Mazda RX-8 – Love/Hate Relationship

We had a torrid affair. It started from the day we met right up until the day we departed. A real rollercoaster ride over an 18-month period, with the highest of highs and the lowest and lows. This is the story of me and my 2004 Mazda RX-8.

It all began in the late summer of 2008. I had recently been promoted into an office job and no longer needed a car that was practical, reliable or as efficient (you can see where this is headed). I ditched my Chevrolet Cobalt SS and began perusing the classified ads to see what was available. My only real requirement for this new car was I wanted something either all-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive.

Since my daily commute was still over 100 km round trip, I couldn’t get something too old or temperamental (ha!). Used examples of the fourth generation Camaros with V8 engine were still too expensive as was the bugeye Subaru Impreza WRX. A Mazda MX-5 Miata seemed a bit to impractical for my needs and the Nissan 240SX was a scarcity thanks to the recent surge in drift culture.

The more I looked; the more models weren’t viable. But there was one car that seemingly ticked off all my boxes and were readily available – the Mazda RX-8. Having only been on the market for five model years, I couldn’t believe how much they had depreciated in that time. I knew they were different, and the rotary engine didn’t have a great reputation, but I rationalized that was because people didn’t understand them. Right? Right?

A Rocky Start

I found a beautiful Winning Blue 2004 RX-8 GT for sale not too far my house. It had the optional rear wing and sunroof. The mileage was around 70,000 km and it fit in my price range. I went to the dealership and took it for a test drive. The way it revved, rode and handle was love at first drive. It was such a beautiful combination of the three. And the steering and transmission engagement were phenomenal. I thought it was still such a great looking car and appreciated the easy rear-access of the suicide doors. I was sold.

But there was just one tiny problem. During my test drive, the check engine light would flash whenever I got over 6,000 rpm or so. Remember, this is a rotary and the redline is over 9,000 rpm so driving above 6,000 rpm is commonplace. The dealer said they would get it taken care of and let me know when it was ready for pick up.

After a week, I was informed the issues was fried coils, so they had replaced the coils and the wiring and would let me know when it is ready. A week later, I was informed that it wasn’t the coils, but rather the engine had given up the ghost. Early RX-8s were prone to engine failure and apparently mine was no different. Luckily, Mazda Canada had extended the engine warranty program on the RX-8 and made it fully transferrable.

Now a month since I had signed the papers, my car was finally ready for pick up. But wait, there’s more. While my Engine was stuttering and spewing out copious amounts of unburned fuel through the exhaust system, it had buggered up the catalytic converter. So a new one of those needed to be installed as well.  

Six weeks after I decided to buy the RX-8, it was finally in my driveway. It now had a new engine, new catalytic converter, new coils and new wires – all free of charge fully covered under warranty. So really, waiting six weeks wasn’t a big deal after all.

Getting to Know You

I had little time to enjoy the car before winter hit, but enjoy it I did. Even with tires nearing the end of their life, the handling and control was like nothing I had experienced before (in fairness, I had never owned a proper sports car before).

As the weather turned cold, I didn’t put the RX-8 away – I prepared it for the winter ahead. I found a nice set of used mesh-style alloy wheels with winter tires installed from an Infiniti G35 coupe that fit the Mazda perfectly. They were more high-performance winter tires than snow tires, so even on the coldest of days, I still had great control and surprising cornering grip. And lightly snow covered empty parking lots were a riot.

But when the snow did hit hard, the car was a bit overwhelmed. I remember driving home from my wife’s parents house around Christmas of that year in a sizable snowstorm. The 18-wheelers on the highway made ruts in the fresh powder that exceeded the RX-8’s ground clearance. I spent the drive home bottoming out, fighting for grip and living on stability control.

Speaking of ground clearance, the rear suspension components of the car sat so low that track-based car washes were not a good idea, unless one enjoys the sound of metal scraping on plastic.

It’s Not Over Yet

Come spring, gremlins were popping up again. My fourth gear was now grinding during engagement. I took it to my friend’s Mazda dealership to have a look. By dumb luck on my part, I had gotten there with a week or two left in my warranty.

The diagnosis was that my transmission was on its way out and I needed a new one. They would put a new one in under warranty, but I’d need to pay to replace my clutch at the same time. I had the work done and my car now had a new transmission and clutch to add to the long list of new parts. I also replaced the tires around this time with some incredibly sticky Bridgestone RE-01R tires.

Summer of Love

That summer me and the RX-8 really hit it off. So what if I was getting horrid gas mileage, I loved the car and drove it every chance I got. Ripping up over 9,000 rpm, tossing it into a long sweeping corner and just planting the gas. It was the best kind of grin-inducing therapy.

In July, I drove from Toronto right into the heart of Manhattan’s meat packing district for the start of the 2009 Bullrun. I wasn’t there for the event as much as I was to meet up with friends. I spent the night for free at the W Times Square on collected points. Life was good.

The next day we drove to Ocean City, Delaware in a mishmash convoy of fully decaled, random cars. Besides being an absolute blast, that night consisted of drinks, shenanigans and the creation of Rally North America.

The next morning, I did a straight shot drive from Ocean City, Delaware to Toronto, Ontario. In total, when all 36 fuel stops are included, it took me about 14 hours. The seats and general ride quality of the RX-8 don’t get enough credit for how compliant they are (2nd Generation R3 model torture-chamber excluded). I was barely fatigued upon arriving at my destination.

That summer also included a weekend camping trip to Watkins Glen, New York to watch NASCAR. My dad and I packed the car with tent, sleeping bags, air mattress, cooler, clothes and as much duty-free booze as we could fit.

As well, I got to take my first laps around Mosport’s big track (Canadian Tire Motorsports Park) at the tail end of that summer in my RX-8.

It Happened Again

After another uneventful winter, I was ready for more summer fun in the RX-8. But early into spring, disaster struck once more. I drove to work and parked in my usual spot in the fourth level underground. When I was done work, I fired up the car, tried to engage first gear and couldn’t do it to save my life. Something was pooched.

I would later find out my pilot bearing had failed, taking out my entire clutch with it. How the timing had been perfect that it happened just as I parked it, I’ll never know.

I called a tow truck and was ready for the long ride back to my mechanic. The RX-8 was so low to the ground it was preferred to be flatbed towed. But there was one problem. I was at the bottom of a parking garage and the tow truck was outside, unable to make it under the garage’s height restriction.

After some frustration, exacerbation and general sadness, I tried something crazy. If I pushed hard on the transmission towards the first gear position, it would slightly engage and roll forward. I’d then back off before the car stalled out. I was essentially pressing the mess of metal bits up against the transmission and getting a bit of engagement.

I limped my way outside. The Mazda was loaded on the tow truck, we picked up the driver’s son from soccer practice (true story) and sat three-wide in his truck for the hour-long ride back home.  

Breaking Up Is So Hard To Do

After replacing my second clutch in exactly a year’s time. I decided maybe it was time to abandon this rotary project. Two clutches, a transmission, an engine, and a catalytic converter in 18 months could be deemed a bit excessive. Surprisingly though, the engine (the new one) barely drank any oil and was bulletproof in our short time together. I also loved showing people how it whipped the oil into a funky foam during the winter months.

But sell it I did.

My wife had never been a fan of me purchasing the car and was none too sad to see it go. Me on the other hand, I had mixed emotions. I love to drive it but hated to fuel and repair it. As time has gone on, my stance has remained the same. I love the good times we had, but I’m not ready for another go around with an RX-8…yet. Who knows? I might still grab one someday.

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