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Second-hand: 2004 Mazda RX-8

The happiest RX-8 owners are probably those familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the Wankel. For the uninitiated, ownership can be trying.

  • The image of cars in a showroom

For many of us, a sweet dream might be a big lottery payout or glazed doughnuts falling from a swollen sky. For young German tinkerer Felix Wankel, “a half-turbine, half-reciprocated engine” was the subject of a vivid dream in 1919.

His “rotary” engine employed a pair of triangular rotors inside a small beer-keg-shaped motor, with the rotors’ tips turning to uncover intake, igniters and exhaust ports, each side representing a different cycle. With just three moving parts, the Wankel was infinitely smoother than the lumpy piston engine.

Mazda’s engineers resolved several reliability issues that had frustrated Wankel – the biggest being sealing the combustion chambers.

The lightweight two-seater RX-7 debuted in late 1978 and won a rabid fan base. Two subsequent generations would advance the nameplate in sports-car circles. Unfortunately, shifting demographics and poor sales killed the RX-7 in 1995.

CONFIGURATION

The RX-7’s grave was still settling when Mazda’s “Renesis” project was launched to address the Wankel’s weaknesses.

The modification improved fuel economy by 20 per cent and cleaned up emissions. The naturally aspirated 238-hp, twin-rotor Renesis engine was almost as powerful as the previous-generation turbo RX-7 – but for its dismal 159 lb.-ft. of torque.

While the all-new 2004 RX-8 didn’t feel potent below 4000 r.p.m., the Mighty Mouse motor loved to rev and was inherently smooth all the way to its 9000-r.p.m. redline.

The 238-hp version mated only with a six-speed manual transmission. With the four-speed automatic transmission it made a more relaxed 197 hp and 164 lb.-ft. of grunt.

The new chassis was extremely rigid, with about twice the bending and torsional stiffness of the last RX-7. With its tiny 1.3 L engine tucked behind the front axle, the rear-drive RX-8 achieved ideal 50/50 weight distribution.

Clever packaging allowed Mazda to offer four adult-sized seats, the back two accessed through two rear-hinged portals that couldn’t open independently of the front doors. The interior was roomy.

ON THE ROAD

The RX-8’s charm transcended its performance numbers. Drop the clutch at a gut-wrenching 8000 r.p.m. and it was possible to hit 96 km/h in under 6 seconds. Drive it like you own it and the number was closer to 7 seconds.

“I hate that an ugly Dodge Neon SRT-4 can outsprint my lovely RX-8,” posted one owner.

The car really shone in the twisties, where – like the Miata – it seemed hard-wired to the driver’s brain stem, eager to execute inputs with astounding precision.

Its stiff chassis and ideal weight distribution allowed it to deliver crisp, neutral handling at the limit of tire adhesion.

One weakness (beyond the torque deficiency) of the Wankel was its thirst for premium fuel. Owners noted the lousy 16 L/100 km (17 m.p.g.) consumption in mixed driving, combined with the smallish tank, meant frequent fuel stops.

WHAT OWNERS REPORTED

The happiest RX-8 owners are probably those familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the Wankel. For the uninitiated, ownership can be trying.

“I was willing to overlook the constant need to add oil, the engine flooding, the poor gas mileage, the manufacturer recalls … that was until my car burst into flames in the parking lot,” reads one lament.

The Wankel consumes oil by design: It injects motor oil into the rotor housing to lubricate and preserve the seals. Count on adding at least one litre between oil changes.

Moving the car a short distance, then restarting it cold, can trigger flooding.

There was a recall to recalibrate the PCM, then Mazda specified a new starter and revised the leading spark plugs.

“You just get used to warming up the car, but if I or my wife forgets, we’re stuck for a tow and engine cleaning charge,” notes reader Kevin Nullmeyer.

A litany of other common repairs included failed transmissions, oxygen sensors, ignition coils and engine mounts, as well as weak air conditioners, moisture-filled lamps and plenty of rattles.

WHAT’S BEST: Smooth turbine-like power, scalpel-like handling, true four-seat sports car

WHAT’S WORST: Gutless torque, abysmal fuel economy, odd mechanical glitches

TYPICAL GTA PRICES: 2004: $14,000; 2006: $21,000

We would like to know about your ownership experience with these models: Chrysler 300, Toyota Camry and Ford F-150. Email: toljagic@ca.inter.net.

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