Saturday, October 22, 2011

RX8 - Something Completely Different for $15K

As the old Monte Python show used to say, "...and now for something completely different..."

If you're a gear-head shopping for a used car in the $15,000 range, it's hard to ignore the Mazda RX8.  This is especially true if you are a dad who wants a sports coupe, but need a back seat for two kids.  Granted it's not as pretty as an Audi TT or as iconic as a Porsche 911, but unlike those cars, you can actually inhabit the backseat without removing your legs.

And like the TT and 911, the RX8 is a legitimate track monster.  Weighing about 3,000 lbs, it has nearly perfect weight distribution.  It carves apexes like a Ginsu knife and its handling is sharper than Ricky Gervais' tongue.  Normally that kind of handling would rattle your fillings over the tar strips and pot holes that pervade a normal commute in the rust belt, but the Mazda's suspense is also compliant and forgiving to a fault.

Practical commuter and track star, it's the perfect blend... almost.

There is one flaw with the RX8, and like Ricky Gervais' whit, you either love it or hate it.  Unlike all other cars on the planet, which are powered by a piston engine, the Mazda's powerplant is a Wankel rotary.  This engine has its advantages.  It's small and lightweight, displacing only 1.3 liters.  It's silky smooth, with only two moving parts that rotate around a crankshaft instead of bouncing up and down.  But it's also thirsty, going through a gallon of gas in an average of 19 miles and burning a quart of oil every 1,000.  No wonder "Car & Driver" summed it up as the perfect coupe in search of an engine. 

I like the RX8, just as I liked the RX7.  I like the idea of the Wankel rotary engine and am pleased to see Mazda attempting to keep it alive.  But I like them at arms length.  To me, the RX8 has a lot in common with Ricky Gervais--it would be a lot of fun hanging out with him for a couple of hours, but I don't think I could share an office.   

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Jensen Interceptor

When you think of 1960s British cars with American V8 engines, what comes to mind?  The AC Cobra?  Sunbeam Tiger?  The Morgan Plus 8 with its GM sourced power?

How about a GT with Italian styling and one of the best car names ever?

The Jensen Interceptor was a limited run grand tourer produced by Jensen Motors from 1966-76.  Powered by Chrysler's 383 and 440 cubic inch engines, it offered style and performance comparable to an Aston Martin DBS or Jaguar E-Type.  But while Aston Martin and Jaguar still make cars today, Jensen died out 35 years ago due to the perfect storm of rising gas prices and poor build quality.  

Recently there have been several efforts to revive the marque and refurbish the Interceptor with updated power plants and amenities.  You can also find a good, clean coupes in the $10-20,000 range or about twice that for the convertible version.  And because of the MOPAR drive train, a lot of parts are fairly easy to find. 

To me, the Jensen Interceptor is one of the few European cars you could legitamately turn into a Pro-Street hot rod.  I sometimes wonder what it would be like to buy one and update it with the Hemi engine and transmission from a Chrysler 300C or Dodge Charger R/T.  Done right, the results would be spectacular. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Beater Update - Repair Work

After more than a year of reliable, trouble free service, time caught up with the Oldsmobile this week.  I took it to the shop, knowing it needed brake work, and walked out facing $1800 in repairs.  I got the brakes fixed, and other misc. items for $800, but the other big ticket item, replacing the intake manifold gasket, will wait until I decide what to do. 

The 3.1 liter V6 in the Oldsmobile has a reputation for trouble with the intake manifold gaskets.  It's either a poor design, poor quality gasket, or a problem with the antifreeze they used--possibly all three.  But the 3.1 and other engines in this family, made between 1995 and 2005, are prone to this problem which causes antifreeze to start leaking into the intake and into the combustion chambers.  Left long enough, and the engine will eventually seize or destroy itself. 

Now I have a choice--spend another $1000 and fix the problem or start looking for a replacement.