Roadster Comparison: Honda S2000, Porsche Boxster, Mazda MX-5 and BMW Z3

Photography Credit: Tom Suddard

[Editor's Note: this article originally ran in the May 2011 issue of Grassroots Motorsports.]

 

There’s a running gag on the Grassroots Motorsports online forum that insists the answer to any question is “Miata.” 

Anyone have a good suggestion for a daily driver in the suburbs of Chicago? “Miata.” 

Okay, but what if I need to carry six people? “That’s easy, you just need three Miatas.” 

What should I have for lunch? “Miata.” 

Start a forum thread with any question, and you’ll be lucky to get in three replies before someone delivers the punch line.

Internet-based exaggerations aside, the Miata does do a very good job of answering for itself. When Mazda’s affordable roadster hit the world stage in 1989, it reminded enthusiasts that a lively, lightweight two-seater with rear-wheel drive and a convertible top can be a magical creature. The build quality and reliability were topnotch, too—traits that set the Miata apart from the often fickle and rust-prone European sports cars of the 1960s and ’70s. The sports car formula had a new champion.

The first-generation Miata sold in droves, which in turn attracted similar efforts from other manufacturers, including BMW, Honda and Porsche. Roadster concepts began popping up at auto shows in the mid-’90s, and before long the market was flush with genuinely cool options for blowing your hair back in a stylish and sporty two-seater. 

Mazda had cornered the entry-level roadster market, so these newcomers all came in at a higher price point—most offered more luxury, more performance, or both. As a result, if you were shopping in the year 2002 for a modern sports car for less than $15,000, the answer was still a used Miata. 

Fortunately, our friend depreciation has worked its inexorable magic across the entire category, so today there are many open-top sports cars vying for attention on the used-car market. Sure, many of them still wear Mazda badges, but the Miata is no longer the only option for shoppers looking to scratch their roadster itches for less than 15 grand. That’s a good thing, because no matter what our Internet jokesters may say, one size doesn’t fit all.

Sampler Platter With a Side of Sunshine

A wider selection creates a need for sampling and comparisons—a dirty job that, fortunately, we are always willing to do. Since driving a group of similar cars back-to-back is still the best way to highlight their strengths and weaknesses, we gathered four of our favorite under-$15K roadster candidates at the Ocala Gran Prix facility in Central Florida for a day of driving, measuring and testing.

Our test subjects included a Mazda MX-5 Miata, a Honda S2000, a Porsche Boxster S and a BMW Z3. These cars represent a valid cross section of what a typical shopper would find on the used market: All were well maintained and mostly stock aside from things like replaced tires and the occasional bolt-on modification.

Balance is one of the factors that makes a roadster feel just right from behind the wheel, so we started our comparison by breaking out our Longacre scales. We took accurate measurements of each corner of the cars, including cross-weight percentages with a driver in place. The closer the crossweight figure comes to 50 percent, the more balanced the car will feel in both left and right turns. 

Once it was time to hit the track, we took advantage of our ace in the hole—or, more accurately, our ace in the Boxster. The Porsche Boxster S belonged to Sharron and Dan Shields, both multiple-time SCCA Solo national champions, and we enlisted Dan to serve as our designated driver for the timed laps in all the cars in our roundup. 

Those lap times come with a big asterisk, however, because these regularly driven cars were all on very different tires. The Boxster and S2000 wore comparable ultra-high performance summer tires, while the MX-5 and Z3 were shod in less aggressive all-season rubber. We don’t consider comparison lap times truly valid unless the cars are on their OEM-spec rubber or on a uniform compound of our choosing, but Dan’s hot laps would not be wasted. Putting in some laps and getting impressions near the limit is still an important part of any test.

Our test data also includes up-to-date fuel economy ratings from the EPA’s fueleconomy.gov website. These newer numbers tend to be a bit more harsh—and realistic—than the published figures that appeared when these cars were sold new.

Miata may be the answer to many of life’s quandaries, but let’s see how we’d answer the $15,000 question: What’s an affordable and fun-to-drive two-seat roadster that offers a good mix of economy, performance, reliability and style? 

