Honda S2000: Future Classic!

Named for the year in which it as released, former Honda chief Hiroyuki Yoshino said the Honda S2000 represented “Honda leading the way in sports cars in the next millennium.”

Well, not quite. As it turned out, the S2000 became more of a closing act than an opening salvo, as Honda’s as attention turned toward more mundane and quirky conveyances like the Insight, Element, Ridgeline, and eventually the Crosstour. Sigh….

But let’s not go there. Let’s recall the days of Shigeru Uehara, the executive chief engineer of the original Acura NSX (also the Integra Type-R, come to think of it). Supported by a corporate vision that celebrated exotic, cutting edge design and high performance technology, Shigeru-san followed his groundbreaking NSX with the Honda S2000. It was his swan-song.

And boy, did it sing! Making 240 horsepower from the combination of torque and high engine speed in the Honda tradition, the original “AP1” 2.0-litre S2000 (2000-2003) redlined at a screaming 8,900 rpm (peak horsepower arrived at 8,300 rpm), emitting a joyful wail from its dual exhausts at every change from the slick, close-ratio, six-speed gearbox. It was, at the time, the most powerful naturally aspirated production four-cylinder engine in the world. Too fun! Too crazy!

Well, a bit too crazy, it turned out (although these engines, packed with racing technology, didn’t blow up or anything). It’s just that they didn’t have much when it came to acceleration at lower rpm’s (so cherished in the North American market), so for the 2004-2009 models (designated AP2), the 153 pound-feet of torque at 7,500 rpm was increased to 162 lb-ft at more conservative 6,500 rpm (at 3,500 rpm, torque was up by 10 percent) and the unchanged peak horsepower was achieved at 7,800 rpm, redlining at 8,000. Gear ratios were tweaked, displacement increased to 2.2L and appreciably more midrange power was the result. It was still tricky to launch, though.

Still, the S2000 was never about instant power from standstill; the punch came at about 6,000 rpm when Honda’s two-stage valve timing system (VTEC) switched between its two sets of exhaust and intake cams. Right foot firmly on the floor, you get this extra kick in each gear as you approach 6K, where the engine just opens up and flies. There it, and you, find the S2000’s happy place.

We didn’t get too many S2000s in Canada, with Honda selling a mere 2,232 examples here over its ten model years (2000-2009). One reason might have been the price: a bit over $50,000, putting it firmly in the luxury sport category Another reason may have been the lack of an available automatic transmission (I know, but the option was available in Boxsters and Z3s…).

However, right from the get-go, you received a lot for your $50K. The S2000 arrived with many features that were initially extra cost or unavailable on competitors from Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and BMW. The six-speed gearbox, for example, leather interior, power convertible top, xenon HID headlights, torque-sensing (Torsen) limited-slip differential, aluminum pedals, and that sexy and distinctive (at the time) engine start button were all standard.

I purchased mine in 2010. It’s a 2007 “AP2” model accessorized with factory side strakes and trunk spoiler. Enthusiasts will know that dressed in New Formula Red, it’s not a Canadian-market car (we didn’t get red in 2007). Personally imported from the US, this car, like many others (thousands?) eventually found their way north of the border because by 2007 our dollar was approaching parity with the US. Given that a US-market S2000 retailed new in the $33,000 range you can see there was a window of opportunity for Canadians to pick up used ones at comparatively bargain prices (Honda never did reduce the S2000 MSRP in Canada to reflect the new exchange rates).

Over the years, S2000 exterior and interior details changed, but subtly. Only the sharp-eyed will notice the 2007’s updated headlight array, oval exhaust tips and AP2 “version 2” rims.

In front of the driver you’ll find an electronic gauge cluster similar to ones used by Honda in its open-wheel racecars. The digital speedometer is positioned below the illuminated arc of the tachometer, balanced by the fuel and temperature gauges on the right. Because it’s electronic, the speedometer and odometer will switch from US to metric readouts at the press of a button (but not the outside temperature display, which remains in Fahrenheit).

To the left of the gauge cluster is a group of (rather odd) controls to manage the audio system; to the right you’ll find the climate controls. Both sets of controls are accessible without removing your hands from the steering wheel.

The S2000 chassis was a “clean sheet” effort, not shared with any other Honda product (this was the first rear-wheel drive roadster Honda had built since the introduction of the S500, the company’s first car, in 1965). The “High X-Bone frame” consists of a box section surrounding the cockpit raised to the same height as the front and rear frame rails, and a massive central longitudinal beam reminiscent of Colin Chapman’s early Lotus designs. The S2000 has a bending rigidity better than the contemporaneous Integra and NSX (both closed-roof cars, by the way).

You sit down and in this chassis, your forearm pretty much rests on the central beam, your hand perfectly positioned to operate the gearshift. If you want to show off a little, you can shift with your wrist, such is the precision of the shifter and the short throws required to change gears.

Contributing to the S2000’s 50/50 weight distribution, the engine is behind the front axle – a front-midship design – which moves weight toward the centre of the car for better handling. An in-wheel suspension system emulates open-wheel racing car suspensions with double wishbones and ball joints placed almost directly over the centre of the tire patch. Lateral grip is 0.9 g.

The a-pillars, windshield frame and roll hoops behind the seats are integral chassis components; the S2000 received a five-star rating for rollover by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a five-star rating for driver side impact and an overall “good” (the top) rating from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS).

From a practical standpoint, there is limited storage in an S2000 cabin. Tiny pockets in the doors, an equally tiny shelf below the dash, a small cubby under the driver’s right elbow and a lockable container, shoulder height, between the seats are it (actually, there is also a compartment between the roll hoops where you’ll find your operating manuals – took me five years to discover that!). And there is no adjustability in the steering column: neither tilt nor telescope. All you can adjust are the seats (fore, aft, rake), and if that’s not enough, you don’t fit.

