Mr Q 6th Jan 2020

BMW Z4 vs Mercedes SLK55AMG vs Honda S2000

In an ideal world, I would be able to test these 3 cars back-to-back, but since I have owned all 3 and spent significant wheel time in each, I figured I could probably still manage a fairly accurate comparative test. I will be comparing the cars in a number of catagories, giving each a score out of 5 in each category. In the end we will see which is the best and hopefully why – as I start writing this I must admit, I have NO idea which one will win, but once I’ve added up the scores, I may even surprise myself!

Looks:

All three of these cars make fantastic looking roadsters. The S2000 and Z4 have perhaps a bit more elegance to their profile with the classic long front short back profile of an old-school roadster. The SLK fights back though with seriously muscular lines, especially in AMG spec.

I love the S2000’s front arches that appear almost horizontal as they stretch over the wheels, really emphasizing how the car sits between its wheels rather than on top of them. Overall the S2000 also shows no signs of aging, despite the design being 20 years old! Perhaps because no replacement has ever been forthcoming, but it still looks great today!

The Z4 was one of the first ‘Bangle Flame Surface’ designs to come out of BMW, and I always loved the way it looks. The rear end especially looks really cheeky and muscular, and the long, flat bonnet is elegant yet still aggressive. Perhaps my only criticism of the design is that it can make the headlights appear smaller than they really are.

The SLK was a fantastic looking car when it came out, and in AMG spec it really stands out. By far the most aggressive and purposeful out of the three. I loved the stretched arches, bonnet vents and power bulge – and it’s hard to ignore those 4 chrome tail pipes. With age however, and the launch of newer models, it is starting to look a little dated.

Honda S2000: 4/5 — BMW Z4: 3/5 — Merc SLK55: 4/5

Interior:

To say the S2000 is driver-focused would be the understatement of the decade. Every single control for the stereo, ventilation and lights are within fingertip reach of the driver’s hands, without taking a hand off the wheel. The digital instrument cluster is straight from a 1980’s F1 car, and although dated by today’s standards, still looks fantastic and works incredibly well. Unfortunately the driver-focused design leaves the passenger staring at a blank slab of black dashboard. Out of the 3 the S2000 cabin probably offers the most number of handy storage compartments, although calling them practical is a stretch. Materials are mostly black plastic, but at least they are put together very well. As well as the exterior has aged, the interior design of the S2000 is starting to show its age against the competition though.

The Z4 has a fairly minimalist cockpit design with a fantastic slab of brushed aluminium (alloooominum if you’re int he states) stretched over the dashboard. Controls are very logically laid out and easy to use, except for the stereo’s volume control which is just 5mm away from being a comfortable reach. Material quality is fantastic, although the fitment gaps around some of the trim pieces are noticeably inconsistent. The Napa Leather was standard fitment to 3.0i models in SA, and adds even more of a quality feel to the interior.

The SLK has the most spacious interior of the 3 and probably the most comfortable seats too. The Napa leather in the AMG models is even softer and more luxurious than that in the BMW. Gauges are very clear and quite an attractive design. The Navigation system is a little clunky and frustrating to use, but the other 2 didn’t offer Sat-Nav as standard fitment. On the whole the quality of materials is very good, but a few random pieces of trim were made from really horrible cheap plastics.

Honda S2000: 3/5 — BMW Z4: 5/5 — Merc SLK55: 4/5

Engines:

The Honda S2000’s F20C engine will surely go down in history as one of the greatest engines ever! Spinning to 9000rpm and producing 177 kW from only 2 litres was completely unheard of pre-S2000. In fact it’s 120 horsepower per litre specific output remained a world record for several years! The only downsides of the V-Tec engine was that it produced relatively little torque, and ALL of it’s might was above the magic 6200rpm mark where the V-Tec kicks in (yo – I believe it is customary to add this at the end).

The BMW has very similar outputs to the S2000 in terms of power at 170 kW, from an engine with an entire litre extra capacity AND 2 extra cylinders, giving you some idea of how revolutionary the S2000’s engine was. However, the BMW’s M54B30 engine has an almost flat torque curve and stretches a full 100NM higher than the S2000’s, giving it far more mid range punch and a much more muscular feel. The tractability of this engine is truly impressive. It makes a fantastic noise, is impossibly smooth and by all reports is completely bulletproof, compared to the N52B30 which replaced it.

