The S2000 is an incredible feat of engineering. The AP1's 2.0-liter four-cylinder revs to 9000 rpm. The engine makes more horsepower per liter than any other naturally aspirated car, and is mated to probably the best gearbox ever installed on a production car. It's my attainable dream car, one that I still can't help but smile at every time I walk by. But it's not a better sports car than the ND2 Miata.
This wasn't easy to swallow. Because I long maintained that all I needed was a Miata, until a chance opportunity to drive an S2000 at an autocross course fell into my lap. From the second that AP2 crested 6000 RPM, the VTEC light has shone brightly within me. No Miata would ever be special enough, I thought. Great cars, sure, but in frequent arguments in real life and on Twitter—mostly with Engineering Explained's Jason Fenske—I proclaimed my ethos loudly. If your car doesn't rev to 8000 rpm or more, you should probably throw it out. If it's a decade newer than the S2000 and is still down nearly 60 hp, you should definitely throw it out. Forget torque, forget Miatas: The S2000 makes you work, but in return it offers the best sports car experience.
I relitigated this argument at a team camp fire recently, the night before a big Road & Track shootout featuring eight of the best cars ever built. Only one new car earned an invitation, the ND2 Miata. Zach Bowman, our senior editor and the man whose dad sold me my S2000, argued strongly that the accessibility, cheapness, and replaceability of Miatas made them more fun; you don't ever have to baby them. Plus, they offered more torque across the rev range and an overall better experience. Sure, I conceded, a Miata has better steering feel and low-end grunt, but the S2000 is the across-the-board champion.
The next morning, about 25 feet into driving the Miata, I realized I was wrong. The Miata is down 60 hp and 1500 revs compared to the S2000 I had flogged on the way to the track, but it's also 400 pounds lighter. You can feel that and the torque, which both contributed to the eagerness with which it goes about its business. The S2000 pays no mind to you until you slam it down two gears and bury the gas pedal. The experience becomes religious as you crest 6000 rpm; Some buzzy, exhilarating blur that reaches higher than Miata driving's most prominent peaks.
But the beauty of the Miata is that the best parts aren't fleeting, they're ever-present. The suspension tuning is perfect, softer over bumps than the S2000 but more predictable and sure-footed in corners. Its steering never shuts up, giving you far more information than AP1 or AP2 S2000s. All of that encourages you to push harder, the ND2 revealing more of itself the faster you go. You can push it knowing that the chatterbox steering and progressive, communicative body roll will warn you long before you reach the limits of your grip. When you do, it dips into controllable, easy slides that are far more manageable than the S2000's past-the-limit behavior.
Most of this was always true. Yet the pre-2019 Miatas suffered from forgettable engines, with little sensational reward for your momentum-conserving driving. Not so in the ND2, with a power band that crescendos near its raised 7500-rpm redline. The extra horsepower—now 181—isn't what matters, it's that you get access to more as you wring it out. It's far from the world-beating splendor of a 9000-rpm screamer, but it's excitable and charming all the same. And unlike the S2000, you can enjoy the engine pulling out of a parking lot, its punchy low-end ready to fling you toward the horizon. The AP2 improved on the around-town eagerness of the S2000, but the Miata takes it a step further. It is always interesting, always urging you to play. On the track or in traffic, the Miata is more fun more of the time.
Make no mistake, though, I still contend that the heights of S2000 driving surpass the Miata. Come into a corner hard, bang off a heel-toe downshift, manage the back end, and wait for the white-knuckle explosion out of the corner as you blow past 6000 rpm onto a straightaway. Keep the F20 singing right up until 9000 rpm, grab another gear with the best shifter in the world, and revel in knowing that no Miata has ever felt that good. It's just in so many other scenarios—at a race track, around tight corners, in daily driving—the Miata feels better. It's more friendly, a better incarnation of the democratized sports car we all love. The same peaky power band, the same excitement, but with better handling, better steering, less weight, and no bite. In the ND2, Mazda has unquestionably built a better two-seat sports car than the S2000. Only took 'em 19 years.
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