There’s rebellion in this paddock. Three youngish car punks were out to crown the best analog, rear-wheel-drive, manual-transmission sports car. One was Brian Silvestro, staff writer and Craigslist connoisseur skilled in finding the cheapest examples of the world’s most desirable cars. Another was Aaron Brown, digital editor and proprietor of a fleet of simple stick-shift enthusiast cars. The last was me, a mechanical nincompoop forever flipping between reliable staple cars.
This story originally appeared in Volume 6 of Road & Track.
Despite these credentials, no one turned up with a Miata. That was deliberate. The Miata is enthusiast wallpaper at this point, so entrenched in low-budget nuttery that it merits a paragraph in a story about three other cars. We wanted more power and unsung tales. Miatas need not apply.
I settled on a 2001 Boxster. Porsche precision and chattery steering sealed the deal for my soul. My mind focused on the value proposition of a mechanically perfect 71,000-mile Porsche for $8500.
Silvestro aimed for maximum thrills per dollar, flaws be damned. That attitude (and a $5000 check) landed him in a screaming 9000-rpm Honda S2000 with more than 300,000 miles, a replacement engine, and a busted suspension. His deep-rooted faith was that it’d leave the competition for dead.
“The S2000 is easily the most reliable, is the cheapest to keep running, is appreciating the most, and is, in my opinion, the best looking,” Silvestro said.
Those points require some concession—hey, I owned and loved an S2000. But for Mr. Brown, a great sports car is not about affordable maintenance or market appreciation. A passion for torque and Germanic thrills at a ran-when-parked price brought him to his $3300, 192,000-mile 1999 BMW M Roadster. Beaten and broken, it still packed the same smooth-revving mill that made the M version of the Z3 special from day one. It may lack the refinement of the Boxster or the cult status of the Honda, but Brown argues that its rarity imbues it with more personality than the other two combined.
“It’s a special car. And when you get in it, it’s capable of doing pretty much all the basic sports-car things,” Brown reasoned. “Just because it doesn’t meet those top-level performance capabilities that an S2000 might doesn’t mean you can’t get a more exciting experience.”
Clearly, the cars of this trio were each in some quantities spectacular, stupid, reckless, broken, and perplexing. Enough ammunition existed to wage a proxy war on Slack for months. Funny thing is, scores demand to be settled.
I’d love to say the showdown was meticulously planned. But cars like this teach you to enter into adventure with a willingness to improvise.
The M Roadster’s door requires a push inward to unlatch, its seat slides forward under hard braking, its oil-pressure light flickers at idle, and its aftermarket clutch makes the pedal’s throw both stiff and short. The S2000 has a top-end KW suspension, but its rebuilt engine spits blue smoke. The Boxster has a clean bill of health (for now), but the original IMS bearing looms as a threat, and a tendency for oil starvation under hard cornering means track driving isn’t worry-free.
Those concerns melted away as the three old tigers roared onto the back straight at Lime Rock. The Boxster’s 2.7-liter flat-six makes magic at the far end of the tach. All 217 horses break into full stride at 6500 rpm, while peak torque arrives at 4500 rpm. Hard work and held gears keep the Porsche feeling alive, its engine harmonious as the tach needle swings toward the redline. But keeping it there requires planning.
“I don’t like the gearing,” Silvestro said. “It’s just so long for the limited amount of power you have.” Third gear can carry the Boxster around the track, but that means lugging the flat-six.
Shift action also disappoints. Forget Porsche’s bluster about engineering precision—the Boxster’s shifter is vague compared with the quick-flick Honda. Long pedal travel increases clutch effort without any real payoff in engagement, though the tight pedal spacing and responsive engine made heel-toe downshifts a cinch.
That’s all secondary. The real argument for this car starts and ends in hard cornering. This car hails from the dawn of Porsche’s modern, luxurious water-cooled era—after the cars got cheaper but before they became endlessly complicated. There’s no adaptive suspension here, no trick engine modes. There’s one button to press on start-up: PSM Off. One push and the electronic bumpers are down, the stability management program truly disabled. What’s left is a talkative hydraulic steering rack, a naturally aspirated engine, and a chassis with exactly one mode. There’s no faux stiffness, no fake exhaust burble, no nod to the lowest common denominator. Just a balanced mid-engine setup and suspension always dancing on tiptoe.
The Boxster loads up its front tires slowly at turn-in, biting progressively as the steering babbles out its dispatch of the road conditions. The car rotates easily on power, though the lack of a limited-slip differential means that slide monkeys best look elsewhere. Hold your right foot in check and the reward is smooth, predictable cornering and a natural powerband that builds easily exiting any corner. Fantastic brakes inspire confidence for blasting down the straights, setting up more balletic thrills balancing the midship machine on its edge. The Boxster is puppy-dog friendly, with Brown and Silvestro noting the way it invites you to explore its limits, reassuring you that it won’t punish you for overdoing it. Push it, stay focused, and there won’t be any snap oversteer or timid skittishness. Instead, the Porsche breaks away slowly and instantly regains its footing. Unsettling it is almost impossible.
