High revs, a manual gearbox and no roof – Honda’s S2000 plays an old-school tune. Now’s the time to join the band...
Words Emma Woodcock Photography Si Thompson
here’s a new S2000 on the way, or so the rumours from the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show say. Not that this means too much: ever since the seminal S2K was withdrawn in 2009, the odds are that some forum, blog or website somewhere is heralding the renaissance of the high-revving two-seat roadster that served as a lynchpin of Honda’s performance car reputation from the very late 1990s and all through the 2000s. It’s a model that was much revered and is much missed.
Even if the new S2000 does finally appear, you still might not want to get your hopes up. The nearest recent Honda concept, Sports EV, makes boast of electric motive power, an automatic transmission and some artificially intelligent features. If you’re big on driver interaction, chances are you aren’t too keen on any of that. It gets worse: leaked patent drawings from 2015 suggest a car that looks more Blade Runner than pared-back roadrunner.
If you’re looking for a simple, sporty roadster that encapsulates thoughtful design and VTEC-just-kicked-in frenzy, there’s no point looking to the future when you could set your sights on the S2K. A high-revving naturally aspriated engine and a manual gearbox is a potent petrolhead narcotic, and one that is in huge demand as modern cars become more sanitised. We believe S2k prices will soar as high as its rev counter. Here’s why...
The S2000 story returns us to the Tokyo Motor Show, though this time we’ve got to roll the clocks all the way back to 1995. Jump out of our hypothetical time machine and take a gawp at the Honda stand: spot the silver wedge searing through centre stage, with a mile-long bonnet and floor-gazing headlights. It’s the Sports Study Model and, in just four short years’ time, it’ll transform into the S2000. For now, the specification includes a five cylinder VTEC engine, a semi-automatic gearbox, a heavily driver-focused cabin and a complete absence of any extraneous practicality. Public reaction is overwhelmingly positive.
When the production car arrived in 1999, it was clear that Honda had built on the SSM’s strengths. The major styling traits remained: a bluff rear end with twin exhaust pipes; a minimalist, bonnet-heavy profile and a wheel blistered out to each corner of the bodyshell. Sales began before the end of the year, with a 237bhp 2.0-litre, naturally-aspirated four cylinder and six-speed manual gearbox the only driveline offered. Cars produced between 1999 and 2003 stayed true to this specification and are known as the AP1, with nothing but vanishingly small detail changes until the 2004 AP1 facelift.
Even then, it was largely business as usual: S2000s produced after this date benefited from minor bodywork and suspension tweaks but are otherwise identical to their predecessors. In the UK, GT specification – which offered a removable hardtop and a temperature gauge – was available from 2002 onwards and traction control was fitted as standard from 2006. Even the GT100, a special edition created to mark the end of production in 2009, offered little more than a new-to-Europe Grand Prix White paintjob. You either wanted an S2000 or you didn’t: Honda wasn’t bending to passing whims.
Slither down into the cabin and the Honda’s purity of purpose is immediately apparent. Squeezing hard from either side, the wide sill and wider transmission tunnel channel into the upswept dashboard moulding, forcing your eyes hard down an uncluttered bonnet and onto the road ahead. A stubby steering wheel falls between your wrists, its shrunken reach bringing your shoulders closer together, echoing the focused cockpit of a Le Mans racer. One firm press of the huge, scarlet starting button later, the car fires abruptly into life.
Sound fires through the open cabin, the digital tacho jumps to exactly 1000rpm and a thousand tiny tappets from the engine bay are heavily underlaid by the determined, sandpaper wub-wub-wub of the twin exhaust pipes. It’s a distinctive note: a block of noise that speaks more of superbikes than sports cars. There’s a good reason for that and it’s throbbing in front of my feet: a 2.0-litre F20C inline four. It’s a legendary engine which, at 118bhp per litre, held the record for highest specific output of any naturally-aspirated production car engine until the 2010s.
The finer points - The S2000 majors on simple pleasures but the little details add up to enormous fun
The ‘S’ follows roadster convention (think S600 and S800) – the 2000 refers to the displacement.
Digital display is just like a superbike’s. Wearing leather is optional.
No roof allows full aural access to revs.
Seats grip tightly.
F20C won best engine in its size category at the International Engine of the Year awards five years in a row.
It’s not a musical exhuast note – not that you’ll care.
Steering wheel is perfectly sized.
Corners – the natural S2k habitiat.
