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Story by Byron Hurd, photograph by Jack Baruth

We’re welcoming “Lord” Byron Hurd to Speed:Sport:Life as a new itinerant columnist. Please feel free to apply the usual hazing! – Jack

A little over a week ago, Mazda quietly began circulating a memo to dealer service departments and RX-8 owners outlining a further extension of the powertrain warranty for their 2004-2008 model year Renesis rotary engine. This 8-year, 100,000 mile warranty covers only the mechanicals within the engine itself (Rotary Engine Core, Rotary Housing and Internal Parts, and Internal Seals and Gaskets, in Mazda’s own words), but when you consider the simplicity of the RX-8’s drivetrain, you realize that it’s pretty much a catch-all for the only systemic trouble spot that hasn’t already been covered by previous recalls.

With its arrival coinciding with the wide release of the refreshed 2009 RX-8, this notice has sparked a good, old-fashioned free-for-all on automotive discussion boards. Is the RX-8 a lemon? Is this just a marketing/PR move, or is Mazda just trying to cover up their mistakes and wipe the slate clean? I no can has torks?

A compelling, introspective query, indeed.

But it’s hard to refute that this newly-augmented warranty makes the ’04-’08 a very, very tasty prospect for the enthusiast looking for a diamond in the used car rough. Depreciation never hit the RX-8 particularly hard, and shoppers leery of the prospect of out-of-warranty issues with an engine with such a “colorful” reliability history have likely been looking to Nissan or Honda for their late model sports car thrills. It’s hard to find fault with that logic, especially when you consider the reputation the rotary engine has made for itself over the last thirty years. Non-enthusiasts know only what they’ve heard from the mainstream press; run away as fast as you can.

But if you’re reading this, chances are you’re an enthusiast. You can’t hide behind such excuses. By carrying around that “car guy” card, you’ve committed yourself to being above the masses. You’re informed – enlightened even – and you’re going to read on and see why this new warranty extension may be the best thing to land you on the couch for a month since you came home from Vegas with a Bunny Ranch receipt sticking out of your suitcase.

The RX-8’s five-year ride has been a bumpy one. Early on, it was a smash-hit with the automotive press. It cleaned up various other Rookie-of-the-Year style evaluations throughout the course of its debut season, besting its on-paper rivals, the AP2 S2000 and the 350Z, on more than one occasion. The Wankel was back.

But within those glowing reviews lay the first signs of trouble for Mazda’s new flagship sports coupe. Many testers spoke of defective engines and inconclusive dyno results. It seemed Mazda’s pre-production press evaluation vehicles weren’t operating quite at their claimed capacity. It was largely shrugged off as a simple glitch that would be ironed out for production, but when new owners performed similar tests on their RX-8s, it appeared that perhaps Mazda had pulled a bit of a bait-and-switch.

And while it’s never been proven to anybody’s satisfaction that the RX-8’s crank hp rating was overstated, Mazda did reluctantly re-rate the Renesis and offered a buyback plan for customers who felt they’d been wronged by Mazda’s early numbers. Its output would be re-rated yet again in 2005 when SAE standardized their engine dyno testing and ratings procedures. No longer could manufacturers rate their engines “partially dressed,” and this particular caveat hurt the high-revving Wankel far more than it did most of its torquey contemporaries (though the S2000 suffered similar losses).

And as the power controversy began to die down, another, teeny-tiny problem was appearing on Mazda’s radar. It seemed a few of their engines were failing for no particular reason. It was a problem that most often crept up in automatic models, though it affected some manuals as well. Across the south, RX-8s were singing a not-so-pleasant rendition of “Pop Goes the Wankel.” It seemed as though the reputation the rotary had garnered over the years for poor reliability was simply a universal truth of the design.

Over the years, though, Mazda has managed to iron out the RX-8’s reliability. As of the 2008 model year, Consumer Reports now recommends the RX-8 based on its fantastic road test and its much-improved reliability. And while CR doesn’t often carry much credibility with the enthusiast audience, a trip to www.rx8club.com will show you that a car that can score well on a survey of that particular group of owners isn’t giving up much in translation.