Even now, is there a faster power convertible top than that found in an S2000? Six seconds up or down. Two latches, and it’s done. You have to be stopped, though, with the handbrake on to operate it.

Raise the hood and you’re greeted with some serious eye candy. The engine bay of this car is something to behold, such is the obvious care with which it was organized and assembled (the engine weighs a mere 148 kilograms/326 pounds; the car weighs in at 1,289 kg/2,835 pounds).

You start the engine by turning the ignition on with a key and pressing the large button to the left of the steering column. You turn it off by turning the key, not pressing the button. Surprising how fascinating this button was to auto writers when the car was introduced.

Once underway the rigidity of the chassis is immediately evident. This thing is stiff, and with the right tires, it changes direction almost as quickly as a track car. The S2000 was accused of being too lively at first, but in 2002 the suspension settings were revised and improvements realized. In 2006 drive-by-wire and vehicle stability control were added.

The steering is electric power assisted, an early use of this technology. Personally, I couldn’t tell the difference between it and a hydraulic system, such is the responsiveness of the car to steering input, but early S2000s were occasionally criticized for muddy steering. The choice of tires plays a role in this (16-inch Bridgestone Potenza S-02 were fitted initially, changing to 17-inch Bridgestone Potenza RE050 in 2004), both staggered (bigger at the rear), asymmetrical and directional, meaning they cannot be rotated or even swapped front to rear.

In everyday driving, the enjoyment from the S2000 is largely derived from its wonderful chassis and willingness to handle. A quick flick of the steering wheel quickly gets you around a 90-degree corner; discrete inputs have you managing on-ramps, traffic circles and lane-changes like you’re a Solo II champ. And you can be a Solo II champ in an S2000! My colleague James Bergeron supercharged his S2000 and regularly cleaned up at local events and eventually on the track at Calabogie Raceway, too.

The knock against driving the Honda S2000, though, is the fact that to wring the best performance out of the car – to get to the aforementioned “happy place” – you have to take it above 6,000 rpm. This you can do on public roads in second, maybe third gear, but beyond that you’re screaming and wailing at way beyond legal limits. Still, keeping it on the boil on twisty country roads is hugely satisfying.

But most people don’t drive flat-out all the time, no matter what the car. Try keeping the engine on a 4,000-5,000 rpm mid-boil and you’ll find instant and hugely entertaining throttle response in second, third and fourth gears. Push a little harder and you’ll activate the cams for additional punch. You don’t have to redline, in other words, to get the best out of this car.

Alternatively, you can shift earlier and simply enjoy the ride and handling. It’s a versatile vehicle. Top speed, by the way, is 250 km/h.

There are, however, negatives that become evident behind the wheel of an S2000 that’s used for everyday driving. As mentioned above, cabin storage is very limited; personal items are likely to end up in the passenger foot well or in the trunk. And speaking of the trunk, its capacity is 141L, about one-third the size of a compact car’s. Surprisingly, you can get a lot in it, but when travelling, you’ll want soft-sided luggage.

The fact that there are no side-impact airbags may be a tribute to the S2000’s excellent side-impact crash test ratings, but certainly by 2007, most cars of this type had them. The lack of steering wheel adjustability is unfortunate. At least “tilt” would be appreciated, as for many the steering wheel sits a bit low.

Rear vision with the top up is dreadful, and the removable boot cover for the top when it’s down is fiddly and cumbersome. You’ll rarely see an S2000 driver using the boot cover (although it’s in place for the accompanying images). And one more thing, when the top is up, it’s very noisy in the car.

All that said, this is a genuine sports car, not designed as a comfy touring machine. Its compromises to touring, however, are acceptable and welcome for those who spend most of their time on the road, rather than on a track (a hard top was available and looks great on the S2000). The power top is quick and completely watertight, suspension is firm but the ride can be smooth, air conditioning is appreciated and works well (there’s even a special setting for “air” or heat with the top down), the little speakers in this model’s head restraints add some dimensionality to the audio system, the seats are firm but provide good support. And reliability is top-notch!

Honda engineers even researched optimum airflow into the cabin with the top down, “to let some wind blow into the face within a range that is not uncomfortable,” was their laudable goal. So early on they changed the dimensions and shape of the roll bar, raised the height of the drip molding on the front pillars and changed the pillar surface angle to this end. Don’t you love these guys?

Personally, I think this is a car that will continue to have appeal. It’s not that common; its engineering is first rate; it can be thrilling to drive. Hey, it’s even a low-emissions vehicle. But thinking of where Honda was in 2000, it’s perhaps not surprising that no more cars of this type have emerged from the brand over the past 20 years. Think about it… at about the same time, Honda introduced its Insight, which surely implied a whole different set of technical challenges and corporate priorities. The company was also trying to build a human-type robot (Asimo), a commercial jet plane and a fleet of hydrogen fuel-cell cars. Plus it was (and still is) into lawn mowers, snow blowers, marine engines, generators, ATVs, SUVs, motorcycles and motorsports. Now it’s electrifying. Spread too thin? I guess something had to go, and the low volume roadster was one category that got the chop. Honda enthusiasts are still waiting.

However, Honda’s released a new Acura NSX as I write. An S660 mid-engined roadster is apparently greenlighted, and rumours of an S2000 successor surface regularly (the last set posited a 2018 release…).

Come on Honda! The “next millenium” is getting old.

Publications:

There are three books that focus on the Honda S2000:

Honda S2000, by Daniel F. Carney, MBI Publishing, 2001

Honda S2000 Performance Portfolio, compiled by R.M. Clarke, Brooklands Books, 2008

A Closer Look at the S2000, American Honda Motor Company, Limited Edition

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