The same can’t be said for the Z3. The BMW’s nose is long and seats are pushed rearward, so the driver sits far behind the Roadster’s center of rotation. Hustling the soft BMW requires muscle. Slow steering—made less precise by time and hard miles—focuses the mind. The trailing-arm rear suspension is nearly identical to that of the E30 M3, lending the same tail-happy nature, albeit in a less balanced package. Negotiating high-speed corners requires constant management of the front-end weight. Do it right and the German-designed, American-built Z3 rockets onto the straights, propelled by a torquey 3.2-liter straight-six. Later models had the more potent 315-hp S54 engine, but that doesn’t mean this M Roadster is underpowered. “It’s one of those beautiful linear BMW engines. There’s excitement at all levels,” Brown mused.
The five-speed manual is a thrill to work too. A notchy shift action and a stiff aftermarket clutch require the same sort of mechanical antipathy that the Roadster’s chassis rewards. This is not a Hockenheim-honed instrument; it’s a muscle car in lederhosen. Its steering feels relatively loose, and its dynamics are more sports sedan than sports car, but beat on it and it comes alive. The Z3 is an old-school roadster delivering old-school fun.
“When you go from the S2000 to the BMW, the two things you notice are the weight on the front end and how much more you have to turn the wheel,” Silvestro concluded. “Play with it long enough, and the front weight bias and less antsy steering rack make it easy to slide.” Of course, this requires disabling the interventionist traction control system. Fun means taking chances.
Then there’s Honda’s blue-collar champion. There’s no traction control button to hunt down, because early S2000s were free of nonsense. In fact, there are very few buttons at all. The tech-forward notions rooted in at Porsche and BMW at the turn of the millennium hadn’t yet infected Honda. It’s so disinterested in nondriving pleasures that the radio hides behind a blank cover panel. The top is paper-thin, presumably because Honda believed that no S2000 owner could ever want peace and quiet. That philosophy also determined the gearbox ratios, which keep the engine screaming at 4500 rpm in sixth gear at 80 mph. You could scour this earth without encountering a better six-speed.
The dream of that ideal vintage driving experience meets reality with a mere touch of the wheel. The S2000 dazzles with ultrasharp turn-in and absolute precision, and does so with an electric power steering setup that, considering the era, should sap every ounce of feel. And nearly does.
The remote steering alone makes the S2000 feel like a modern sports car. So too does the VTEC system, designed to add a swift kick in the ass as the car switches to its more aggressive cam profile at 6000 rpm. Peak power of 240 hp doesn’t arrive until 8300 rpm, long after the BMW and Porsche have hit their rev limiters. Redline lives at 9000 rpm, a far-off figure that arrives like a divine crescendo. There is nothing futuristic about all of this, but the face-melting theatrics mean the S2000 feels light-years ahead of either German on a racetrack.
Take the party to public roads and minor weaknesses appear. The S2000—on OEM suspension or with this KW coil-over kit—is far stiffer than the Boxster and M Roadster. Its tremendous balance and smooth on-track pace are kneecapped by every pothole, the Honda bucking through corners. Absent steering feel and with a reputation for snap oversteer, the S2000 is the most intimidating to push hard. Its limits may be stratospheric and far beyond its competitors, but you’ll have to be brave enough to find them. Constant shifting is required to keep the pace; the paltry 153 lb-ft peak torque can be accessed only at 7500 rpm. Catch it on the left side of the tach, and it’s gutless, slow, and uninteresting. Work it hard and find its flow, and it’s clearly the most stimulating of the three.
The BMW, meanwhile, feels special at any speed. There’s a brawny bravado in the way it goes about business. Loaf around Long Island or browbeat it on a back road; there’s always more to love. The same softness that felt vague on the track reappears on the road, this time as compliance and comfort. Top down and humming along, the M Roadster delivers the driving experience of BMW’s best sports sedans but with wind in your hair.
“I have trouble saying it’s the best sports car here, but the M Roadster is the most special,” Brown said.
Broken pavement also suits the Boxster. Its softer setup glides over divots, those unflappable track manners even more pleasant on road. Precise, smooth, and quieter than the others, the Boxster is free of gaping faults. Trouble is, the package is so rounded that there’s not one charming bit to cling to. The BMW has bulldog charisma and its inline-six; the S2000 has its whip-crack steering and berserk engine.
Parked up in a railyard in Tivoli, New York, we emerged from our tired old roadsters ready to sort out our business as the sun sank. We squared up for a fight that never came. All that back-of-the-envelope math and group-chat trash talk didn’t matter after the seat time. In the end, the victor made itself known.
Our goal was to find a roadster so charming, so special, you’d never have to explain it. Only one of these cars improves upon the standard Mazda set with the Miata. Only one is so captivating that all three of us have owned one. Only one is the S2000.