow cracks in the ball joint socket to form. As a result, the ball stud may separate from the control arm, which could cause a loss of vehicle control and a crash. Correction: Dealers will inspect and, if necessary, replace both front lower control arms.
Crash test results
Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.
For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.
For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.