2006 Mazda MX-5

Photography Credit: Scott R. Lear

There are indeed times when the answer is Miata, and for good reason. The third-generation Mazda MX-5 has been with us since 2006, and although the car has grown a bit in size and weight with each generation, the latest model is more refined and powerful than its predecessors. It’s still the king of entry-level roadsters, and our $15K budget cap can easily cover a low-mileage example that’s just out of warranty.

The Miata lands itself smack-dab in the center of a four-way chart that puts comfort and thrills on one axis, and luxury and value on the other. The 170-horsepower engine is surprisingly punchy, partly because it’s paired with the lightest chassis in our group. It has good around-town torque, but it’s also eager to rev on the track. There’s enough roll in the suspension to soak up the road and let you know when you’re having fun, but it doesn’t get out of hand at the limit. 

We’d argue that the MX-5’s manual top is the best example in the history of roadsters. It’s light, keeps the weather out when closed, and can be easily operated and locked into place with one hand. Better still, it stows flush with the deck lid, so it doesn’t look like an afterthought when the sun comes out.

Enthusiasts have plenty of options to keep in mind when shopping the used market. Look for an example equipped with the Suspension package—which includes a limited-slip differential and Bilstein dampers—and you’ve got a perfect autocross platform. If the open road is more to your liking, a Grand Touring version may suit you better as it sports a more robust stereo and other comfort and convenience gizmos.

Photography Credit: Tom Suddard

OWNER’S THOUGHTS:

Joel picked up his MX-5 on the used market only about a month before joining us for our test, so he’s still getting to know the car. “It’s very responsive to driver inputs and really gives some great feedback, too,” he notes. He wasn’t in love with the seats after about 250 miles in a single day, however—although this is very much a personal preference, there are probably better cross-country choices out there.

Joel was drawn to the Miata partly because of the legacy that the manufacturer has built around the car. “I love how Mazda really subscribes to their Zoom-Zoom motto,” he explains. “It’s cool to see a car company that thinks cars should be interesting and exciting. The Miata gets you reliably from Point A to Point B, and you really enjoy the journey there.”

Photography Credits: Scott R. Lear

PRO DRIVER’S THOUGHTS:

  • Fast Lap: 41.25 sec.

The MX-5 was a delight to drive. It was very responsive and featured quick, light steering and good acceleration. The seating had the most lumbar support in this group, something important to me. It performed well on the track, even with tires that were nothing special. Unlike earlier Miatas, which seem to demand a downshift any time you tap the brakes, this car felt fine when coming away from the tight corners in second gear.

Miatas have always been wonderful, agile little cars, impressive for how quickly they can get around with so little power. This third-generation MX-5 has all that agility plus reasonable power to go with it. It’s no rocket, but it never seems anemic. It’s a serious player in an era when many performance cars weigh well over a ton and a half—I am impressed that the MX-5 still weighs in at less than 2400 pounds. It’s a wonderfully balanced sports car that does everything well. I’m not sure why I’ve never owned one!

  • Highs: The bargain of the bunch. Truly competent in all areas. Huge aftermarket support.
  • Lows:  Doesn’t stand out in a crowd. Least powerful in this group. Lacking a superlative element.
  • Verdict: It’s hard to find fault with the king of the roadsters, but there are spicier dishes out there.

2002 Porsche Boxster S

Photography Credit: Per Schroeder

Porsche is an aspirational brand for many enthusiasts, and they didn’t climb toward the top of the “coveted” list by making boring vehicles. Sports cars are Porsche’s bread and butter, so the brand has a long legacy of cool roadsters, from the 356 and Spyder to various drop-top 911 models. The debut of the Boxster in 1997 gave hopeful buyers an entry-level Porsche to pine for, and today’s used-car prices bring this mid-engined roadster within our $15K target.

Early 2.5-liter Boxsters were criticized for their underwhelming power, but the Boxster S model that debuted in 2000 addressed those concerns with a larger 250-horsepower boxer engine. Porsche wasn’t giving these cars away, though: Dan showed us the original sticker prices on the car in our test, and its hard top, Cobalt Blue paint, Sport package, Xenon headlights and other goodies brought the total to more than $63,000.

It’s fair to say that a car in excellent condition such as this one would probably not fall under our $15K umbrella, but there are S-model Boxsters out there for that sum—a member of the GRM family bought one for $12,500 a few years back. Base-model cars are more easily found in this range, though power drops to 217 with the 2.7-liter engine, and to just over 200 with the older 2.5.

