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It’s one of the most iconic sports cars of this era, but the Mazda RX-8 is far from a safe bet. Most used RX-8 models are cheap, which makes them an enticing buy. And while the test drive is certainly fun, the ownership experience is among the most difficult modern cars you’ll find anywhere.

Mazda’s rotary engine is an icon

Blue 2009 Mazda RX-8 with its doors open
2009 Mazda RX-8 | Mazda

Some engines are renowned for their power capability, like Chevy’s LS V8 and BMW’s N55 and B58 inline-six turbo. Others, like the Mazda rotary, gain recognition for their sound. It’s not a particularly potent powerplant, offering just 232 horsepower and 159 pound-feet of torque. And speaking of torque, that 159 pound-feet feels flat, taking the miniscule RX-8 from zero to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds. And according to MotorWeek, it does the quarter mile in 15.9 seconds at just 93 mph.

However, the sounds coming from the Mazda RX-8 make it an unbelievable experience. The high-revving redline peaks at 9,100 rpm, and the howl it makes along the way is nothing short of intoxicating. And while that lowly torque figure isn’t much for launches, it does make the RX-8 undeniably smooth, even as you rev it to the Moon and back.

The Mazda RX-8 is interminably fun to drive…

Underpowered small sports cars are often the most fun to drive, and the Mazda RX-8 is no exception. Its short wheelbase, rear-wheel drive, and limited-slip differential means you can huck it sideways through corners and still keep it all underneath you.

And on a winding back road, it’s nimble, engaging, and just potent enough to keep a smile on your face. The LSD out back does well to manage wheelspin on wet surfaces. And with some practice, the RX-8 is one of the most accessible autocross weapons you’ll find anywhere.

…but interminably frustrating to own

However, the fun all stops when you get a good look under the hood. The Mazda RX-8’s Wenkel rotary engine is well-known for its sound, but that’s not likely why you’ll remember it. Instead, it’s the rampant reliability problems that plague used Mazda RX-8 models.

Because the rotary setup involves three spinning, triangular rotors, it requires apex seals to keep the intake and exhaust chambers separate. Those apex seals are prone to wear, even if you do your oil changes more often than a schoolboy goes to church.

That’s because all of the combustion happens on one end of the rotary chamber, while intake air enters on the other. As such, there is a vast temperature difference within each engine chamber. The apex, face, and edge seals deal with this constant variation as they spin. And that frequent change in temperature causes the seals to rapidly expand and contract, thousands of times per minute. Over time, that state of flux causes the rotary engine seals to wear out, which reduces the already low compression and causes power loss.

Is the Mazda RX-8 a reliable car?

A used Mazda RX-8 in blue
2009 Mazda RX-8 | Mazda

In addition to the wearing of seals, used Mazda RX-8 models also burn oil. The unique combustion chamber includes oil injection to help maintain lubrication. The aim is to improve the seal and reduce apex seal wear. The downside is burning oil, along with the unburnt fuel from the hot side of the combustion chamber. That combines to cause catalytic converter clogs, which is far from a cheap repair. And while this fix claims to help, it doesn’t completely eliminate the problem.

The Mazda RX-8 is an efficiency nightmare

Whether you care about climate change or not, the rising cost of fuel might be enough to keep you away from a used Mazda RX-8. Rated at 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway, the 1.3-liter rotary engine is dreadfully inefficient. Considering both its size and 232 horsepower output, those are simply miserable numbers.

For comparison, Volkswagen’s EA888 2.0-liter turbo makes 315 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque in the Golf R. And despite an all-wheel drive system, it still earns 20 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. The B58 3.0-liter inline-six turbo from BMW offers up 382 horsepower, and 369 pound-feet of torque, yet still manages 23 mpg city and 32 mpg highway in its xDrive configuration.

Is a used Mazda RX-8 worth it?

As a track car or weekend special, a used Mazda RX-8 is plenty of fun to drive. But if you plan to get a lot of miles out of your new sports car, the rotary engine makes an RX-8 untenable. And because it takes a specialty mechanic to work on, keeping this little Mazda sports car on the road is nothing short of a nightmare.