The Merc is obviously the power-house out of the three. Fitted with the M113 V8 engine in naturally aspirated spec, it produced 265 kW and a biblical 510 NM of torque. Weirdly though, despite the name stating AMG 55, the engine was only a 5.4 litre. It has power and grunt at any point in the rev range and turns the normally quite boring and sedate SLK into a complete animal! Being a V8 it does make all the right noises too, although I would have liked it to be even louder! The only thing I could possibly say against this engine is that it lacked character – the torque curve and power delivery is so linear it’s almost too clinical. Oh and frugality was clearly not high on the designer’s list of priorities.

Honda S2000: 4/5 — BMW Z4: 5/5 — Merc SLK55: 4/5

Gearboxes:

The S2000 is famous for having one of the most incredible manual gearboxes of any car, ever. This has not changed, even by today’s standards. It is simply not possible to do this gearbox justice in words, basically, if you haven’t tried one, you simply won’t know how good it really is! The throws are incredibly short and as precise as the bolt action on a sniper rifle. It feels fantastic and mechanical in it’s action. It offers 6 forward ratios perfectly matching the engine’s high revving character, to offer maximum performance, however this does mean that cruising suffers a little since at 120kph, the tach will be sitting at over 4000rpm in sixth gear.

The Z4 gearbox has a similar accuracy to the S2000 although the throws are considerably longer. Where it does suffer compared to the Honda is in feel though – with the feather-light shifter, the ‘box feels TOO notchy. The Z4 was also available with a 6-speed auto and BMW’s SMG automated manual. Although the auto wasn’t a bad box – why anyone would want an automatic sportscar is beyond me. The SMG was quite simply terrible and proved to be unreliable over time and thus best avoided.

The SLK was ONLY available with Mercedes-Benz’s 7-speed automatic slushbox. As far as Auto ‘boxes go, it’s probably the best I have ever driven. the paddle shifters on the steering wheel are ludicrously small and hard to reach, but at least they are fairly responsive. Honestly though, the best way to drive this car is to simply drop it in D and leave it there. The auto will downshift under heavy braking, and always make sure you are in the correct gear. I would LOVE to drive this car with a manual gearbox though since you lost a lot of involvement by leaving the shifting to the machine.

Honda S2000: 6/5 — BMW Z4: 4/5 — Merc SLK55: 4/5

Noise:

The S2000 actually makes a fantastic range of noises as it reaches for its stratospheric redline. The problem is that it just isn’t loud enough! The exhaust note is extremely nice and the induction noise does things to your soul, but there just isn’t enough of it, and soon it gets drowned out by the wind and tyre noise. The problem of course with fitting a louder exhaust is that the high revving nature of the engine, and the fact that it cruises at higher RPM’s than most cars, means that it drones terribly, as many S2000 owners with aftermarket exhausts have found. The trick seemed to be to modify the induction system and make the intake scream rather than the exhaust.

The Z4 has that classic straight six exhaust note, making it feel a bit like an old British sports car! The 3.0i models are also fitted with a device rather inventively called a “Sound Generator” which was supposed to introduce induction noise into the cabin. In reality the Sound Generator is a plastic piece of pipe from the air filter box, to the firewall and yes, when you step on it, you can hear the induction noise. However – the system was dampened by 2 foam plugs inserted into into the pipe…. remove one of the foam plugs and presto! Now your Z4 sounds absolutely fantastic!

The SLK55 has an engineered exhaust system that was designed to sound a specific way – and you can tell. Although it does make that beautiful V8 rumble, you can’t help but feel it sounds slightly artificial. No-where near as badly as some of the newer AMG models however. Those 4 pipes at the back are practically musical, and cause the fuel consumption to really drop when you get near a tunnel. I would have liked it to sound a bit more natural and perhaps ‘opened up’ the pipes a little more, but on the whole it is a great sounding car!

Honda S2000: 4/5 — BMW Z4: 5/5 — Merc SLK55:5/5

Handling and Dynamics:

The S2000 feels light and nimble. The chassis is perfectly balanced with 50:50 weight distribution, and you can really feel it when you push the car to the limit. In AP2 spec, the snap over-steer of earlier versions, was slightly tamed by wider rear tyres and softer springs at the rear, however when you press on in an S2000, you still have to be very awake. The Limited Slip differential means that when the rear lets go, it does so very predictably, but very quickly. If you don’t catch it in time, you will fast find yourself going in very rapid little circles. With no driver’s aids other than ABS, the S2000 is by far the most demanding car to drive here, but because of that, it’s probably also the most fun.