The Boxster is heavier than its peers in this test, and that weight is noticeable on track. However, the car remains totally planted through the corners, encouraging early throttle application. Ocala is a tight circuit, and the Boxster S never really felt like it cleared its throat—it needs more room to run. A larger track where third and even fourth gear would come into play would suit this roadster much better.

The Porsche is bank-vault solid, and the care paid to construction quality and materials is evident when it’s compared to the less-expensive cars in our test. That said, there is a certain measure of uncertainty regarding these cars as they age. There have been reports of intermediate shaft bearing failures and other issues, and the engine isn’t something you can get at without a lift and some serious tools. Fortunately, the majority of Boxsters seem to be very durable even when driven hard.

Photography Credit: Scott R. Lear

OWNER’S THOUGHTS:

Dan has owned a series of Porsches, including a 968 and a 944S2, and he and Sharron autocross and run PCA events on a regular basis. “Our friend C.J. Spencer got a new Boxster S when they came out in 2000, and I co-drove the car with her in quite a few events,” he recalls. “Each of us won three state championships. I even scored an FTD at an SCCA Divisional Championship—I was really impressed with the Boxster S, but they were still pretty expensive—at  least more than I ever imagined spending on a car.”

In 2004, Dan somehow flubbed one of Sharron’s significant birthdays. When this 2002 Boxster came up for sale shortly thereafter, it was his chance to simultaneously get a Porsche and leave the doghouse. 

“We have enjoyed our Boxster S for seven years now,” Dan declares, “and the total driving experience is exquisite. It doesn’t matter whether you’re going fast or slow, top up or down, driving around the neighborhood or on the track. It has the right sounds, the right moves, and the right looks.”

Photography Credits: Per Schroeder

PRO DRIVER’S THOUGHTS:

  • Fast Lap: 39.00 sec.

It was comfortable and felt great on track. With the broad power range, second gear served me well all the way around the track. The steering was relatively heavy but precise, and it offered excellent feedback so I could place the car exactly where I intended. I did have to deal with understeer in the tight corners.

A Boxster S makes any driver feel like Hurley Haywood, but I would have guessed that it was the quickest of the lot. I was surprised that I was quicker right off the bat in the Honda.

  • Highs: Two trunks provide an impressive amount of storage space. The most power and longest legs in the pack. Porsche Club of America offers unparalleled support.
  • Lows: Not as collectible as a 911. Mechanically inaccessible. The priciest car in our group.
  • Verdict: The Boxster is a Porsche for the masses, but the engineers were careful to ensure that it didn’t trump the 911.

2001 Honda S2000

Photography Credit: Tom Suddard

When the S2000 debuted in 1999, Honda was primarily known by the masses for producing practical family conveyances and some sporty front-wheel-drive compacts. The S2000 combined the best of Honda’s thoughtful engineering practices with a measure of fun in roadster form—then they installed a powerplant that was the engineering equivalent of an exclamation point.

In an era when 100 horsepower per liter in an atmospheric engine was considered downright impressive, Honda slapped a factory warranty on a 120-pony-per-liter screamer that revved to a race car-appropriate 9000 rpm. Time has shown that these engines are Honda reliable, too. A 2.2-liter version with more torque but fewer revs came to American-market S2000s in 2004—horsepower remained the same, and each engine has its supporters.

The specs are great on paper, but the 2-liter S2000 really does lack punch at lower engine speeds. Things wake up when the VTEC cams are engaged around 6000 rpm, and once you reprogram your brain to deal with the sport-bike powerband and sounds, the S2000 feels less like a roadster and more like a formula car.

Honda’s engineers went to great lengths to stiffen the chassis of their new open-top creation—there’s a large beam running the width of the cockpit through the footwells, for example—and that increased rigidity makes for a used car that feels tight and new even 10 years down the road. The Honda’s kartlike handling helped it reign supreme in our timed laps, though the minimal roll and sublime balance were enhanced by a set of aftermarket springs. The S2000 seems to vanish around the driver at speed, allowing for total concentration at the limit.

Owner Matt Altobelli replaced the front fascia on his 2001 car with a later nose after an accident, and the mirrors are smaller aftermarket units. ECU tuning to smooth out the VTEC engagement point was also on his modification list, but such alterations aren’t uncommon on the used market with a car that draws a tinkering crowd.

