Anyone fancy joining this rotary club?
By Mike Duff / Saturday, November 27, 2021 / Loading comments
Like Sean Connery in Highlander you must have known what would follow after reading the word Mazda in this week’s headline. Because when it comes to worthy Brave Pills from the Japanese brand, there can be only one.
The RX-8 is both a sports car and a cautionary tale. It was heaped with praise when new, and enjoyed impressive early success with those looking for something that was cool and different. It was hard to argue against its qualifications on both criteria: this was a rear-driven four-seater with the unmatched combination of dinky suicide doors at the back and a zinging rotary engine up front. It wasn’t a breath of fresh air so much as a storm that earns a name.
Mazda hadn’t pioneered the Wankel engine, but it was definitely the brand most associated with non-piston combustion engines by the time the RX-8 was announced in 2001. The company had backed the farm on rotaries to the extent of nearly eliminating piston engines from its range by the time the 1970s Oil Crisis led to a sudden change of plan. Conventional four-strokes returned for lesser cars, but Mazda kept the faith with its sportier offerings, the Wankel-powered RX-7 selling in Europe through three generations.
Sufficient numbers of Mazda’s rotaries had come here to develop awareness of the issues that somewhere between many and most faced, these normally related to the premature wear of rotor seals. Some owners got lucky – I have a friend who managed three years and more than 30,000 miles from a £1,500 FC RX-7. But it was definitely a well known and expensive issue.
Which is why, prior to the launch of the new car, Mazda tried very hard to reassure journalists that the new twin-rotor 13B RENESIS developed for the RX-8 had been engineered to higher standards and tighter tolerances. It even flew a group of us to Japan to show us the newly designed apex seals and explain the high-capacity lubrication system designed to keep these happy, where we also got to see the new engine being produced in a pristine workshop in Hiroshima staffed by white-coated employees. (A ride on a bullet train was more of a highlight, though.)
But it was when we got to drive the car that interest levels peaked. As with the MX-5, Mazda had deliberately opted to give the RX-8 softer suspension settings than the sports car norm, but behind the pliancy the chassis still offered a pointy front end and a playful rear. But the alien engine was always the RX-8’s defining feature, turbine smooth and with an exhaust note that, although it grew pleasantly rorty, never quite matched up with the seriousness of the numbers being shown on the rev counter when compared to the busier noise of a piston motor. Hence the inclusion of a warning chime that sounded, very politely, at 8,500rpm – 500rpm shy of the red line.
Yet even by the lesser standards of 2003 the RX-8 never felt especially fast. Two engines were offered from launch, both with identical displacements, a six-port twin rotor that made 231hp and a four-port version with 192hp. Both had to be thrashed to deliver those numbers – the less powerful engine made its maximum at 7,000rpm, the brawnier one at 8,200rpm. Torque was equally elusive, the two motors’ peaks of 146lb-ft and 156lb-ft coming at 5,000rpm and 5,500rpm respectively. The result was a car that felt smooth but anaemic low down, and which wasn’t especially quick even when driven with driving boots. I remember a 225hp Audi TT, itself no rocketship, walking away from a six-port RX-8 during a comparison test.
A couple of other issues were evident for the Mazda as well. The first was fuel consumption that often blurred the lines between comedy and tragedy. Wankel engines have always liked a drink, and despite the new seals and what were claimed to be more efficiently designed ports the RENESIS had a thirst that would put many of the more famous 1970s playboy actors to shame. The EU combined economy was just over 24mpg, but getting anywhere near that would require parsimonious restraint and a life spent staring at the back of trucks.
A more likely real-world average was mid-teens, and properly hard use could easily tip the RX-8 into single figures. My personal record was less than 150 miles from the 60-litre tank. It consumed oil with similar gusto, and CO2 figures were correspondingly bad, both engines well over the threshold for the full-whack road tax after 2006.
These grumbles didn’t ruin the car’s core appeal – it’s not like anybody bought one expecting diesel-rivalling mpg. But as the RX-8 grew older it quickly became apparent that Mazda’s claims to have solved the issue of premature seal wear were less accurate than even the official consumption numbers. Put simply, it hadn’t. And despite an official policy of blaming owners for failing to keep their cars topped up with the right grade of lubricant it was soon clear there was a deeper problem, as many early cars started to encounter power loss and hot starting issues as the seals gave up even when properly looked after.
In America, where buyers were both vocal and litigious, Mazda extended the powertrain warranty of later RX-8s to eight years/ 100,000 miles and even reimbursed some owners of earlier cars for money they’d had to spend on engine rebuilds. But British buyers outside the factory warranty got corporate tumbleweed, something which soon dinged confidence in secondhand cars.
Mazda resorted to a succession of special editions. Several of these were nothing more than colour and trim options, but two brought proper mechanical changes. First up was the Prodrive-engineered PZ in 2006, which brought 18-inch alloys, stiffer suspension and some trim tweaks. From memory, it was a bit too firm on British roads. But the later R3 that was launched in 2008 benefited from a gentler fettling, with body stiffening and well-judged Bilstein dampers in addition to a full options ladling. It received warm reviews when it came out, and still tops the list of the RX-8s to go for.
Which is why Pill has. There are still plenty of other cars out there for considerably less than the £6,000 being asked for this 2009 R3, but many of those are likely to be nursing powertrain maladies. The dealer selling this example seems to have had some issues with text formatting; the advert offers the intriguing promise of HotSuperb and driftingNice. But, decoded, it promises both a healthy compression test and the ability to start when both hot and cold. The MOT history is unscary, there have been several fails in the last few years, but none for anything excessively serious and all followed by straight passes the same day. They also confirm the mileage has been acquired consistently; with 57,769 at the last test it has the lowest odometer score of any RX-8 in the classifieds.
The RX-8’s well documented issues have dogged it for most of its life, but also spared it from the spiralling values for many less troublesome sports cars from the period. The asking price of this one is pretty much top dollar at present, yet still looks like a bargain for such a charismatic outlier. It’s not hard to envisage a future where prices and critical love both rally. That really would be coming full circle.
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