Our long-term 2004 Mazda RX-8 traveled exactly 451 miles before the first thing went kablooey. Distant cheering could be heard from the Lincoln-Mercury, Volvo, and Mazda dealer across town.

In 1993 we clunked, bobbled, and short-circuited our way through a 35,000-mile test of a Mazda RX-7. Our cost was zero for correcting a host of vexations, from an expired CD player to leaky shocks to an addled engine computer. But the RX-7’s warranty had paid months of mortgages for the nincompoops at the dealership. Mazda purged the ravishing but infirm RX-7 from its U.S. catalog in 1995. Lovers of Herr Wankel’s spinning rotors faced eight years of celibacy.

Mazda tried again with the RX-8, launched in 2003. A redesigned body bubbles rearward with two extra rear-hinged doors and four seats, riding on a new, flex-free sport chassis with power from a new, cleaner rotary engine. Presumably, there are new faces in our dealer’s service department as well, so if ever a car were ripe for a long-term test, this one is it. Gentlemen, start your scan tools.

Our Velocity Red RX-8 arrived in the last days of a snow-blown January bearing a $2000 navigation system and a $4000 Grand Touring package that includes a sunroof, heated seats trimmed with rubberized side bolsters and Frappuccino-colored leather, an eight-way power driver’s seat, skid control, and a Bose stereo. The sticker read $33,200. We sent the car straight in for a $1307 set of Pirelli Winter 210 Snowsport tires and Kazera KZ-V 7.0-by-17-inch alloy wheels. Traction, nonexistent before, resumed on the RX-8’s return.

But not before the check-engine lantern came on at mile 451. The technician’s scan tool turned up “P0420,” an industry-standard trouble code indicating declining performance in the catalytic converter. The tech “reflashed” the engine computer-a modern way of saying he rapped it with a wrench, perhaps?-and sent us on our way. We hadn’t heard the last of Mr. P0420.

Meanwhile, the RX-8 convinced us that it’s a hole-seeking missile in traffic and the perfect car for people who think the Lotus Elise should come as a station wagon. Those three kinks in the avenue between the library and the rail crossing, the one where cops have no place to hide, became the Maison Blanche curves at Le Mans. Mazda actually won Le Mans, you know, in 1991.

The RX-8 plants four feet in a wide, stable stance and charges, its twin rotors gyrating to 9000 rpm with a Hoover vacuum’s patented exhaust rip. Relatively featherweight, always agile, and remarkably stiff with finger-flick steering, the RX-8 is constantly hunting for the next apex.

We admired the boom-box cabin detailing and particularly its decorative trochoids. These curve-sided triangles honor the two rotors that make the engine special. Two big silver ones are pressed into the front headrests, one into the center of each bumper. The stubby shifter even has the shape, sliding through its narrow, closely spaced gates with light pressure and a gratifying mechanical linkage.

At 5026 miles, the check-engine light flashed on. Again, P0420 was lurking in the wires, and again, the technician performed a “software download,” which extinguished the light. Perhaps he installed Windows XP. The trouble light was shining again even before the car left the shop, and this time, P0420, our canary in the tailpipe, had up and died. The dealership replaced the faulty catalytic converter, spending a boggling $1145 of Mazda’s money. Not surprisingly, RX-8 chat rooms have been abuzz with P0420 discussions. Mazda says a cold-start problem with early RX-8s stuffed up the cats; it’s been fixed.

The dealer also conducted recall 1604B, a fix to the passenger-airbag wiring, and recall 1704B, replacing a heat-insulator bracket that could crack and fall off. For our trouble, they graciously threw in an unscheduled oil change and sent the $30 bill to Mazda.


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