When a friend offers you the chance to drive a Mazda MX-5 Miata RF, a Subaru BRZ, and a Honda S2000, you get there as fast as you can. Run, don’t walk. We had a fine time comparing these three vehicles, which in a vacuum are all truly wonderful. This was Daily Motor’s chance to take the brand-new Miata RF and tango with fine used examples of the S2000 and BRZ.
We’re hesitant to pick a traditional winner and loser of this comparison. All three of these cars are stellar, but the Miata is stock while the other two are slightly modified. All three offer world-class driver engagement in any form. In many ways they are nearly the same car: Japan built, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip equipped, 6-speed manual transmissions, and curb weights well under 3000 pounds. All three are also functionally two-seaters, though the BRZ is by far the most practical of the bunch with its 2+2 arrangement. There weren’t huge surprises in this comparison of the Mazda Miata RF, Subaru BRZ, and Honda S2000, except that the Miata may not always be the answer. Oh, and did we mention they’re all blue?
The 2003 Honda S2000
The Honda S2000 is the purest sports car of the bunch. This particular 2003 AP1 Honda S2000 had around 95,000 miles but still felt tight as a drum. Minor modifications such as a K&N FIPK intake, Apex’i dual exhaust, a set of Bilstein PSS coilovers, and a slightly larger-than-stock wheelset all added to the flavor. This setup was an OEM-plus build, designed to capitalize and increase the S2000’s native strengths and balance. And oh does it deliver! The car just zings to the limiter, the shift action sets the standard for all other manuals, and the visceral feel of high grip setup was perfect. This car attaches itself to the monkey part of your brain and constantly screams, “VTEC!”
There isn’t much to say that hasn’t been said about the S2000, but if you’ve never driven one of these cars, you should. It brings a really special feeling at the $20-25,000 price point. I bet you’re already on Facebook Marketplace.
There are some lows to the S2000 though: It’s not particularly comfortable for those over 6’2, and the technology is virtually nonexistent. The car only has two airbags and lacks any traction control. It is brutally not good with the roof up, with creaks and nightmare-inducing NVH.
When you push the S2000, you’ll be on your own when hanging this car out over its limits. It’s dynamically less forgiving than either the Mazda or Subaru. Speeds are also much higher on the bigger tire set, so mistakes are going to occur with less room for error. At the limit, the S2000 provides that tinge of fear that makes older sports cars feel enthralling. This is very much the cat of the bunch—it knows you, you feed it, you occasionally get pets and snuggles, but in reality the cat tolerates you at best and won’t miss you upon your death…after it snap oversteers you into a tree.
The 2018 Subaru BRZ Limited
If you think the S2000 feels cat-like, then the Subaru BRZ is the family dog of the bunch. It’s lovable, approachable, always seems willing to forgive. The steering in the BRZ is by far the most communicative of the bunch. Additionally, the BRZ is the car for tall folks: It easily swallows someone over 6-feet tall. Beyond fitting taller drivers, it has the most room and is the most practical. A capacious (comparatively) trunk, with a fold down rear seat means you can haul a full set of four tires with some room to spare. It’ll even fit two smaller (okay, very small) people in the backseats in a pinch. The BRZ is 10 inches longer than the S2000, and nearly all of this length goes into more practicality and usable space. The space isn’t incredibly nice though as the BRZ’s cheaper roots do shine through in some materials and in the lack of sound deadening.
This particular Subaru BRZ is a 2018 Limited trim with the Performance Package. The Performance Package features Sachs dampeners and a massive (for it’s size) set of Brembo four-piston front and two-piston rear brakes. It had a few modifications too, like a TRD airbox, full-catted exhaust including an unequal length header, and an Open Flash Tablet 91-octane engine tune. All of this added up to a very comfortable and fun car. One good thing to note, though rolling on larger 17×8 inch Enkei PF01 wheels, the car was still on its now slightly stretched stock 215-profile Michelin tires. These tires wear like iron and will let you skid the car around like a fool. They are low traction, which means drifts, digging into the ABS, and generally hucking the car into corners are always options. We feel a more aggressive tire on this car would ruin its approachable limits and fun factor.