The Z4 offers a bit more refinement than the S2000, but its electronic throttle and power steering robs the car of a lot of feel. The handling is sublime and very predictable. There is loads of grip and the car feels very poised and balanced on the limit. It actually surprised me with just how well it cornered, and it’s a much faster car through the twisties than I thought it would be. In slide conditions it’s much easier to control than the S2000 and since it has multistage traction control, you can have fun relatively safely too.

Dynamically the SLK is the weakest of the 3. With that 5.4 litre nuclear weapon under the bonnet, the car is quite nose-heavy, and you can feel it. It has tonnes of grip, but the nose eventually washes wide in a flurry of understeer, unless you kick out the rear with a boot-full of V8 goodness, but this does get tiresome when you are just trying to make quick progress. The dynamics are not helped by the frankly ridiculously large steering wheel. Oddly though, the steering feel in the AMG is the best of the 3 since it uses hydraulic power steering.

Honda S2000: 5/5 — BMW Z4: 4/5 — Merc SLK55: 2/5

Practicality:

The S2000 has lots of storage bins in the interior, and a surprisingly large boot for a 2-seater roadster. However, that large boot is a very funny shape with the spare wheel storage bulging into the cargo space, and a square ‘well’ in the middle of the floor. So even though you can fit lots of small bags in the boot, getting larger pieces of luggage to fit in the boot can be difficult.

The Z4 has very few interior storage bins, but what it does have, is very usable. I can easily find spaces for keys and wallets to sit securely and without rattles. The boot space is about twice what you get in the S2000, and if you are happy to keep the roof up, you can even enlarge it slightly by raising the roof of the boot by a few inches (space where the folded roof would normally sit). Easily enough space for a couple to enjoy a weekend away, even if your wife packs like mine 😉

The SLK also has a very large boot for a 2-seater, however, the folding metal roof does take up more than half of the space when folded down. The boot has a large plastic divider that has to be locked in the down position for the roof to come off. What this means is that the access to the cargo space below the roof now becomes a letter-box slot. Realistically it means putting the roof up every time you want to access the boot – and frustration when you get into the car to go for a drive, only to discover the boot divider hasn’t been locked in the down position, so you can’t fold the roof down until you get out and put the divider down first.

Honda S2000: 2/5 — BMW Z4: 4/5 — Merc SLK: 4/5

The S2000 Has a really weirdly shaped Boot!

Comfort:

The S2000, like all the cars here, has a fairly firm ride, but not uncomfortably so. The seats are also great and hold you in place, whilst not being too tightly bolstered, like some sports car seats are. The air circulation system deserves special mention as the S2000 offers an open-top mode for the air, which blasts air from lower vents in the center of the dashboard. Using this mode makes winter drives with the top down an absolute pleasure. The interior can be very noisy and the fairly basic rag-top roof, although stable at speed, does allow a lot of wind and tyre noise into the car.

The Z4 has probably the most comfortable long-range seats of the 3, however, they offer the least support when carving up a mountain pass. The ride is also hardest out of the 3, made worse I suspect by the run-flat tyres. By all reports on E85 forums, the Z4 is completely transformed by fitting normal tyres and carrying a puncture repair kit – although I’m not sure how practical this option is in South Africa with the amount of pot-holes and bricks we find on our roads…. not something a roadside repair kit would be able to deal with. The aircon in the Z4 is powerful enough to turn the interior into an ice-box, however, with the roof down it seems to have very little effect compared to the other 2 that have special added features for open-top air circulation. The roof on the Z4 is a fully lined soft-top and not only keeps the elements out, but also offers great sound proofing and it’s easy to forget you’re driving a soft-top on longer trips.

The SLK seats are pretty much on par with the S2000, although they are even more comfortable to get in and out of. They also offer a party-trick when it comes to temperature control. Not only can the seats themselves be heated, but Merc’s Air Scarf system can waft warm air into the back of your neck, through an air vent in the seat back. The SLK, as you probably expect, has the most compliant ride here and can easily be driven long distance. The folding hard-top is obviously a great feature of the SLK, but to be honest I probably would have preferred a soft top. The hard top is lined with hard plastic panels on the inside, takes for ever to fold and unfold compared to the other cars here, and fails completely to keep noise out of the car. In fact the roof itself has quite a few rattles when closed.

