Mazda MX-5 and Honda S2000 are some of the most popular sports cars/roadsters ever made, but which Japanese icon is actually better?
Mazda’s MX-5, formerly known as the Miata, reignited sports car design when it debuted for the model year 1999. The lightweight agile roadster was instantly recognizable as a descendant of the famous Italian and British post-WWII sports cars. Today, the MX-5 has even become the best-selling two-seat convertible in the world.
Honda brought the S2000 to market for MY 2000 as a direct competitor to the MX-5. The S2000 is larger and more powerful. When production ended in 2009, Honda had sold more than 110,000 S2000 vehicles. The roadster is equally popular as a track car and as a performance street car, gaining a ton of attention when a modified example was featured in the movie “2 Fast 2 Furious”.
Sitting side-by-side, the similarities between the two vehicles are obvious. Of course, both are low-slung two-seat convertibles. Moreover, both cars have long hoods and short rear decks. But let’s get beneath the skin and see how these two Japanese roadsters really measure up.
The S2000 got its name from the displacement of the inline-four engine. This configuration was good for up to 250 horsepower in the highest performance JDM edition. Honda claims the power output to be the highest of any naturally-aspirated production vehicle in the world. A 2.2L four-cylinder engine followed in 2006 that increased torque by 6%. Horsepower didn’t change, though.
Meanwhile, the Mazda Miata debuted with a 1.6L inline-four, upgraded to a 1.8L engine in the second generation. To compete against the Honda S2000, Mazda installed a 2.0L inline-four in 2006. An all-new 2.0L “Skyactiv-G” engine became standard in 2015. The current version of the engine produces a factory-rated 181 horsepower.
Power numbers are great, but they also have to translate into real-world driving abilities. The Honda clearly has more power but it is also heavier than the Mazda. Anyway, zero-to-60 mph acceleration figures can give drivers a better idea of how quick a car actually is.
The Honda S2000 makes the sprint in 6.1 seconds and has a top speed of 160 mph. That’s pretty fast for any car, but reviewers note that the S2000 is designed to produce peak power at higher-than-normal RPMs — the S2000 redlines at 8,000 RPM. Thus, you’ll really need to rev the engine to get the most out of it.
Meanwhile, MotorTrend Magazine achieved a 5.7 seconds 0-60 mph sprint in a 2020 Mazda MX-5, courtesy of the lighter body. Car and Driver Magazine tested a 2009 Mazda MX-5 for period reference and found that it turned in a 0-60 mph time of 6.7 seconds. Most people probably wouldn’t notice much of a difference between the 2009 models. However, the full second difference between the ’09 Miata and the ’20 MX-5 is certainly significant.
The Honda offers only one transmission option — an absolutely brilliant six-speed manual with one of the best acting and feeling shifters ever devised. The Mazda, on the other hand, has numerous options that broaden the accessibility for drivers.
Since its debut, the Miata has included an automatic transmission option. The current model features either a six-speed manual or automatic, both of which are a delight to use. In comparison to Honda’s shifter, though, the Miata feels plasticky and less precise. Nonetheless, it’s still very comfortable to use on a daily basis.
Quick acceleration and big horsepower numbers are enough to get people interested, but the overall driving experience matters much more. Sports cars aren’t traditionally known for blistering horsepower and acceleration. Rather, sports cars are designed to steer and stop with precision, allowing drivers the opportunity to thrash twisty roads.
The Honda S2000 engine sits behind the front wheels, a configuration referred to as front, mid-engine. The rigid body mounts to a frame Honda calls the X-Frame. The suspension is similar to the Acura NSX’s setup: cast steel double wishbones inside the wheels, providing stellar road feel and handling but also contributing to a rougher ride.
The Mazda MX-5 is also a front, mid-engine layout like the S2000. And much like the Honda, the MX-5 takes advantage of a double-wishbone suspension. However, the Mazda has an advantage in that it uses a unibody chassis, and engineers pushed the envelope to reduce unsprung weight. The 2020 MX-5 extensively uses aluminum on the front and rear suspension components. Moreover, the lighter MX-5 is surprisingly comfortable, even on bumpy roads.