Lots of six appeal...
'I bought one' Paul Cohen.
‘This is my second S2000,’ says Paul Cohen, owner of the sublime 2007 S2000 GT in our photos, ‘I bought my first one in 2009. Neither example has ever missed a beat. Standard, low-mileage examples are getting rarer by the day – people just love to drive them – but owners tend to keep original examples long term and baby them. The main thing is the driving pleasure: there’s little to match them in the hills, valleys and mountains; there’s nothing better for getting into corners once you’re used to the handling. I have to mention the UK S2000 Owners’ Club too, they’re such a big part of the ownership experience. There’s a monthly meet at the Ace Café and we also do a big trip with them every year.’
Yet thrum through traffic, shifting below 4500rpm, and you’d never know. The Honda is quiet, civilised, efficient and remarkably slow. You could paddle around for a 1000 miles or more and never know what the F20 is capable of. The only way out is to push harder: push through 5000rpm, where the engine finds its voice; push beyond 5850rpm where the VTEC system transfers the engine to its second, more aggressive cam lobe; push to 7000rpm, where the engine shouts a throaty, sporty rasp, and then push beyond. Wind your way up here and the S2000 breathes backwards on its rear axle and surges forwards.
Such is the shock, so extreme is the change in the engine’s – and the whole car’s – attitude, that every fibre of your being screams to upshift, popping the clutch to the floor with a flick of the ankle and finger-twitching the gearshift. Don’t do it. The crescendo of speed, sound and swirling wind is only just beginning, riding you to almost 8500rpm before reaching the national speed limit. When your nerve finally snaps, the shift is a pleasure in itself, the travel so short and the response so positive that you think the S2000 into gears with eye-blink speed.
The brakes, complete with 300mm vented front discs, step forward to match the driveline’s strong-armed precision, biting hard and on demand. Push further into the pedal and the nose pitches forward to the floor, setting the front end darting towards tramlines. The rolling imperfections of a rural B-road expose the same issue which, compounded by the high-geared steering, makes it difficult to relax into a steady cruise in the S2000.
Maybe that’s the point. Turn onto twistier roads and the whole package starts to make sense again. Each downshift and VTEC foray remain a sheer delight but now they’re met by the speed of the steering. Entirely devoid of deadzone and offering reasonable feel through weight changes in the thick rim, it flies to every apex with the barest breath of steering lock or hesitation. High-speed direction changes can leave the rear end feeling momentarily clumsy and wrong-footed, such is the speed and tenacity of the front axle, but there’s never the slightest dip in the Honda’s defining sense of precision. Move back into the throttle with the chassis under load and the feeling intensifies, the S2000 tightening its line even further.
In that moment, between the serrated exhaust swell, zipping LCD tacho and ceaseless grip, the Honda S2000 is every inch the miniature GT racer.
Engine: 1997cc, 4-cyl, DOHC
Transmission: RWD, 6-speed manual
Top speed: 150mph
As the engine ticks cool, it’s hard to understand why the S2000 hasn’t accelerated out of the four-figure price range already. On a well-sighted backroad, it’s a real event and every bit as involving as sports cars selling for five times as much moolah. Believe the hype.
If the Honda sounds like your kind of car, now may well be the time to make a move. Values are starting to rise, as Ian Eygelsheim from the S2000 Owners’ Club explains, ‘They usually fall and rise, dropping back substantially in the winter, but we haven’t seen that this year, which should be indicative of prices beginning to steadily rise.’
In the wider market, only a Renault Sport Spider or Lotus Elise S1 can offer the same blend of 1990s nostalgia and hardcore driving characteristics – and it comes at the cost of usability. Porsche’s Boxster and BMW’s Z4, meanwhile, can match the S2000 for low-speed civility for a little less outlay but they don’t have the same spirit. With its ability to straddle both genres, that leaves the Honda as a unique option for a particular kind of buyer. Prices currently top out at £17,000 but it’s not hard to see values of £20,000 on the horizon.
If the money talk doesn’t excite you, maybe the technology will: the F20C engine uses a heady 11:1 compression ratio, forged aluminium pistons and roller-type rocker arms to sustain a rev-limit of 9000rpm, while the short-shift manual gearbox moves by only 40mm in the vertical plane and 23mm in the horizontal. Those are our kind of numbers.
Yet, when you’re soaring through the corners, the figures don’t matter. It’s all about the drive – and that’s where the S2000 excels.