Photography Credit: Tom Suddard

OWNER’S THOUGHTS:

Matt Altobelli had owned many Hondas before finding his own S2000. A friend got one first, and as soon as Matt sampled the Honda firsthand, he knew he wanted one for his own garage.

“I found my car by accident,” he explains. “I was on my way to check out another S2000 when I passed a Hyundai dealership with mine sitting out front with ‘10,000 miles’ written across the window. That was in 2007, so I knew it was babied, one owner, garage kept. I signed the papers for it that night.”

As a Porsche technician, Matt has known several people who have traded in their S2000s for something more luxurious. “I used to tell people that they’d regret trading in their S for a Boxster. A couple of weeks later they would all come back and say I was right. Out of all the cars [in this comparison], I’d still take the Honda—to me, it’s by far a better pure sports car. No luxury, no traction control, no BS.”

Photography Credit: Scott R. Lear

PRO DRIVER’S THOUGHTS:

  • Fast Lap: 38.28 sec.

The Honda was very impressive, although the modifications might have contributed to its performance on track. The early S2000s have such high-revving engines, it’s like Honda took an engine from a formula race car and put it in a street roadster. The car pulls reasonably well even from low speed, but it takes a leap ahead when it reaches the VTEC engagement.

For test purposes, I wanted to stay in second gear all the way around the track, and I was getting into the rev limiter well before the end of the long straight. Also, I left it in second gear even for the tight corners—the car might have been even quicker if I had used first gear for the tightest turns. The Honda’s handling is superb, with quick steering and eager turn-in. The brake pedal was light and firm. I didn’t experience any tendency for the car to get twitchy or tail-happy, although I have seen this tendency in other S2000s.

  • Highs: Astonishing engine. Honda reliability. Carves corners like a champ.
  • Lows: What’s torque? Always a bit hyperactive. Cockpit cramped for some.
  • Verdict: Honda’s athletic roadster cranks the adrenaline and brings out the formula car driver in anyone.

2001 BMW Z3 2.5i

Photography Credit: Tom Suddard

As Aston Martin, Lotus and others have learned, secret agents are good for sales. The 1996 BMW Z3 had a very public debut in the James Bond film “GoldenEye,” and enthusiasts started snapping them up.

Early cars were saddled with an underwhelming four-cylinder engine, but once BMW slid one of their world-famous inline-six marvels in the nose in 1997, the Z3 really came to life. There’s a point of national pride here, too, as the Z3s were assembled in South Carolina.

In its final years of production, BMW’s roadster was available with either a 2.5-liter or a 3-liter inline six, the latter offering up 225 horses. Our test car had the 2.5, but it still felt like a torque monster compared to the S2000. The silky-smooth straight six delivers even power all the way through the rev range, and it makes the most delightful burbling and purring noises in the process. A 3.2-liter M version of the roadster was also available with even more punch, but good examples are much more likely to break our $15K budget on the used market.

The Z3 2.5i is a very willing dance partner. It rolls, pitches and moves more than any of the other cars in our group. The Z3 may not be the fastest but it is arguably the most fun, and when you dial things back, that forgiving suspension gobbles up the miles without complaint. The car has an old-school feel that puts a smile on your face, and the view over that dramatically sloped hood is endearing.

The styling of the Z3 really stands out in this group. Some love it, some don’t, but it sparks plenty of conversation. Don’t be surprised if this is the car that draws a crowd at the local car show 30 years from now. The interior is totally straightforward, with easy-to-read gauges and tactile knobs and buttons. It’s also very roomy, even for taller drivers. Like the Porsche, the BMW features very solid build quality.

Photography Credit: Tom Suddard

OWNER’S THOUGHTS:

Dan Stewart and his wife, Joan, had a 2000 Mazda Miata, but Dan didn’t fit so well. They decided to find something roomier. They first ended up with a 2004 Mercedes-Benz SLK, but aside from the styling, they were not impressed and dumped the car at 8000 miles.

“We tried the Boxster and felt we were sitting inside a manhole with our heads just sticking out,” says Dan. “The Porsche dealer had a low mileage, still-in-warranty Z3 for sale, and we loved the six-cylinder engine.”