The BRZ scores high marks for having Apple Carplay, good safety ratings, and being both practical and comfortable enough to drive everyday. There are a few lows here though too. The motor needed the tune to really wake it up appropriately. The shift action, despite sharing a near identical transmission to the S2000, isn’t as good as the S2000. Plus that whole lack of sound deadening thing we mentioned. Unfortunately, the BRZ can look mundane in some colors, particularly silver. This BRZ had CQuartz ceramic coating on it, and the results in the blue were stunning.
The 2021 Mazda Miata RF
Since you’ve already heard about the family cat and dog…where exactly does that leave the Miata RF. Well, in a bit of an odd spot. The Miata continues to be a great car and has a huge following. Its often joked in the car community – Miata Is Always The Answer (MIATA). This particular 2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Grand Touring does address some previous shortcomings. The newest version of the SkyActiv motor delivers and finally really feels like a solid sports-car engine. While not faster than the S2000 or BRZ, it holds up and makes some torque. The suspension dynamics, once you get past the large amounts of body roll, are really solid. The interior, fit, and finish are easily better than the BRZ and feel like a more modern S2000. Furthermore, the color combination on this Miata is spot on. White interior with a crystalline dark blue exterior made this little RF pop in the sun. Add the color with the super slick retracting hardtop, and this car is a looker.
All that said, this Mazda Miata RF in Grand Touring trim felt a bit off compared to the BRZ and S2000. The control surfaces all felt too light and toy-like. This included the shift action that had little feedback, the overly boosted steering, and a clutch action that was lacking any feel or weight. Combine this with a relatively quiet exhaust and we were often smacking the limiter unintentionally. The whole set-up felt like half the sports car the others were. That said, you could easily see someone unfamiliar with heftier sports cars getting in and appreciating the ease of use and approachable controls. The suspension was relatively soft too, Combined with soft seats, the Miata always felt more like a grand touring car than its spec racer roots.
Worth noting that we almost didn’t fit in the Miata RF. At a shade over 6 feet tall, we had the seat rails on the last click and the back of the seat near vertical. If you are taller, the Miata RF may not be the car for you. When the Miata is compared to the S2000 and BRZ, it is small and cramped. It seems by making it lighter, Mazda engineers shrunk the car about 5-10% too much. The only other quibble we had on the interior was with the seats. With the driver’s seat the way back against the rear bulkhead it made noise. We don’t mean a little noise, we mean a lot of noise. With the roof down, the loose seat back material pounded back and forth against the bulkhead and inner seat foam. This made it feel like our mid-back was resting on a small bass drum at highway speeds top down. Other drivers who are shorter may not notice this, but its unacceptable on an otherwise well thought out interior.
Technology is good in the Miata RF with all the modern things you’d expect on a newer car. This includes side impact airbags and Bose surround sound. By comparison, the S2000 and BRZ have lesser sound systems, and the S2000 doesn’t have the headrest speakers the Mazda does. The onboard screen technology worked well, but Mazda still insists on planting an ugly tablet mid-dash. The more modern SkyActiv engine also means excellent gas mileage.
So where does the leave the Miata? It may still be the answer for you, but hard to justify back to back with the other greats. It’s an absolutely beautiful car that is still fun to drive. However, drivers needing more practicality should head to the BRZ, and drivers wanting a more focused sports car should head to the S2000. The Miata RF plays a middle and more accessible role, but struggles to really fit in compared to these more dedicated machines.
Different Strokes, Different Folks
We’ve been talking for the last umpteen paragraphs about how great these cars are, but the reality is they won’t be great if you can’t afford them sitting in your garage. And that’s the whole point of this class of car, affordable fun. A clean lower mileage AP1 S2000 is hovering around $20-25,000. A new Subaru BRZ Limited with Performance Package around $30,000, plus a few thousand more for performance mods to wake it up. While the Grand Touring RF model featured here stickers for $36,000, you can get a Club soft-top for $32,000. The decision for you to make is if you’d rather save money and try your luck on the used market or walk into your nearest dealer and plop down over $30k for your desired color.
For the ultimate excitement, we recommend the former. The Mazda Miata is a good car, but after comparing it with these other sporty cars, it’s not always the answer.