New Car Reviews

2004 Mazda RX-8 Four Seasons Test

Our year with the Mazda RX-8 was like spending time with young children: deeply rewarding most of the time but occasionally very frustrating and annoying.

Let’s get the bad part out of the way first. The RX-8 is the first U.S.-market car to use a Wankel rotary engine since the Mazda RX-7 departed our shores after 1995. The rotary has a number of advantages over a reciprocating engine-notably its compactness, its simplicity, and the lack of moving parts that allows it to rev higher. But as with most things in life, you don’t get something for nothing, and there are also a number of problems with rotary engines. First, they aren’t very thermally efficient, which means they’re thirsty for petrochemical products. We found the RX-8 guzzled premium gasoline at a rate of 19 mpg during its 34,305 miles with us.

Rotary engines also like to consume oil, because they use this particular hydrocarbon to lubricate rotor seals on a total-loss basis. The manual warns owners that they will need to check the oil level every couple of fill-ups, but it’s odd to have to do that in this day and age-it reminded us of owning an old British sports car. It’s not as if Mazda makes the task easy, either, as senior editor Joe Lorio observed: “For a car that needs such close monitoring of its oil level, its dipstick sure is buried. And should you actually need to add a quart of oil, you must first remove the engine cover. Now, that’s convenient.”

We probably wouldn’t have cared too much about the RX-8’s sheik-friendly ways, except that there was another problem. The car didn’t like cold mornings. We’re not fans of them, either, but we don’t lie down and give up when the thermometer drops. We had to call Mazda’s roadside assistance no fewer than three times when the rotary failed to start in winter. Jump-starting it worked once, but twice it was hauled away to our local dealer on a flatbed. Online editor Mike Dushane, savvy about the RX-8’s aversion to the cold, parked it facing downhill so he could push-start it, which came in handy once.

It transpires that the Renesis 13B rotary is prone to flooding if you fire it up and then shut it down before it gets up to operating temperature. The RX-8’s manual specifically states that you should warm up the engine in really cold weather-0 degree Fahrenheit or lower-and use minimal throttle for starting. Once the engine is flooded, Mazda advises flooring the gas (which shuts off the fuel pump) or using no throttle at all. That sounds fine in theory, but in practice, our car just didn’t respond to those wiles. One really cold afternoon, the car stalled when the traction control cut in while we were reversing out of a snowy driveway. We tried everything to restart the car, but it wouldn’t fire up. To exacerbate the annoyance, getting to the battery terminals was a giant pain in the fingers, thanks to the aforementioned cover that must be removed for access to anything on the engine.

The starting problem wasn’t unique to our car, as both Mazda and Internet chat rooms acknowledge. Mazda says that, weirdly, only some cars have been affected by cold-starting woes, which the company has partially redressed by changing the spark plugs and retrofitting batteries with more cranking power.

Our RX-8 also spent plenty of time at the dealership because of numerous check-engine-light issues, including a stuck thermostat, a wiring problem with the stability control switch, and a catalytic converter that died because its shield had failed. We also had to replace warped front brake rotors at 12,156 miles, which the warranty covered.

It was a shame the car let us down so often, because it is otherwise a terrific package and felt as solid at the end of 34,000 hard miles as it did when it was delivered.

The RX-8’s unique selling proposition-that it’s a four-door sports car-is certainly one of its most appealing features. The short suicide doors provide far better access to the rear seats than sliding the front seats forward in a conventional two-plus-two coupe. The rear seats are excellent for small kids and acceptable for adults on short trips. “During a weekend of wandering around Michigan,” noted Web intern Stuart Fowle, “there were no complaints from my back-seat passengers about the space.”

However, there were a number of complaints from taller drivers about the front seats. “I find the Miata-esque lack of space for my head unacceptable,” opined Dushane. “I had to drive with the seat raked back, pimp-style, to preserve my coiffure.” The trunk is reasonably big at 7.6 cubic feet, but the opening is small, and access is hindered by the space-saver spare. This definitely isn’t a car for long camping trips, although motor gopher Sean Sonneveldt managed to pack in everything he needed for a skiing trip to Colorado. “In order to put a pair of skis in, you have to take the spare wheel off its mount,” he said. “A regular spare wheel well would be much better.”

Mazda‘s four-seat sports-car claims are backed up by the way the RX-8 drives. The engine lacks torque because it is essentially a small-displacement 1.3-liter unit, but it does rev like crazy to 8500 rpm. Many drivers bemoaned the lack of low-end grunt, but there is a very usable 4500-rpm power band-it just starts halfway around the tach dial. No one complained about the lovely noise the engine makes as you wring it out, however. We chose the manual transmission, which was simply fantastic, a slick six-speed controlled by a stubby, short-throw shifter.

The RX-8 is light by current standards, weighing in at 3029 pounds, 483 pounds less than an Infiniti G35 coupe. In daily driving, it feels really nimble and deft and rides over broken pavement elegantly. Everyone loved the steering, brakes, and neutral handling. “It has a light and chuckable feel that is notably absent on comparably priced sport coupes such as the BMW 325Ci and the G35 coupe,” said Dushane.

We were concerned that the lack of low-down torque and the rear-wheel-drive layout would prove disastrous once the snow started falling in Michigan, so we sensibly fitted 225/45VR-18 Bridgestone Blizzak LM25 snow tires, which turned the car into a foul-weather champ and worked pretty well on dry pavement, too.

Our RX-8 was fully loaded, with the $4000 Grand Touring package that includes an eight-way power driver’s seat, heated leather seats, stability control, a moonroof, and an uplevel Bose stereo. Plenty of people thought that the leather looked and felt like vinyl rather than actual cowhide. We also specified the navigation system ($2000), which has a pop-up monitor in the center of the instrument panel. While most drivers found the system useful and liked the screen’s location, the man-machine interface had its faults, notably a DVD player sited between the rear seats. The interior was well laid out and easy to use. Nice, quality touches included the eerie blue nighttime instrument background lighting and the glossy black finish on the center console. The materials are decent, if hardly class-leading, but they stood up well under hard use.

After 34,000 miles and twelve months, everyone who drove the RX-8 was sad to see it go-even those whom it had left stranded. (We have to admit that if we didn’t have access to other cars, we might have reacted a bit differently on that front.) It is unusual to find a car that blends this much character, driving pleasure, and practicality in one very affordable package. For someone who needs four seats and a usable trunk but wants a car that’s great to drive, it would be high on the shopping list alongside a used or a new Infiniti G35 coupe.

RX-8 owners who contacted us love their cars, even if they have had problems.

But those problems sure would lead us to think twice before plunking down the cash for an RX-8.