Looking back: 2001 Mazda RX-8

In April 2001 the first reports about Mazda’s rotary engine coupe-saloon RX-8 appeared. Production started in 2002. What happened then?

2003 Mazda RX-8: car and driver.com
2003 Mazda RX-8: car and driver.com

Behind the idea of the four-door coupe was that people wanted something more practical than a two-door coupe but liked the image and appearance of the classic hardtop sports car. The use of a compact rotary engine and a complex door concept allowed more space inside the cabin and the means to get at it without gymnastics.

At this time, sales of the BMW 3-series attracted competition, eager to get a slice of the burgeoning market. Some competitors went at this by offering similar sorts of vehicles, namely Lexus with the IS200 and Jaguar with the well-regarded X-Type. Coming at the market from another angle, the Mazda majored on the coupe versions of the Three.

The car also served the purpose of changing Mazda’s image which up to then took its lead from practical but mundane offerings such as the 626 then 6; the 323 and Premacy. The brand badly needed to get away from making also-rans in the main sectors and the RX-8 would be an image builder and a successful car in its own right.

Car and Driver asked if the four door coupe was an oxymoron, but as years went by the genre expanded, minus the complex closure mechanism of the RX-8 and its rotary engine.

The RX-8 lived up to its billing as an involving sports car but the engine, like all rotaries, proved thirsty and sensitive to careful use: cold starts and short runs did not go down well with its fine tolerances. The car stayed in production until 2012, with a mid-life re-engineering to improve body rigidity and to make minor cosmetic changes.

2006 Mazda RX-8 in Kaunas: mobile.de
2006 Mazda RX-8 in Kaunas: mobile.de

What it didn’t do was really set the world on fire, one of many enthusiast’s cars that get lots of coverage and then sink into the mire of new product and those mainstays they are meant to dislodge. It had it all: technical interest and driving involvement wedded to rather handsome styling. One of the holy grails of sportscar is a low-polar moment of inertia and thanks to the car’s fifty-fifty weight distribution with the main masses inside the wheelbases it ticked all the boxes. Yet it has been a quiet failure rather than an enduring icon.

You can get one with 90,000 km here for €1400.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

9 thoughts on “Looking back: 2001 Mazda RX-8”

  1. Perhaps predictably, this is a car I really like and got close to buying new in the mid-noughties; ultimately it lost out on my drive to a Legacy Spec-B for a few reasons, mainly about being AWD and that there was a more local dealership. The RX-8’s appeal was all the things that Richard describes, and nice ones in a nice colour (there’s a royal blue metalic, for example) still make me look and stare today. There was a rather unfortunate facelift which had nice alloys but not-nice sill extensions and an uglified front valance. Of course, the rotary was (and remains) out of step with demand for lower CO2 and fuel consumption, but still provides intrigue and curiosity. A lot of the details on the design, inside and out, were meant to celebrate this truly unique selling point, but now seem a little gauche and clumsy. I think a few commentators actually dared to suggest that perhaps a small V6 (Mazda had a 2.0l one in their back-catalogue) would have improved the drive, but the Wankel unit was always the real raison d’etre for this most technically intriguing coupe.

    1. It almost seems that the RX8 covers (at least partly) the same clientele as the C6. Also for me, it was an object of desire from the day it was announced. Alas, I was never brave enough to really do it. Was it the fuel consumption? The idea that I needed a practical car (do I?) ? Were the prices still too high when I last had a look? I think this is one of the next cars I’ll look up on autoscout…

    2. Simon – not brave enough to RX8, but brave enough to C6! That made me smile to myself. I think we are developing our own DTW codification of courage, with XM (Richard) and Sean (SM) somewhere in the outer edge of that particular spectrum :-)!

    3. Last time I looked (a year ago) the prices seemed ridiculously low to me.

      In the UK, 14 year old, high mileage Audi TTs are available from £1,500. You could get a 9 year old RX8 for that price at half the mileage. Sensible people would find that a no-brainer of course and choose the solid, dependable and rather ordinary-beneath-the-skin cramped TT. I certainly wouldn’t be sensible and would choose the smooth, fine handling, 4 seater Mazda.

      The engine is of course both the upside and downside (turbine like smoothness against high fuel consumption and hot starting problems). Also I seem to remember that the insurance category is disproportionately high for some reason.

    4. Do you have to be braver for a C6 than for an RX8? Imagine a person who has grown up in various Citroëns of the ’70s and has only ever owned hydropneumatic Citroëns (with one steel-sprung exception). So the prospect of changing the brand and having quite an exotic engine technology sounds somewhat more challenging than just having another of these big wafting ships you know by heart (although its complicated electronics can prepare more difficulties than the comparably simple old-style cars).

      But the real bravery lies in a different area. As might already be known here, I have no problem to be seen in a car that looks odd and has a rather poor image with most people. Even flamboyant shades of orange, bright green or yellow wouldn’t put me off. I think being seen in a silver Astra, Passat or Audi would damage my reputation more than any of the above (not sure about pink, though). On the other hand, I don’t like to show off. So a sports car is something I’d have a hard time to consider. Isn’t it too showy, too extravagant and useless? But maybe, with all the aggressive creases, light signatures and body openings prevailing today, any fifteen year old sports car design is so low-key that it could really befit me.

  2. Technically interesting as the Wankel engine is, the RX8 has a poor reputation for longevity. Most die with compression failure way before 100,000 miles. Any that has made it that far has either been nursemaided or had at least one rebuild. A shame, as in every other respect the RX8 is an outstanding package.

  3. It’s funny how perspective on a brand can differ depending on location. Richard includes the first Mazda 6 as an also-ran with the 90’s financial crisis 626/Capella; and describes the RX8 as a necessary bid for attention and image building. But in Australasia Mazda has been a popular brand with a growing enthusiast following since the ’70s. There’s a strong scene around the RX2-4 saloons, wagons and coupes, and the first rear-drive 323 is also a popular candidate for customising and repowering. Over here the RX8 was more of a much-awaited return to form after lean years where the sports model 323s & 626s, MX3, MX6 and RX7 were lost from the range. The first Mazda 6/Attenza was a hit in NZ and remains popular on the used car market.

    I have to agree with Chris about RX8 fragility, and everyone else about seriously considering an RX8 but not buying one. I couldn’t get over the fear factor of needing to invest in an engine overhaul/rebuild on an RX8 at a relatively low mileage compared to a conventional piston engine; or the oil & fuel consumption relative to the performance.

  4. I found the RX-8 to be one of the best looking cars of its time and was also remarkably close to the concept that preceded it (although I believe it may have been designed after the production model).

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