Man, I miss my RX8.
If you're a gearhead / amateur grease monkey with an engine hoist, there's no better deal out there right now in the sports car world than a first generation (SE3P) 2004-2008 Mazda RX-8 . Just go into it with the right mindset and expect to spend $2k on the thing every 10 years. And throw what you know about engine maintenance out the door. They're still a Mazda, so the components of the car are solid - expect above average reliability from everything except the engine.
The bottom line here is to go into the RX8 experience with your eyes wide open. Don't go into it expecting an economy car and economy car reliability. Go into it expecting the reliability of an exotic, with the driving dynamics of an exotic, and engine maintenance costs (and frequency) of a Land Rover.
The problem with the RX-8 isn't the cars themselves, it's owners who don't understand that owning a rotary is different than owning a piston engine'd car. Thus, you can find low compression examples that are still in great shape and fully loaded but need an engine for pennies now a'days.
It's an awesome car, think of it as a heavy Miata with a roof and a back seat. I loved mine, I only sold it because I had performed a few modifications and realized it would never pass smog when I moved back to CA a few years ago. As far as I know my former car is still in its 3rd owner's hands, and he's loving every minute of it. He premixes.
RX8club.com is where I got most of the info (and support) needed to buy a slushbox equipped RX-8, (and do an MT swap) and if you buy one of these that already has a manual transmission, good news, all you have to do is pull and replace the engine which takes even less time. There's also an RX8club FAQ that is probably a ton better than the disjointed drivel I'm about to spew forth (and this one too.)
First off, forget all you know about piston engines when dealing with a rotary. Here are some examples of the differences.
1. By design, these use oil, around 1.5 - 2qt per 3000-5000 miles. Here's a video by EverydayDriver on youtube that talks about how they used almost 1/2 qt of oil in one day of hard driving. Oil is cheap, don't worry about it.
2. The Renesis 13B-MSP (2-rotor, multi-side-port) Wankel engine burns oil as a part of the combustion process and thus, go through catalytic converters like a MoFo - 60k is a good estimate if you premix.
3. DO NOT USE Synthetic oil. Good for pistons, not good for Wankels.
4. Premixing 2 stroke oil or specifically designed Idemitsu premix actually helps these engines last longer.
5. A redline a day keeps the carbon away - carbon in these cars is the enemy of compression..
6. Hot starting. If the seller professes the engine to be "new" or have "good compression", a true test of whether or not the engine you have is going to last more than just a year or two is to get the car good and hot and turn it off. Wait about 30 seconds to one minute, then try to start it (as if you were filling up your gas tank, or running into the store to grab something real quick. If it starts right up, you're usually OK in the compression department. But to double check / ensure that you're good, get a legit compression test. Using a normal, piston engine'd compression tester will not give you an accurate result. In order to gauge compression accurately, these engines need to be at a specific temperature, with the rotors spinning at a precise RPM (or at least normalized to that RPM by a rotary compression tester).
7. A word about compression and hot starting. These actually start easier when *cold* believe it or not. I won't bore you with the details but the TL;DR version is that the epitrochoid shape of the rotor housing expands and contracts with heat, and when it expands it pushes the walls of the rotor housings slightly further away from the apex seals. When the seals are on their way out they out, they can no longer make contact for long enough to ensure sufficient combustion. Same is true but to a lesser extent for the side seals.
8. 1.3L of displacement is a bit misleading. A normal 1.3l engine would return favorable fuel economy and have low emissions. The displacement of 1.3 liters is one thing, but you get twice as many combustions per revolution - so it's technically, for emissions purposes, a 2.6l.
9. You've probably heard me spout off about "the horsepower of a V6, the torque of an I4, and the thirst of a V8." Yes, yes, and yes. But when you're elbow deep in a flat out 3rd gear corner edging closer to 9kRPM in one of these things that you've done all of the work on yourself, none of that really matters. These cars are an absolute scorching deal right now if you're handy with a spanner and you go into it with reasonable expectations. I would also budget for a copy of Cobb's Access Tuner - Race, and a Cobb Access Port to modify MOP tables and suppress CELs from when you inevitably have to gut the cat.
My thought is that the reason these cars have such a bad rep is that people buy a 6 year old example for $4000 with a knackered engine but they expect it to act lil' like a 6 year old piston engine'd car. There's a lot of misinformation out there, too. But there is good news though, everything else is pure Mazda - brakes, suspension, steering, components, sensors, interior, etc, all of that is good to go and requires little maintenance. If you get a Grand Touring, there's all of the amenities you'd expect in a $40k car, for under $3000. Leather, satnav (optional), 6spd manual, limited slip diff, TCS, Stability control, heated power seats, awesome audio system, large sunroof etc.
A quick scan of my local classified produced a dozen RX8's in the 80k - 120k mile range, all Grand Tourings (leather, heated seats, LSD, sunroof, etc) all below $3000, all needing an engine but otherwise in good shape. For reference 2 years ago I bought a 2005 base RX8 that needed an engine for $500 and some entertainment system wiring work. I bought a JDM engine and trans for $1200 shipped. I drove it for a while and sold it for $5500.
