There are certain terms that car manufacturers love to use when pushing their latest wares. Words like extreme, radical, groundbreaking, and distinctive are often used to describe cars that are anything but. We grow immune to this hyperbole, a healthy amount of cynicism protecting us from the worst excesses of the press offices. Every now and then, however, something arrives that genuinely does break the mould. The Mazda RX-8 has certainly lived up to that particular billing. Here is a car that provides even greater impetus to Mazda's ongoing renaissance.
Four-door coupes are pretty thin on the ground, the term practically reading like a contradiction, but this one has been carefully thought out. The rear-hinged back doors create a pillarless profile and despite their truncated dimensions, allow easy entry and egress to and from the rear pair of seats. It's an idea that Rolls-Royce have adopted for their Phantom and it works very well.
The doors may attract the causal observer but as anybody who knows anything about Mazda's RX series of cars knows, the real Unique Selling Proposition lies under the bonnet in the form of a compact rotary engine. Rather than use a conventional internal combustion engine in which a number of pistons pump up and down in their respective cylinders to provide the motive power, a rotary engine like the one used by Mazda instead adopts a completely different engineering solution. Two triangular rotors spin in ellipsoidal chambers which, as any student engineer will attest, is a very elegant theory. Why? Because constantly spinning a rotor is a far more efficient use of energy than the wasteful, reciprocating motion of a piston accelerating from 0mph at the end of its travel up to around 40mph and then decelerating to 0mph at the other end of the cylinder, all in the space of a hundredth of a second.
That's the theory. In fact rotary engines have a reputation for being thirsty, dirty and difficult to maintain. Mazda claimed to have addressed these issues with the RENESIS engine found in the RX-8, the powerplant winning the 2003 Engine Of The Year award. As well as building on the traditional virtues of rotary engines, namely their smooth revving nature, their low weight and their flat, broad spread of torque, Mazda ironed out many of the bugbears. The efficiency of the engine was improved by a fundamental redesign of the way air and fuel are pulled into the combustion chamber and the way that exhaust gases are ported out. Cleanliness was improved as well, with unburnt hydrocarbons being recycled back into the chamber for another torching. As regards durability, Mazda worked hard to exorcise the demon of rotor tip wear using high tech materials and their engineers obviously had a clear understanding of the thermodynamics at work in the engine. The result was an engine that can rev to 9,000rpm without ever feeling strained. It settles to a hum at idle but then just zings straight up to the redline with turbine-like smoothness.
The RX-8 is still so new and is built using new technology, so rotor tip wear has yet to rear its head. Many of the bugbears of the RX-7 have been well and truly addressed with the RX-8 but it has a few quirks of its own. One of them is an appalling thirst for oil. At first Mazda were recommending checking the oil every 1,000 miles but many owners have taken to having a gander at the inaccessibly located dipstick every time they fill their car up with fuel. You'll probably be doing this a great deal as the RX-8 is still quite thirsty. Few owners average over 20mpg from their cars.
Check the wheels for signs of kerbing and also take a look at the back end for signs of parking damage. The RX-8 isn't fitted with a rear wiper and the high tail often renders delicate manoeuvres mere guesswork.
(approx based on a 2004 RX-8 ex Vat) A rear exhaust box and tail pipe come to about £285, while front brake pads weigh in at around £85 a pair, with rears retailing at around £70.A new windscreen is £215 and a new starter motor will cost you around £320.
If anything, the 228bhp RX-8 feels a good deal livelier than its rest to 60mph showing of 6.0 seconds would suggest. The chassis offers the same sort of taut feel that made the last RX-7 such a favourite amongst those who appreciated a proper rear-wheel drive sports car. Although RX-7 diehards groaned with disappointment when they saw that their darling was being replaced by a car with four seats and a more upright profile, the result is a more rounded car in every sense of the word. Yes, the sensitivity of the steering and the feedback through the seat of your pants has been dialled back a few degrees, but the RX-8 still knows how to entertain in a way that's proved beyond the ken of cars like the Audi TT and the Mercedes C-class Sports Coupe.
Fuel consumption still isn't what you'd describe as stellar, although it's certainly a good deal less thirsty than the RX-7. Expect to average 25.6mpg in the 189bhp version and 24.3mpg for the 228bhp car. In reality, it will require a very disciplined right foot to return such figures over the course of an ownership spell as the RX-8 is one of those cars with an infectious nature that tempts you into frequent right boot to the bulkhead progress.
There's a lot to like about a used RX-8 but do make sure you know what you're getting into. If you equate Mazda with low involvement, hassle-free motoring, the RX-8 may not suit your tastes. It's a car that rewards keen drivers and diligent owners. Find one that's been well looked after and put the effort in yourself and you'll be amply rewarded.