Honda S2000: 2/5 — BMW Z4: 3/4 — Merc SLK55: 4/5

Equipment and Features:

The S2000 features wheels and a pair of seats… and that’s about it. The stereo has fantastic satellite controls, however, the quality of sound it produces makes you cringe and quickly turn it off. It has basic manual air conditioning and electric things that move about, but there really isn’t much there. Some might argue this is a good thing in a sports car since it means fewer distractions and there is a lot to say for a basic sports car!

The BMW, especially in 3.0i spec in SA, got quite a few more options as standard. These include the lovely 18″ wheels, napa leather, BMW professional sound system, automatic climate control, electric seats and cruise control. BMW still hadn’t lost the art of ripping you off though, and floor mats, Multifunction steering wheels and cup holders remained optional extras!

Mercedes specced local AMG models with pretty much every conceivable extra you could have on the SLK. It has an incredible sound system, Sat Nav and electric everything. If anything it almost has too much built into it!

Honda S2000: 2/5 — BMW Z4: 3/5 — Merc SLK55: 5/5

Value for Money:

The S2000 is a rock-solid investment, with clean and unmolested examples becoming very few and far between, values are always rising. Having said that, new owners should remember that you are buying a car that was launched 20 years ago, so compared to modern competition, it offers very few features. You are also likely to be paying a premium for clean examples due to a perceived “collectors value”, but what you do get is fantastically fun, even if it doesn’t come cheap.

The E85 Z4 was not a cheap car when new, and at the time, calling it value for money would have been the punchline to one of those German jokes that no-one gets. Today though, it is unbelievable how cheap these cars have become. Reasonable mileage, clean cars with service histories etc can be had for around R100k! That is an incredible amount of car for less than the price of a similarly aged MX5!

The SLK in AMG form holds its value fairly well, and on the second hand market, they offer a lot of features, V8 power and prestige for a fairly modest investment. Since the car itself does leave quite a lot to be desired though, you have to ask what kind of premium you are paying for that AMG badge since it is by far the most expensive of the 3 cars compared here!

Honda S2000: 4/5 — BMW Z4: 5/5 — Merc SLK55: 2/5

X-Factor:

It is really hard to describe what exactly the X-factor of any car is, but in the S2000 I would put it down to the outstanding balance, and the amount of FUN this car is to drive. Without taking outright performance too seriously and focusing more on creating a car that has LOADS of character and excellent dynamics, Honda created one of the best driver’s cars in recent history. It is deeply flawed in many ways, but those flaws are what make it feel special, and unless you’ve driven one, you’ll never understand!

By comparison the BMW really does feel like the sensible German! The engine in this car really stands out though, the smooth linear power delivery is extremely impressive. The engineering really does show in the way this car feels. Despite having a higher level of sophistication than the “go-kart” Honda, the BMW is tremendous fun to drive, and a truly great sports car despite the yuppie image that has followed it since its launch!

The SLK is ultimately a little disappointing. Ballistically fast and powerful as it is, the driving experience is just a little bit boring. It’s hard to tell if it’s the nose-heavy distribution, or the constantly interfering electronic aids that can never be fully disengaged, but it ends up feeling more like a muscle car than a sports car. The auto gearbox, although excellent, also removes an element of driver involvement that I would have loved to have. It commits the one unpardonable sin that no car should ever commit – it’s forgettable.

Honda S2000: 5/5 — BMW Z4: 4/5 — Merc SLK55: 2/5

Conclusion:

Honda S2000: 36/50
BMW Z4 3.0i: 41/50
Mercedes Benz SLK 55 AMG: 37/50

Well the conclusion, in this case, is completely useless! As you can see from the scores, the S2000 finds itself in 3rd place, with the SLK in second and the Z4 taking the crown by some margin. I stand by these scores, but at the end of the day, the one I want the most is the S2000. It just goes to show, exactly as I recently said in my Column on Carbs and Coffee’s site, the numbers don’t matter – go drive some sports cars before deciding what you buy. The Z4 is clearly a fantastic sports car, but the S2000 just has something unquantifiable about it that sets it apart. Although this really wasn’t the result I was expecting, it has at least made me feel better about what I’m driving now!

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