Both cars use disc brakes at all four corners. Braking performance is nearly equivalent, with the lighter MX-5 stopping from 70-0 in 156 ft., while the Honda takes 159 ft. in testing done by Car and Driver Magazine. The advocacy site drivesandstayalive.com averages a stopping distance of 245 ft. for typical cars and trucks on the road. Sports cars depend on robust brakes to bring speeds down before entering sharp turns.
Because both cars are lightweight convertibles, drivers should expect to deal with a fair amount of road noise. With either car, driving is an immersive experience. A major difference between the two roadsters has to do with Honda’s decision to build a car that makes most of its power in the upper reaches of the RPM band. For drivers accustomed to shifting at 4,500-5,500 RPM, it’ll take some practice to get used to keeping the Honda above 6,000 RPM. The MX-5 is more sedate, with a redline around 7,200 RPM and plenty of power in the lower RPM ranges.
Style makes the sports car. At first glance, these two look very similar, but once you spend a minute or two with the cars, the differences are obvious. The Honda is more of a wedge-shape, like a slipper or a door stopper. Rather than a wedge design, the Miata exhibits graceful, flowing lines, particularly in modern cars. The Coke bottle shape of the Mazda echoes great sports cars of the past -the Corvette, the Spitfire, Lotus roadsters, and classic Ferrari designs. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but the opinion here is that the flowing design of the Mazda is both more attractive and more modern, even though it recalls shapes of past cars.
The way a car looks outside is great, but as drivers, we spend the majority of time behind the wheel. Many beautiful cars have terrible interiors and simply ruin the experience.
The Mazda MX-5 has certainly had a longer time to evolve. Having been in production for 30 years, the designers have regularly updated the cockpit’s style and materials to keep buyers interested. You will find a masterfully well-designed interior with easy access to every needed knob, button, or switch. The newest models feature pop-up touchscreen infotainment systems that were not possible during the limited production of the Honda S2000. The Honda is more spartan, still a great and functional layout, but it lacks the high-quality components. Put simply, it looks less well developed.
Both the Honda S2000 and the Mazda MX-5 share a pedigree of racing heritage. The MX-5 has become one of the most popular entry-level sports cars due to low cost, ease of access to parts, and as a platform for winning races. By contrast, the Honda is designed with the weekend racer in mind. It’s a more expensive car on the track, but the higher horsepower and high RPM redline make it a wonderful competitor.
Furthermore, both roadsters have model-specific racer designs. Honda produced a Club variant of the S2000 during 2008 and 2009, but the global financial crisis resulted in only 699 cars being built in two years for the US market. The Honda Club Racer features a weight reduction of around 90 lbs, suspension and steering changes, and a stripped-down cockpit free of most creature comforts. The engine and transmission are identical to standard road cars.
Mazda introduced a track-specific option in 2019. The design features high-performance engine modifications, weight reduction, and other changes. Besides, you can order MX-5’s as race-specific vehicles. These cars begin as a Club Racer trim, then are fully disassembled and rebuilt in Florida. Mazda removes all seam sealer, weatherstripping, insulation, and other non-essential parts, and installs more than 250 race-specific parts. When complete, the car is track-ready, although it’s not road-legal anymore.
On paper, these two vehicles are very similar. Both have decent power, acceleration, and awesome suspension and braking. The thing that really sets them apart is how good are they for daily driving. While a phenomenal machine, the Honda is loud, bouncy, and not ideal for most US streets. The Mazda MX-5, on the other hand, is totally at home on city and country roads. It is a quieter car to drive, and the lower RPM powerband also makes it easier to drive quickly.
One of the biggest reasons the MX-5 is a superior car is the availability of aftermarket equipment, replacement parts, and ease of service. The MX-5 is designed to be perfectly simple for the average DIY owner to maintain and modify, while the Honda requires more effort to increase performance.
Moreover, the MX-5 has been in production for 30 years, with only four generations, meaning you will have no trouble finding spare parts. Besides, most auto parts stores will stock a large number of common wear items you’ll want to replace. The Honda S2000 is more of a specialty car, and with only a 10-year production and few shared parts with other models, finding spares can be more challenging and expensive.
There is a reason the MX-5 is a popular vehicle for educational track driving schools. It’s an easy-to-control machine that can be driven fast without a ton of practice. The Mazda is the definition of how famous classic sports cars should have evolved, and it’s a thrilling roadster to drive every day.