And that’s not to say that the rotary doesn’t have its fair share of faults. Open a thesaurus to the word “awful” and you’ll find the other 349 words the Press As a Whole (thanks, Jack) have used to describe the RX-8’s fuel economy. Simply put, it sucks and blows. And no, you won’t catch a showroom stock RX-8 bringing home the tofu bacon at Imports vs. Domestics; with its 0-60 in the 6-second range and the ¼ mile going by in roughly 14.5, the RX-8 keeps up with the average 6-pot family sedan these days, but only just.

There are plenty of apologists who will vaguely refer to the RX-8’s handling and its power delivery and say that they “make up” for its poor fuel economy and straight-line performance. Bullshit. The RX-8 doesn’t need to make apologies. When driven properly, it will make you forget it had flaws to begin with. When you scream out of a switchback at 40mph in second gear and realize that you still have nearly half the tach to go before you hit redline, you won’t give a damn what the EPA says about your carbon emissions; all you know is you want more corners, and you want them now. And when you go tear-assing down an on-ramp into 75mph traffic and forget to upshift because the 1.3L Wankel nestled up to your right leg is smoother and more compliant at 6800RPM than most 6-pots are at 1/3 that speed, you’ll wonder where the hell this car has been all your life.

But what damns the RX-8 is that so many enthusiasts focus only on what it isn’t. It isn’t an RX-7; it isn’t a muscle car; and it isn’t a GT. It flies in the face of all reasonable expectations and yet its perfection lies in that contrast: It’s amazing because it’s not any of those things. Sure, there are two-seat, 300hp sport coupes you can get in the $30k USD range, but an honest drive in an RX-8 will leave you wondering what group of pucker-assed wannabes decided a “true” sports car can only have two seats. Driven back-to-back with its much-ballyhooed stable mate, the MX-5 Miata, the RX-8 feels just as raw and purpose-built, and unless having the wind in your hair is part of your prerequisite for performance driving, it’s the ‘yata, not the larger, more refined RX-8 that will leave you wanting.

And show me a more competent car under $30k that has a usable rear seat.

On second thought, don’t bother. The truth of the matter is that the closest thing the RX-8 has to a class competitor is the BMW 128i (and good luck finding one for less than $30k). Both will be optioned with automatic transmissions and purchased by sorority pledges, and despite their similar power output and driver-centered experience, any genuine comparison shopping will end there.

That’s because the RX-8 is not a car for the lazy stoplight racer or the boulevard cruiser. There’s no mid-range grunt to fall back on when you don’t feel like dropping down a gear or two to pass on the highway. It won’t idle from stoplight to stoplight. It must be driven, and it will reward you for it. It gets the same gas mileage going 55mph as it does at 85, and it’s just as composed and buttoned-down at 115. It’s uncannily smooth and deceptively quick. It’s a driving experience so pure and so fulfilling that it almost feels like you’re cheating when you get it for so little money.

This is normally the point where I’d ask you to take a leap of faith. I’m supposed to tell you that what really matters is that the RX-8 has soul; that it’s more than the sum of its quirky, unconventional components. The problem here is that soul is a cop-out, and I won’t insult your intelligence by asking you to accept that my souldar is more keen than yours. No, it has nothing to do with soul. The RX-8 is exactly the sum of its parts. It’s the Renesis engine, buttery smooth and infinitely responsive; it’s the compact, mid-mounted drivetrain that delivers poise, balance and confidence; it’s the 6-speed gearbox, with its perfect balance of effort, feedback and precision; it’s the comfortable, jet-like cockpit and perfectly-contoured seats; it’s the suspension, which is Dr. Evil to the Mini-Me MX-5’s.

It’s all of those things and nothing more; but it’s also nothing less than spectacular.

If the purity of its driving experience, its flashy suit and its sensible, livable day-to-day demeanor all seem at odds with each other, that’s fine too – because it works. The RX-8 is a consistently polarizing figure in the world of enthusiast cars, and as a driver, you either get it or you don’t.

I get it.

   

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Byron Hurd

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