That was seven years ago, and they’re still in love with their BMW. “It has a great throaty exhaust note and plenty of power for us,” Dan explains. “If I could change anything, I would make fifth gear taller—we hardly ever use fourth gear, we go from third to fifth.” They use the Z3 primarily on sunny days and long trips, including the occasional journey from Florida up to Nova Scotia. Dan admits that he uses cushions on long trips because the seats aren’t as comfortable as he would like.

Photography Credits: Scott R. Lear

PRO DRIVER’S THOUGHTS:

  • Fast Lap: 41.45 sec.

The six-cylinder Z3 roadster offers many of the traits that have become very endearing in BMWs: It moves you with flexible six-cylinder torque; it coddles you with comfortable seats and a soft ride; it tracks as confidently as a bloodhound on the hunt. The Z3 strikes me as an overlooked jewel in the BMW lineup.

Sure, this car’s all-season Michelins weren’t the ultimate for track use, and the short gearing and relatively low redline demanded a shift to third gear halfway down the straight. However, if you’re looking for a solid roadster that you can drive all day long while keeping a smile on your face, this BMW might be the ticket. I have driven an M roadster in autocrosses, and the six-cylinder Z3 is a kinder, gentler version of that. It’s a little softer and less powerful, but still much stronger than the four-cylinder Z3. Very nice!

  • Highs: Smooth, powerful straight six. Drives like a classic roadster. Dramatic styling.
  • Lows: Weight and body roll hurt performance. The least racy in stock trim. Dramatic styling leaves some people cold.
  • Verdict: The Z3 is the grand tourer of this bunch, and offers both retro looks and a retro driving experience.

What's Your Pleasure?

Photography Credit: Tom Suddard

The renaissance of the sports car has given the used-car shopper with $15,000 to burn plenty of genuinely cool choices. There are no duds in this group, though each car caters to a slightly different style of driver. For these reasons, our editors can’t agree on which one is the clear winner. 

For maximum performance, the Honda is tough to beat. It’s simply the fastest, and it has the racing record to back that up. One more thing to love: It’s not delicate. If only it were a bit more relaxed on the highway.

The Porsche may not be as quick as the Honda on a tight circuit, but it’s more comfortable on the open road. For 9-to-5 work, maybe this is the answer. Owning a Porsche will also grant you admittance to one of the best car clubs out there.

The BMW wasn’t our favorite on course—too heavy, too soft—but it does soak up the highway miles with ease. Like the Porsche, the BMW is also supported by a wonderful club network.

And the Miata? It’s not the fastest, the prettiest or the most exclusive—but more than 20 years after the model’s introduction, the Miata still does everything well. It will make you look like a hero driver, never let you down, and always get you to work. 

If you’re in the market, we highly recommend you follow in our footsteps and drive each of these wonderful machines for yourself, then come to your own decision. Whether you choose a Miata or not, you’ll still be welcome on our message boards.

Photography Credit: Tom Suddard

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Comments
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buzzboy
buzzboy Dork
9/9/20 12:50 p.m.

An S2000 weights ~100lbs less than a Z3 and feels like it weighs about 300lbs more. Around town the lack of torque makes the car feel slow and heavy off the line, only really coming alive after 6000rpm. Sure, the gears are WAY deeper to make up for the torque difference but then you spend all your time shifting. And on the street, it's a little impractical to rev out every shift just to keep up with a highschool girl in a new V6 camry.

I'm sure it's different on track.

spandak
spandak HalfDork
9/9/20 1:15 p.m.

I compared the facelift NC and a 2.7 Boxster. I ended up with the Boxster. It's heavier and the sport seats are...not great, but it has so much more character and that's what drew me in. I was ready to buy the Mazda and I really wanted to like it but I found it lacking. The transmission was decent but the cockpit was cramped and the engine was too bland for me. It would rev but it never got exciting. The 2.7 isn't a power house but it at least makes a good noise!
I do wonder sometimes if I made the right choice. The Boxster is wonderful but I blew my budget and anything worth changing is $$. The Miata would have been cheap fun modding and its reputation is so well known I can't help but wonder if I missed out on something. 

aw614
aw614 Reader
9/10/20 9:15 a.m.

