When the Honda S2000 roadster went out of production in 2009, things looked bleak for the temple of VTEC. The company's top brass had seemingly forgotten that Type R was even a thing, the NSX remake was stuck in production hell, and the Prelude felt like a weird, distant memory. Fast forward a decade and the Civic Type R is besting cars more than ten times its price and the hybrid NSX is a fine supercar, haters be damned. The spirit of the fast Honda is alive and kicking.
Despite this, the automaker still has not released (or given any indication that it's even thinking of working on) a successor to the much-loved S2000. Luckily, it isn't the only small, Japanese roadster to exist. You see, the Mazda MX-5 Miata is still very much a thing, and the recently-updated 2019 model promises the purest open-top experience this side of modern safety regulations.
And to help you get a sense of whether a 15-year-old Honda is a better buy than a new car, Mazda graciously lent me a 2019 Miata to compare against a bone-stock 2004 S2000—which happens to be my personal car. So how do they stack up?
The 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata, By the Numbers
- Base Price (as tested): $25,730 ($30,780)
- Powertrain: 2.0-liter inline-four | 181 horsepower, 151 pound-feet of torque | six-speed manual | rear-wheel drive
- Redline: 7,500 rpm
- Curb Weight: 2,348 pounds
- 0-60 MPH: 5.7 seconds
- Fuel Economy (EPA): 26 mpg city | 34 mpg highway | 29 mpg combined
The 2004 Honda S2000, By the Numbers
- Base Price (as tested): $34,000 when new (~$15,000 today)
- Powertrain: 2.2-liter inline-four | 240 horsepower, 162 pound-feet of torque | six-speed manual | rear-wheel drive
- Redline: 8,000 rpm
- Curb Weight: 2,835 pounds
- 0-60 MPH: 5.4 seconds
- Fuel Economy (EPA): 17 mpg city | 23 mpg highway | 20 mpg combined
Honda Vs. Mazda On The Daily Grind
The Mazda is the immensely better daily. It has knurled, aluminum-look knobs, automatic headlights, Bose speakers in its headrests, feather-light inputs, and—as of this year—a telescoping steering wheel. Its deliberately large wheel gaps mean it rides way better than a car of its class has any right to. Suddenly, Toronto's post-winter potholes are a complete non-issue. Hell, I've been in cars that seat five, try a little too hard to be "sporty," and as a result aren't nearly as pleasant as the Miata.
The S2000, on the other hand, is a bit more demanding as an everyday commuter. Hopping behind the wheel after an extended stint in the Miata, the Honda's clutch felt shockingly heavy—like a kicking a bowling ball after a lifetime of beach balls heavy. It's the same story, albeit to a lesser degree, with the rest of the S2K's driving inputs. Its ride is predictably less compliant over bumps than that of the Mazda but remains reasonably comfy for what it is.
There's a spartan charm to the Honda's driver-focused cabin. No screens, just like nature intended. The way its HVAC and audio controls are clustered on either side of the steering wheel are an aspirational, supercar-aping touch. But once the novelty wears off, it all feels a bit superficial.
Also, the seats suck. (That hasn't stopped 'em from being annoyingly popular with thieves, though.) Throw in an aged, tinnitus-inducing soft-top and this is a car that doesn't seem to care too much about your general comfort. You'll forgive it for the drive, of course. And the older car does win out on outright space with its marginally airier top-up cabin and more usable trunk; Honda drivers will also be rewarded with a downright legendary shifter (more on that later) but the verdict is clear. For driving to work on cold, sleepy Monday mornings, the Mazda is the machine you want. It's got stitching on its dash, for God's sake.
At The Track
Flogging both of these cars back-to-back around the 1.86-mile road course at Toronto Motorsports Park looking for an objective and measurable verdict is a very enjoyable exercise in splitting hairs. In terms of outright pace, there wasn't much of a gap between the more powerful but heavier Honda and the less-is-more Mazda. Predictably, both cars will concede to even the humblest of modern hot hatches down TMP's front straight before going on to routinely and effortlessly harass Corvettes and BMWs on the slow and technical infield.
The Honda has its famously high redline but as of 2019, the MX-5 Miata's 181-horsepower mill revs up to 7,500 rpm—well within striking distance of my AP2-gen S2000's 8,000 rpm limit and up 700 rpm from last year's model thanks to increased valve spring rates and lighter pistons. But lap times and spec-sheet point-scoring were never what either of these cars were ever about, at least from the factory. To better understand how these two set themselves apart, we need to talk about how they go about their business.
Let's talk about the S2000 shifter. It's well-documented by now that the Honda S2000's manual shift action is one of the most satisfying experiences of modern motoring. It's oily, metallic, and comically short. It feels like a wartime weapon and leaves no ambiguity as to which one of the six cogs is currently hooked up to the rear axle. It's as good as they say, and a clear victor here. Not that the stick in the Mazda is a dud—like much of the rest of the car, the shifter in the Miata feels light, crisp, and toy-like. It's solid but cannot match what Honda's done here. Then again, not many cars can.
Another Honda highlight is its engine and the racket it makes. Above 6,000 rpm, the F22C emits a manic VTEC wail that makes me feel like a child again. Winding it out to 8,000 rpm and rowing through the gears is the sort of experience I find myself thinking about lying in bed at night when the dopamine is running low. Meanwhile, Mazda's revised 2.0-liter still feels and sounds more workmanlike, not as special as the car's looks might suggest.
Where the MX-5 has the older car beat is in its steering. The Mazda's rack is quicker, more direct, and transmits more of the road surface to your hands than the Honda's, which is noticeably number and suffers from a small on-center dead spot. (It's also 15 years old, but well maintained.) Caning the softer-sprung Miata around bends predictably yields a lot more body roll, yet grip doesn't really suffer as a result, and there's an art to the weight transfer in quick curves.
Speaking of, there aren't very many cars that can make the 2,835-pound S2000 feel heavy, but Mazda's roadster pulls it off. The denser-boned Honda has the edge on track charisma, but the lightweight-to-a-fault MX-5 feels just a little more fleet of foot. Forgiving, too—it has modern traction control. Call me a coward, but there's pleasure to be had in wantonly burying your right foot into the gas pedal on corner-exit, knowing it won't result in any unfortunate phone calls to Mazda's PR office.
Make no mistake, both of these cars are supremely good toys. A spirited drive with the top down in either of 'em is the sort of experience that's liable to convert your scrapbooking, Camry-driving, middle-aged aunt into an r/cars-browsing car nut. For a no-holds-barred lap of the track, I'd take the Honda and its godly engine, Heckler & Koch shifter, and no-F's-given attitude. It's a theatrical driving machine that I'll be indulging in for years to come.
But in terms of sheer enjoyment on both road and track, the 2019 Mazda MX-5 Miata's superior steering, cotton-weight inputs, and modern amenities put it awfully, admirably close to the 15-year-old Honda. For a car that has to put up with 2019 safety and emissions standards, it's a remarkable engineering achievement. If you're looking for a second car that'll only be driven on warm, dry days, it's worth your time to look into a used Honda S2000. If finances and storage constraints dictate that one vehicle must do it all, spring for the new Mazda Miata with its heated seats, Bluetooth, and, y'know, a warranty. Plus, new cars just smell better, don't they?