Review

Mazda RX-8 coupe (2003-2010)

Mazda RX-8 coupe (2003-2010)

reviewed by Carbuyer

Pros
  • Sharp driving dynamics
  • Surprisingly roomy
  • Makes a cheap used buy
Cons
  • High running costs
  • Small boot
  • Requires frequent servicing

"Four-seater coupe is surprisingly spacious and hugely entertaining to drive, but running costs will hit your wallet hard."

The Mazda RX-8 was first launched in 2003 and created a big splash in the industry at the time thanks to its sleek coupe looks, unusual but hi-tech rotary engine, and engaging handling.

The unconventional 1.3-litre rotary engine produced much more power for its size than a normal petrol engine and this saved a lot of weight, enhancing the car's sporty credentials and making it feel agile on an open road. The car was produced as either a 189bhp or 228bhp model. Even now, several years on from the car's last production run, an RX-8 is still just as fun to drive as a lot of more recently produced sportscars.

Not only did Mazda use an unusual engine in the RX-8 but the car also has ‘suicide’ rear doors that are hinged at the back rather than the front as is usual for rear doors. This makes getting into the two rear seats surprisingly easy.

The Mazda RX-8 is a good-looking, fun car to own but it's also proved to be a potentially troubling ownership proposition. Minor complaints about bootspace are put into perspective when you learn about the number of major engine failures that were unexpected and hugely expensive to repair. The engine is also very thirsty for fuel and oil and its failure to meet emissions regulations led to its withdrawal from sale in Europe in 2010.

If you want a car like the RX-8, it's also worth looking at the excellent Toyota GT 86 as well as the Subaru BRZ and Audi TT - read our guide to the best sports cars on sale today

MPG, running costs & CO2

1.5 / 5

High fuel and oil consumption will hit your wallet

The RX-8 built a reputation as being very costly to run thanks to its thirsty rotary petrol engine. Two power outputs were available and even the lesser of the two, the 189bhp model, can only manage 26.7mpg. The 228bhp version claims fuel economy of 25.2mpg but in truth neither regularly manages much more than 20mpg.

Not only does the car use plenty of fuel but it also produces significant amounts of CO2, with the 189bhp model releasing 267g/km and the 228bhp RX-8 generating 284g/km. These figures mean both cars sit firmly in the top tax bracket, which results in an annual tax bill of £505.

Not only is the RX-8 engine relatively inefficient it also proved prone to catastrophic failure, which is usually very expensive to fix. Major problems aside, the engine would also need around a litre of oil every 1,000 miles.

Although most independent garages should be able to carry out basic servicing and repairs, anything more serious may require the support of your local Mazda dealer or a RX8 (or rotary engine) specialist. Main dealers will be more expensive, but you may have to travel a long way to find a specialist.

Engines, drive & performance

4 / 5

Few cars are as entertaining as the Mazda

All the bad news in the running costs sections is tempered somewhat by the qualities of the RX-8 engine, which is lightweight and compact, making the car feel agile as a result. The RX-8 is a rear-wheel drive car, which will suit purists, and the steering is engaging and direct. All RX-8s come with a limited-slip differential, which is designed to increase grip and stability when cornering.

The power delivery and unusual sound of the rotary engine makes accelerating in the RX-8 a unique and enjoyable experience. The 189bhp model is capable of 0-62mph in 7.2 seconds, while the top-of-the range 228bhp model takes 6.4 seconds.

Interior & comfort

3.5 / 5

The Japanese coupe is a surprisingly comfortable long distance cruiser

There’s little doubt that the RX-8 interior now looks a little dated and the materials used have been superseded in terms of quality by those in more recent Mazda models. The RX-8 still feels sporty inside though, with racy dials, a stubby gearstick and supportive sports seats.

The RX-8’s suspension is undoubtedly firm but it isn’t so uncompromising that the car crashes over every imperfection in the road surface. That combined with a well insulated cabin means the car is surprisingly comfortable and refined – it’s actually a good motorway cruiser when required.

Practicality & boot space

3.5 / 5

All occupants get decent head and legroom

Despite the RX-8’s sporty style and shape, the car is more practical than it looks thanks to rear-hinged back doors. Although they can only be released when the front doors are open, they make access to the rear seats much easier than in a normal coupe where you’d have to fold the front seats forward and clamber in through the front doors. There are only four seats in the back, as a centre console runs the length of the cabin including over the rear bench where a middle seat would otherwise be, but headroom is good. The RX-8’s main weakness in practicality terms is the boot, which is fairly small at 290-litres and has quite a narrow opening.

Reliability & safety

3.5 / 5

Rotary engine has a thirst for oil as well as petrol

As mentioned earlier, the RX-8’s rotary engine is a temperamental component and regularly checking its oil level will form an important part of ownership, as it uses more than a conventional engine. Neglecting to do this is likely to make an engine failure much more likely. The car was never crash-tested by Euro NCP but it does come with traction control, stability control and plenty of airbags.

Price, value for money & options

3 / 5

Few cars serve up as much performance and style for the price

The low price of RX-8s on the used market can be deceptive – the cars look cheap but this is often down to the engine’s unreliability and the general expense of running them. If you decide to buy an RX-8 on the used market, we’d strongly recommend finding one with a full service history and a comprehensive record of maintenance – it’s no guarantee against problems but it’s particularly important with a model like the RX-8 given the reliability problems reported in the past.

All RX-8 models come with a BOSE stereo, Bluetooth telephone connectivity and part-leather Recaro sport seats.

What the others say

3.8 / 5
based on 4 reviews
4 / 5
When it was revealed in 2003, the RX-8 created quite a stir. Thanks to its novel ‘suicide’ rear doors the rakish coupe stole a practical march on more conventional rivals. The latest version retains this neat layout, while subtle tweaks to the shark-like nose freshen the car's distinctive looks. Entry-level versions get either a 189 or 228bhp version of the high-revving 1.3-litre Wankel rotary engine. The range-topping R3 adds sports suspension and bodykit. Read more: 
4 / 5
There's enough room for two in the back and a half decent boot, making the Mazda a useable coupe. It's great to drive with well weighted steering and minimal body roll, however while the rotary engine sounds good, it has to be worked hard to get meaningful performance and lacks pulling power. As a result fuel economy is poor.
4 / 5
Has long been one of our favourite coupés, because it looks great, drives brilliantly and has reasonable practicality. The R3 is expensive, but it's still worth it
3 / 5
Will not stand short runs from cold starts, rotary engine lacks torque and needs to be worked very hard most of the time, high CO2 emissions plus poor fuel economy.
Last updated 
11 Jan 2016
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