Trawl the classifieds for a noughties four-seat coupe, and it’s likely that the results will be packed with Mercedes CLKs and E46 BMW 3 Series Coupes. While many of those at the lower end of the market will be rusty, tatty or with huge mileages, squeezed among them will be a suspiciously cheap Japanese alternative.
Values for the Mazda RX-8 are temptingly low, and ironically it’s largely due to arguably its most defining feature. The ‘Wankel’ twin rotor engine revs to 9000rpm and sounds brilliant doing so, but alleged horror stories about their diva-ish tendencies and high maintenance costs put many buyers off. Do your homework properly, however, and there’s little need for concern and you can bag yourself something of a bargain as a result.
The only current car manufacturer to still persist with rotary engines, Mazda created the 13-MSP engine for use in the RX-8. A development of the 13-B unit in the RX-7, side exhaust ports allowed for a higher compression ratio, resulting in improved power output and fuel efficiency. Being normally aspirated, it didn’t match the turbocharged RX-7’s figures, but still developed between 191 and 250bhp.
Despite the improvements in efficiency, the fuel economy still remains in the low-twenties mpg, and high CO2 emissions result in an annual VED band of £505 for the most powerful versions. While Mazda recommended checking the oil level after every other fuel fill, it doesn’t burn through its 5W30 Dexelia as rapidly as some would have you believe.
On the road, the engine needs plenty of revs to perform at its best. Anyone familiar with a six-cylinder unit from BMW of the same era will find the RX-8 rather flat - maybe even gutless - at low engine speeds. However, extend it all the way to the redline and the 6.4-second 0-60 time seems entirely plausible. It’s backed up by a lovely gearshift - slightly heavier than the MX-5’s, but similarly slick. The lightweight, compact engine allows for a low centre of gravity and a centre of mass close to the driver, so the RX-8 handles with great agility, feeling much more darty than its German rivals. Buyers looking for a little extra speed or sharpness can turn to a widespread aftermarket scene, both from Mazdaspeed and other non-official firms.
The cabin is built well, and has decent space for four adults. It even puts forward a case as a sporty yet practical family car: ‘suicide’ rear doors make access into the back simple, and ISOFIX mounting points provide a secure method of fitting child seats.
Which one to buy?
UK versions of the RX-8 came in two states of tune: one producing 191bhp paired with a five-speed manual gearbox, the second offering 231bhp with a six-speeder. Though around 26,000 RX-8s were sold in the UK, imports have since been introduced from Japan. Four-speed automatic variants of the 191bhp unit (and from 2006 onwards, a six-speed auto with 212bhp) were not sold here, though may occasionally pop up in the classifieds.
The RX-8 line-up was revised in 2009. Mechanically, changes involved improved body rigidity and strengthened suspension mounting points, while a shorter final drive ratio increased acceleration. These later models can be distinguished by their redesigned front bumpers (with a larger air dam and deeper vents to each side) tweaked rear light clusters, and a rear bumper with a diffuser-esque look. Finally, new alloy wheel designs appeared and the tail pipes increased in diameter.
A number of special edition versions were offered in the UK, the first of which being 2006 Evolve. Available in either Copper Red Mica or Phantom Blue Mica, it featured gunmetal grey 18-inch alloy wheels, plus an interior finished in stone leather upholstery. In the same year, the PZ debuted. 800 of the Prodrive-tuned models were built, gaining uprated suspension (featuring Eibach springs, Bilstein dampers and new bump stops), OZ Racing alloy wheels, a slightly fruitier exhaust and Prodrive badging on a standard-fit rear spoiler.
The R3 special edition was based on the revised RX-8. Suspension tweaks consisted of Bilstein dampers and a strengthened front crossmember, and the car rode on 19-inch alloy wheels with more performance-oriented Bridgestone tyres. Beyond the wheels, the R3 can be differentiated from lesser models thanks to a deeper front splitter, chunkier sills and a subtle rear spoiler, while the interior gained a pair of Recaro seats up front.
Other notable special editions not sold in the UK include the Sports Prestige Limited and the SPIRIT-R. Released in 2005, the Prestige was a luxurious trim level, finished in “Black Cherry” paint and trimmed inside with parchment-coloured leather. The SPIRIT-R, meanwhile, was the most powerful version of the RX-8 produced. Built as a run-out model in 2012, 2000 Japan-only models were produced, each producing 250bhp. Other changes include uprated suspension, BBS alloy wheels measuring 19 inches and painted bronze, red brake calipers and SPIRIT-R leather Recaro seats.
Performance and spec
Engine 1308cc, twin-rotor wankel
Power 227bhp @ 8200rpm
Torque 156lb ft @ 5500rpm
Top speed 146mph
Fuel consumption 24.8mpg
Gearbox Six-speed manual
Dimensions and weight
● The rotary engine can be perfectly reliable if treated properly. Make sure it’s regularly serviced and at correct intervals. Coil packs must be replaced every 30,000 miles or so, and check oil levels regularly. A compression test is advisable before buying, particularly for older models
● Ask the former owner if they are aware of the gearshift ‘beep’ towards the top of the rev range. At over 7500rpm, an additional exhaust port opens to allow for the necessary evacuation of gases from the combustion chamber. Ports on any car which haven’t revved beyond this point will likely be clogged up with carbon deposits, resulting in a potentially terminal failure the next time the engine extended
● Like many Mazdas of this age, corrosion to the alloy wheels is common, especially on pre-facelift models. While not exactly expensive, it’s worth factoring in the cost of a refurb if you want to keep it looking its best
● Inadequate seals on the tail lights can result in water ingress, leading eventually to a goldfish bowl effect. Fortunately, a full replacement unit isn’t necessarily required - replacement gaskets are available for around £25
● The suspension is fairly sound, with the only point of contention the front anti roll bar drop links. These can wear, signified by clunking from the front end over bumps
2003: RX-8 production starts at Mazda’s Hiroshima plant
2005: Prestige special edition released. Finished in unique dark red exterior/parchment leather interior combination
2006: Evolve special edition released. Distinguished by 18” dark silver alloy wheels, and finished in one of two exterior paint colours
2006: Prodrive-tuned PZ edition gains trick suspension, OZ alloy wheels and subtle styling revisions
2009: RX-8 facelift introduced. Gains exterior styling tweaks and suspension improvements
Apr 2012: SPIRIT-R Japan-only special edition gains 19bhp, bronze BBS alloy wheels and tuned suspension
2012: RX-8 production ends
Key clubs and websites
● www.mazdarotaryclub.com - a club and online forum for all rotary-engined Mazda owners
● www.rx8ownersclub.co.uk - a UK based owners club which includes a forum and arranges local gatherings
● rotaryrevs.com - A Mazda rotary-engined specialist, based near Batley, West Yorkshire
● www.mazdarotaryparts.com - A RX-8 parts supplier based in Northfleet, Kent
Summary and prices
Do your research properly, and there’s every chance you can bag a completely sound RX-8 for very little. An early model with 70-80,000 miles and a full service history can be found for barely more than £1,000, and around three times that will buy a very clean example with even fewer miles.
The most recent UK special edition, the R3, can still be found for comfortably less than £8000, even for cars with fewer than 30,000 miles on the clock. The most expensive, the Spirit R, fetches between £12-£20,000 in Japan, depending on mileage.
Words: Alex Ingram