Given any discussion of the Mazda RX-8 will inevitably (and very swiftly) turn to its problems, they seem worth mentioning first. Yes, even though this is a celebratory piece. Because, well, the RX-8 wasn't a flawless car from the beginning, fresh and exciting though it undoubtedly was. Its abundance of revs was equalled by a paucity of torque, exposed by brawny rivals like the Nissan 350Z, Vauxhall Monaro and turbocharged Audi TTs. Its fuel economy rivalled the rally reps without their searing cross country pace, and nothing quite consumes oil like a rotary engine. There was also the small matter of 284g/km...
Then, of course, there are the problems that have manifested themselves as the car has aged. Ignition issues, engine flooding, low compression, worn rotor tips, the potential need for rebuilds... It's a long and pretty intimidating list in the worst case scenario, exacerbated by the everyday running costs: a post-March 2006 car could cost as little as £1,000 to buy, but £555 to tax for a year. Here is not the place to state definitively what works and what doesn't; some online commentators will tell you theirs is fine after thousands of miles of considered use and others will call RX-8s total garbage, but it seems fair to say they need a caring, dedicated owner.
So what does that owner stand to inherit? Firstly, it's worth contributing some context, and reiterating what a seismic impact the car had on the UK coupe market in the early years of the 21st century. Despite being a cult favourite, the previous RX-7 had found few fans willing to part with their money in the UK: too expensive, too niche, too not German for our tastes. That changed with the RX-8; less focused and slightly less powerful, sure, but also more accessible, more practical and significantly cheaper. At launch the 192hp car cost £19,995, with another £2k getting buyers into the 231hp, six-speed flagship.
And what a package it was. Fast, direct, engaging, dynamic, well equipped, practical and distinctive, the RX-8 was immediately popular and successful in an extremely competitive coupe sector. Let's not forget that in the middle of the last decade a budget of around £25k could have bought you anything from a 350Z to an Alfa GT, Vauxhall Monaro, or an Audi TT. Or a Chrysler Crossfire. Or Toyota Celica.
Special editions and equipment updates followed, plus the significant R3 revision of 2009, but fundamentally the recipe remained familiar throughout its seven years in the UK. There had been nothing quite like it before - the RX-7 representing a more exotic Wankel heyday - and there has been nothing like the RX-8 since, the only potential for future Mazda rotaries apparently being as range extender motors. The 350Z was replaced, the TT continues to this day and even Toyota still has a sub-£30k coupe on sale, but the death knell sounded loud and clear for the RX-8 eight years ago.
You'll know probably how the story goes from here, the RX-8's terminal flaw now proving its most charming attraction. Goodness knows the rotary engine has some innate, er, quirks to get around; that said, to experience an engine this smooth, this characterful and this willing in a world of copy and paste turbos is an absolute revelation. The lack of torque feels almost dangerous initially, and there remains no escaping the fact it doesn't quite go fast enough to match its ferocious appetite for unleaded. But once it's beyond 6,000rpm, shrieking its demented howl through the last 3,000rpm and feeling for all the world like it's good for about 12,000, the RX-8 almost qualifies itself for Hero status immediately. That it responds so perfectly to the throttle pedal, is matched to a delightful six-speed manual and keeps its power building for seemingly every last rev simply seals the deal. Powertrain diversity and variety should be celebrated in all their forms, and the rotary is as worthy of celebration here as any flat, V or straight equivalent. It's a marvel, so smooth you'll never believe it runs on something as crude as petrol, and an absolute tonic in a world that must prioritise accessible torque, lab test emissions and ease of use.
The joy of the RX-8, and its appeal as a package, though, was that it provided so much more intrigue than simply a cool engine. Encouragingly, that talent endures to this day, which makes its irrefutable woes the more frustrating. This is a superb car to drive, weight feeling low, centralised and exquisitely controlled. Thus there's seemingly agility and balance to spare, meaning precious, hard-won momentum can be easily maintained and manipulated.
There's nothing particularly revolutionary about the RX-8 - double wishbones up front, multi-link at the rear, Bilstein dampers for this 40th edition and anti-roll bars - so it just goes to show that a properly devised conventional set up can still deliver. Granted, the steering is nothing exceptional and there's a brittle edge to the ride, but the fundamentals are spot on - balance, turn in, wheel control and so on. The RX-8 remains a finely honed and rewarding sports car to drive - coming from Mazda that probably shouldn't be a surprise - and a reminder of why light, front-engined, rear-drive cars will always have a deserved special place in our hearts. Should you find a slippery enough surface, too, the RX-8 is more than willing to indulge your Tokyo Drift fantasies, benign and approachable as it is when the tyres relinquish grip.
That combination of magical powertrain and finely wrought dynamics, plus great value and real practicality, found the RX-8 plenty of fans when petrol was less than a pound a litre. At the peak of its popularity, HowManyLeft suggests that more than 20,000 were registered on UK roads, some achievement for a sports car from a non premium manufacturer. Bear in mind there were never more than 6,000 Nissan 350Zs in the UK and you get a better idea of the RX-8's popularity.
A decade and a half after its introduction, it's still not short of supporters, those dedicated to the cause and staunch advocates of what looks like being the last rotary Mazda. On fleeting experience it's not hard to see why, the car still delivering a drive like no other. It's not perfect by any means, but it is memorable and characterful, which will count for a lot as it moves towards classic status.
There's no doubt any RX-8 requires careful and considered use, and it would certainly seem some owners are simply unluckier than others. That said, for offering a refreshingly Japanese take on the 21st century coupe, for opening up thousands more people to the joys of rotary engines and for proving there is a Mazda sports car beyond the MX-5, the RX-8 deserves its Hero status. They're cheap for a reason (those engine maladies), yes; however they're also lauded with good cause, and that's because they're damn good fun. The RX-8 is a flawed gem, of that there can be no doubt, but it's a gem nonetheless.
SPECIFICATION - MAZDA RX-8
Engine: 1,308cc twin-rotor rotary
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 231@8,200rpm
Torque (lb ft): 156@5,500rpm
0-62mph: 6.4 seconds
Top speed: 146mph
On sale: 2003-2010
Price new: £21,995 (2003)
Price now: from £1,000
See RX-8s for sale on PH here.