Currently reading: Used car buying guide: Mazda RX-8
Rotary engines are exciting, and this four-seat sports car represents your last chance to own one. It’s dirt cheap, too – but there’s a catch
Felix Page Autocar writer
News
5 mins read
25 May 2020

The RX-8 was the last rotary-engined car sold in the UK and, now that Mazda is considering a revival of its famous Wankel concept for a new hybrid powertrain, it seems pertinent to consider its virtues.

This friendly looking four-seat sports car (Mazda actually referred to it as a quad coupé) has a relatively diminutive powerplant of 1.3 litres. However, it won favour with performance enthusiasts worldwide, thanks in part to its class-leading dynamic capabilities and to that innovative engine’s 9500rpm redline.

What’s more, the RX-8 offers a sub-1400kg kerb weight, a near 50:50 weight distribution and rear-hinged ‘freestyle’ doors that are as unusual as they are arguably impractical.

When the RX-8 was launched in 2003, buyers could choose from a 190bhp entry-level model or the 228bhp range-topper. Although an automatic gearbox was offered in other markets, only the row-your-own version was available in the UK. An update in 2008 brought revamped styling, stiffer suspension and shorter gear ratios for improved acceleration, while the less potent variant was done away with.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and the RX-8 eventually succumbed to the ruthless onslaught of European emissions legislation in 2010, before production in Hiroshima finished once and for all in 2012.

For better or worse, the RX-8 has yet to attain the same cult-classic status as the Nissan 350Z or Mk4 Toyota Supra, so you can pick up a usable example for less than it would cost to spend a fortnight in Majorca.

It goes without saying that the cheaper the car, the more careful you should be, and this is no truer of any car than the RX-8. The rotary engine will be expensive to maintain, even if it’s in good nick, and its impressive ability to get through a tank of petrol is secondary only to its unquenchable thirst for oil – a characteristic of all Wankel designs. Mazda reckons the RX-8 will get through 250ml of the black stuff every 1000 miles.

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Ignore the recommended service intervals at your peril; the reason there’s such a plethora of seemingly immaculate RX-8s being broken for parts is because the engine’s rotors wear down over time, allowing air and fuel to travel between its combustion chambers, which results in poor efficiency, diminished performance and, eventually, complete failure.

You’ll know a good RX-8 when you see one; most sensible sellers have a compression test professionally carried out before listing their car in the classifieds (you can’t use an ordinary piston compression tester) and it’s likely any horrors will make themselves known on start-up.

The general consensus is that the engine will manage 60,000 miles before it needs some serious attention, so check the odometer reading tallies with past MOT receipts and really give it the beans on your test drive.

An expert’s view

Aimee Bradley, Rotary Revs: “Over the years, and despite the copious amounts of praise that the RX-8 has acquired, engine failures, high fuel consumption and relatively high running costs have given it a ‘problem child’ label, putting off potential owners who are looking at all the boxes of positives it ticks. It goes without saying that not every RX-8 is a bad one. With some knowledge on what to look for, it can be easy to pick up and enjoy an absolute bargain.”

Buyer beware…

■ ENGINE: Rotaries are much more mechanically simple than piston-powered engines, but failure of the RX-8’s unit can be fatal. See that it starts in less than two seconds when hot or cold, check for flat spots under acceleration and listen out for knocks and rattles. And a compression test is essential.

■ SUSPENSION: Failing anti-roll bar linkages will knock over bumps but aren’t prohibitively expensive to replace. A sagging rear is a sign that a spring has corroded and snapped. Early cars were recalled to have faulty front lower arms replaced.

■ STEERING: Notchy steering can usually be attributed to a failing universal joint, but intermittent power steering assistance is caused by a leaking coolant hose dripping on the sensor. If it hasn’t begun to rust, a thorough clean will usually rectify the fault.