First thing I was wondering when I saw the top picture was if that was Dan Shield's Boxster that I see at the local Suncoast PCA events, guess I was right lol. 

Coming from a 4 cylinder na eco car, I never had an issue from the lack of torque off the line in an S2000. I can see the lack of low end noticeable if you are coming from a 6 or 8 cylinder car, but for me, it was hey, this thing has some power over my non VTEC integra

 

93EXCivic
93EXCivic MegaDork
9/10/20 9:21 a.m.
buzzboy said:

And on the street, it's a little impractical to rev out every shift

Isn't that the point of owning a Honda?

racerdave600
racerdave600 UltraDork
9/10/20 10:46 a.m.

I drove a S2000 before buying a Boxster.  Two things stood out, first you have to push it extremely hard to enjoy it, and second, it drives a lot like a Miata at low revs.  In the end, I thought the Porsche was a better all around car, but I did enjoy my time in the Honda.

wspohn
wspohn Dork
9/10/20 11:41 a.m.

Do you like to drive hard (maybe had a competition background?). Go for the S2000. They usually have two kinds of owners - the youthful females who likely never get the rpm above the magic 6K mark and the guys that know what they can do and use it all the time. 

Do you like to drive hard once in awhile? The Porsche is probably the best all round choice (although I'd opt for a Cayman S)

Brake_L8 (Forum Supporter)
Brake_L8 (Forum Supporter) Reader
9/10/20 12:09 p.m.

I'm gonna get eviscerated for this comment, but at city/around-town speeds, the S2000 feels like a Civic with the roof removed. They are only "fun" when you have space to wind 'em out.

I'm also a little dour as my roommate died in one and another friend unintentionally lost his roommate in one. Both cases experienced some form of snap oversteer and the cars went in the air and into trees. They are not forgiving for drivers with little or no HPDE-type experience.

CAinCA
CAinCA Reader
9/10/20 2:00 p.m.
Brake_L8 (Forum Supporter) said:

I'm also a little dour as my roommate died in one and another friend unintentionally lost his roommate in one. Both cases experienced some form of snap oversteer and the cars went in the air and into trees. They are not forgiving for drivers with little or no HPDE-type experience.

Ouch! That does tend to put a damper on my excitement for a car.

AAZCD (Forum Supporter)
AAZCD (Forum Supporter) Dork
9/10/20 2:33 p.m.

In 2014 I had bought about a dozen Honda Del Sols (after a CRX stint). The Del Sols - even B20 swapped - were fun, but felt like a cheap toy. I wanted a more 'refined' car. S2000s had just come into my price range and I started searching for one. I didn't find a S2000 locally, but my Craiglist search turned up a "2000" Porsche Boxster  "S" instead. I had never even considered a Boxster, thinking they were priced similarly to a 911. I have now bought over a dozen Boxsters and still think I'd enjoy a high revving Honda just as much.

nderwater
nderwater UltimaDork
9/10/20 3:13 p.m.

Good comparison, it's hard to go wrong with any of the test cars. 

It's wild to think how spoiled for choice we were a few years back.  Today a base Boxster starts near $65K, a Z4 starts from $50K, and the Honda is no more.  Can't get a manual in BMW and Mercedes roadsters and Fiat is killing off the Spider, so it's left to Mazda alone to hold the torch.

P.S. -- I'm finding fewer than 50 new Boxsters in the country with a manual transmission.  Almost all of them are priced over $85K and half are over $100K frown

BlueInGreen - Jon (Forum Supporter)
BlueInGreen - Jon (Forum Supporter) UltraDork
9/10/20 3:33 p.m.

Yeah, that was a good era for sports cars.

10+ years later and all four are still great looking cars, especially the BMW.

Carbon (Forum Supporter)
Carbon (Forum Supporter) UltraDork
9/11/20 10:29 p.m.

Zzw30 mr2 belongs in this comparo.

Flynlow (FS)
Flynlow (FS) HalfDork
9/11/20 10:54 p.m.
Carbon (Forum Supporter) said:

Zzw30 mr2 belongs in this comparo.

They had one booked but there wasnt enough cargo space for the owner to bring both his helmet AND driving suit, so he couldn't put it on track ;). 
 

Great driving car, and you're right it would be a good addition to the group.  Just pack light.  

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