Dynamically these cars are awesome. They feel like they rotate around the gearshift knob, they can rev literally forever (though they stop making power above 10krpm I've been told), and they are suuuuper smooth.
You can search any craigslist and find piles of cheap blown-engine RX-8s, but just for illustrative purposes, here are a few.
Here is a 2005 Mazda RX-8 automatic covered in Japananime style graphics with a grenaded engine and offered for $3,000 in Long Beach, CA.
The next one is a 2005 6-Speed offered for $5,000 in Lakewood, CA with a nasty throw out bearing sound and cabin that smells like gear oil.
Here is a 2004 6-speed with "strong running 120k mile original engine" that doesn't smell like gear oil, offered for $4,500 in Elk Grove, CA.
Here is a 2004 automatic with a busted engine, offered for $2200 in Oxnard, CA...but this is just a quick snapshot of cars -- just head to your local list and find something cheap, it isn't like you are searching for a stock STi or non-salvage title E36 M3.
If you can find a 6 port 6-spd Touring or Grand Touring car with a toasted engine for under $3k, and a low mileage used-but-tested-good engine for $1500, I'd say you got yourself a sweet deal for under $4500 that you can flog the beans out of for 3 or 4 years before you have to think about hot start issues.
Speaking of hot starts, if you end up buying one of these ticking time bombs, you need to read up on the starter business here. TL;DR version -- Look for the newest p/n, these starters spin at a faster RPM and can stave off the dreaded rebuild (i.e. hot start failure) for a year or more.
One thing I forgot to mention earlier is that these things will flood if you shut them off after a cold start before the engine has a chance to fully warm up. Or they will flood on a hot start if you have really low compression. To cook off the cat they dump fuel in on a cold start. If you shut it off before the engine is fully warmed up, the excess fuel in the chambers will wash the oil film away from the rotor housing surface (where the infamous "apex seal" does its thing) and cause a low compression condition.
If you're going the used engine route, I implore you to have the compression checked with a rotary compression tester. I'm not going to get into the intricacies of how they work because there are a dozen youtube videos out there showing exactly what happens and why.
If you're going the rebuilt route, 2 words: Rotary Resurrection. Or even if you go used, you can sell Rotary Resurrection your old "keg" (what the rotary "block" looks like) which is what I did. He paid for shipping, and gave me ~$200 - 250 for my knackered old engine.
After selling spares from the swap (duplicate pulleys, injectors, throttle body, sensors, alternator, MOP, MOP lines & injectors, harness, ECU etc) I ended up only paying $700 for the used engine.
Another note: sometimes you can get lucky with a car that the owner says "won't hot start" "just stalled on me on the highway" or floods... check the model number on the starter and check the health/age of the battery. Even if both look new, check them. While I was acquiring parts for my swap I was actually able to daily drive the car after I replaced the battery with an older (but still 100%) Optima red top I had laying around and upgraded the starter to the latest and greatest. I also de-carbed the car a few times.
Every now and then you can get lucky and decarb these engines (much more involved than just sticking a vac line into a can of Seafoam and bouncing it off the rev limiter for a few minutes) and regain some lost compression. Carbon (due to unburned fuel + the oil required by these engines to lube the apex seals) can over time decrease compression enough so that it won't hot start.
Most cars have timing belts you change out every 100k and if done at the dealer will cost $1000 - 2000 (like my Audi...). If you play your cards right, you can get a good used replacement engine for that much dough -- wring another 4 - 5 years out of it, love every last second of it, and sell it along for about what you paid when you're done. But don't go in expecting to make any money. And don't go in expecting it to be easy (though it isn't hard). I put myself through college (before I joined the military to pay off my loans) wrenching on cars, so I'm fairly handy and I do have a garage and full set of tools. HOWEVER All I really needed to pull the entire engine AND transmission from this car in under 4 hours was a $29.99 100 piece made-in-China tool kit and a used $100 engine hoist. I think I had to buy one 22mm socket for the PPF bolts. That's PPF for PowerPlantFrame... yep the same thing as in a Miata. I didn't even have to discharge the A/C I just moved the compressor out of the way. It takes me longer to pull the engine in my Volvo and I've done that a dozen times.
Lastly, if you're ever down on your luck and pissed at the car, check this video where they took an RX-8 and put it up against a BR-Z/FRS back when the BR-Z/FRS came out. Even though it was a few years older, it actually held up admirably to the Toyobaru twins... and providing you can get one in good shape just needing an engine, it should cost you much less than a Toyobaru as well.
That's about it. If you want to look at 1st gen RX8 vs 2nd gen RX8 that's fine but if you're going to stick around the $2500 - 5000 "all in" budget, I think the 2nd gen RX8 will be out of that pricerange.
DT: Big thanks to RyanM for taking time away from his newborn baby to write this article and help save a few RX-8s from the junkyard. All images from mazdausamedia.com, except craigslist where noted.