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■ BRAKES: This generally isn’t a problem area, but if the car has been laid up, check that the single-piston calipers haven’t seized and that the discs aren’t too rusty. Braking components are readily available and not too costly.

■ BODYWORK: Early RX-8s rust, so you’ll struggle to find a clean pre-2006 car. Check that aftermarket bodykits aren’t hiding anything untoward and get up under the wheel arches with a screwdriver. The boot floor and subframe are also well worth a good check for corrosion.

■ ELECTRICS: Electrical gremlins are low down the list of potential worries. Heated leather seats in early cars might only warm up the bolsters, mind, and a faulty coolant level sensor will throw up a dashboard warning light. If the ignition coil hasn’t been replaced, budget for a new one.

■ ALSO WORTH KNOWING: Enthusiasts fret over ‘stationary gear bearing failure’, which necessitates a complete engine rebuild. It happens when oil pressure drops at low revs and the e-shaft is improperly lubricated, and the inbuilt diagnostics programme usually won’t issue a warning until it’s too late. If the engine knocks on startup, drones at idle and clatters at high revs, call a specialist – and quick.

How much to spend

£1000-£1999: 2005/06 cars taken as part-exchange by dealers. Watch out for write-offs.

£2000-£3499: Mostly low-mileage 228bhp cars with good compression and a fresh MOT.

£3500-£4999: Comprehensively specced pre-facelift cars, including a rare 40th Anniversary edition sold with a 12-month warranty.

£5000-£7000: Well-cared-for post-facelift models with reassuring documentation and fewer than 50,000 miles on the clock.

One we found

Mazda RX-8 2009/09-Reg, 73,000 miles, £4495: This nicely specced post-facelift car has done 73,000 miles but looks to be in fine fettle. And for your peace of mind, the dealer has recently carried out a full service and compression test.

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Join the debate

Comments
9

25 May 2020

 Reading this would suggest if you bought one you'd be moving it on soon after, to me, there's too many problems, they out weigh the gun factor.

25 May 2020
A great looking car that is also meant to be a great drive, unfortunately I agree with Peter, you will likely need deep pockets to keep it on the road, which is a shame, but often the case for expensive sports cars being sold relatively cheap when older, the main difference being that these weren't that expensive new.

25 May 2020

I always liked these, but there are just better places to spend your money. I do wonder why Mazda didnt stick a lovely little V6 under that bennet as an option (they used to be known for their little 6 pots), it might not be rotary smooth, but surely it would now be the one to have.

25 May 2020

Come on Autocar, these things are a nightmare. I know you're very honest in the article, but completly avoid folks unless you can afford to lose all your money on it. So many undamaged ones in breaker's yards it's not real - all with goosed engines. This car is as close to 'unfit for purpose' that I've ever seen. A real pity as I love the car itself.

25 May 2020

Come on Autocar, these things are a nightmare. I know you're very honest in the article, but completly avoid folks unless you can afford to lose all your money on it. So many undamaged ones in breaker's yards it's not real - all with goosed engines. This car is as close to 'unfit for purpose' that I've ever seen. A real pity as I love the car itself.

25 May 2020

This is the sort of car that you get because you know what it is, and you want one. It's not a random hatchback or mpv. If you got one because it's pretty and it was cheap, you were stupid for not even googling it before you went to look at it. My opinion is this; find an absolutely mint one with a dead engine, get it replaced, then look after it properly. That way you aren't compromising the condition of the rest of the car over engine worries, and finding that it's going off a couple of years down the road anyway.

25 May 2020

I always thought that the 1.8 V6 from the MX3 was neglected, was it really impossible to put it in the MX5?

25 May 2020

A V6?  Not impossible at all.  In California, for $36,000, Flyin' Miata will install a 6.2 litre Chevy V8 with 480 bhp.  Not sure if I approve, but a great way to test your eyes on a 30 mile trip to, say, Barnard Castle.

26 May 2020

if you wait long enough, someone will "LS swap" anything! 

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