Con­sid­ered flawed in its day, has the pas­sage of time seen the ap­peal of the high-revving, nat­u­rally as­pi­rated Honda sports car grow?


The S2000 was con­sid­ered flawed, but has it aged well?

IT HON­ESTLY FEELS LIKE yes­ter­day. The hot sun of the Côte d’Azur, the zig-zag tar­mac stair­case of the Col de Braus clam­ber­ing up sun-bleached crags. Echo­ing off the rocks is the keen­ing of the then-new Honda S2000, while tucked into its wake are three of the best late-’90s sports cars – Porsche Boxster, TVR Grif­fith 500 and Lo­tus Elise.

That fea­ture – ‘The Hunter and the Hunted’ – was one of the defin­ing group tests from the early days of evo. Long days, fab­u­lous roads, many miles of hard, fast driv­ing and a typ­i­cally un­com­pro­mis­ing ver­dict: the S2000 missed the mark. So why are we cel­e­brat­ing it in our Icons se­ries? Be­cause now as then, the prospect of a light, pow­er­ful, ul­tra-high-revving twoseater rear-drive sports car is some­thing to get the juices flow­ing.

Still, when I was asked to re­visit the S2000, it felt like we were go­ing to give a beaten dog one last kick­ing. That said, the pas­sage of so many years can al­ter the con­text by which you judge a car. And the Honda surely de­serves a shot at redemp­tion.

One thing is for cer­tain: in these days of forced in­duc­tion and twin-clutch trans­mis­sions, the S2000’s spec­i­fi­ca­tion reads like the stuff of dreams. You’ll strug­gle to find any­thing close to its ab­so­lute ban­shee of a nat­u­rally as­pi­rated four-cylin­der mo­tor, with its strato­spheric red line and scarcely be­liev­able spe­cific out­put. Let alone one mated to a six-speed man­ual trans­mis­sion that, as any car bore will tell you, is an all-time bench­mark for the stick-shift.

The clas­sic front-en­gine, rear-drive sports car recipe was one we had grown used to Mazda own­ing with the MX-5, so when Honda mus­cled in with a con­sid­er­ably more po­tent and ad­vanced in­ter­pre­ta­tion to cel­e­brate the com­pany’s 50th an­niver­sary, we re­ally sat up and took no­tice: its prom­ise was con­sid­er­able and com­pelling. The wrap­ping wasn’t half bad ei­ther – a sharp dag­ger of a pro­file with aquiline fea­tures that bor­rowed lit­tle from ex­ist­ing ri­vals but didn’t try too hard. It’s still a hand­some car to­day, though its stance and mod­est wheels have less im­pact than they did, which be­trays its age some­what.

As does its size. It’s pleas­ingly small from the out­side, and ac­tu­ally on the cramped side once you get in, with the shal­low dash and skinny door cards em­pha­sis­ing your prox­im­ity to the wind­screen and the out­side world. The seats are com­fort­able and lo­cate you well, but you’re perched a lit­tle too high, so you look down on the non-ad­justable steer­ing wheel rather than at it.

The ped­als are off­set slightly to the right but nicely spaced. The brake pedal is firm, with enough give in it for fi­ness­ing down­shifts with a heel-and-toe blip whether you’re work­ing the pedal with max­i­mum pres­sure or just row­ing along at moder­ate pace.

I’d for­got­ten about the dig­i­tal dash­board – what mo­tor­ing jour­nal­ists be­fore my time would have quaintly de­scribed as ‘Tokyo by night’ – and its lo-fi whiff of Atari or Texas In­stru­ments. In an age of retina dis­plays and OLEDs it could look em­bar­rass­ingly dated, but to be fair the in­stru­ment pack still looks sur­pris­ingly good and works well.

The over­all build qual­ity is im­pres­sive, too, just as you’d ex­pect from a Honda. There are a few squeaks and rat­tles, but these tend to go with the ter­ri­tory in small, light con­vert­ible sports cars. Handy switchgear – ex­tended, soft-con­toured tog­gles that ac­tu­ally op­er­ate like rock­ers – sprout from the dash, while a big red starter but­ton (a nov­elty in those days) takes pride of place on the far right. Pleas­ingly, there’s some­thing rem­i­nis­cent of the early NSX about the clear er­gonomics and white-on-black type­face used to la­bel ev­ery­thing. The cock­pit of an S2000 is a good place to be.

The 2-litre in-line four-cylin­der en­gine has al­ways been the star of the show with

The six-speed man­ual is, as any car bore will tell you, an all-time bench­mark

the S2000, but it takes a while to warm to it. Start it up and it sounds a bit tinny and res­o­nant, both at idle and moder­ate revs; that’s in com­plete con­trast to the un­canny smooth­ness and fe­roc­ity it dis­plays as you hunt the red line.

The vi­tal stats re­main ex­cep­tional: 237bhp at 8300rpm from 1997cc. In Ja­pan, where the F20C en­gine ran with a higher com­pres­sion ra­tio (11.7:1 com­pared with 11.0:1) it gave 10bhp more for a world­beat­ing spe­cific out­put of 124bhp per litre. And all with­out the aid of turbo- or su­per­charg­ing. Torque is in short sup­ply, with just 207Nm at a whop­ping 7500rpm. Red line? 8800rpm. Rev limiter? 9000rpm. Back in 1999 this was the ex­clu­sive realm of su­per­cars.

Be­low 5000rpm it feels hol­low – in the con­text of 2017, al­most empty, with that void in the power and torque curves only filled out once the VTEC sys­tem has wo­ken and starts to work its magic. As a con­se­quence you ini­tially won­der what all the fuss is about. You can eas­ily drive it for ten or twenty min­utes and never get any­where near the VTEC zone. De­pend­ing on your out­look this is ei­ther hugely frus­trat­ing and a bit of a waste of time, or sim­ply an ex­tended pe­riod of fore­play be­fore the real fun be­gins. Whichever way you slice it, you most def­i­nitely look for­ward to the mo­ment you can feel and hear the hot cam pro­files come into play, revs build­ing and build­ing un­til the VTEC takes ef­fect and il­lu­mi­nates the per­for­mance like a light switch­ing on.

This zone is the nub of the S2000 ex­pe­ri­ence and the root of the VTEC’s cult fol­low­ing. If any­thing it feels so much more spe­cial these days, be­cause although tur­bocharg­ing has given us far more ac­ces­si­ble and abun­dant per­for­mance, noth­ing else has that pu­rity of con­cept or sin­gu­lar­ity of ex­pe­ri­ence.

It’s not all down to the en­gine, though. We’ve banged the man­ual gear­box drum for years now, but very few, if any, of the man­ual cars we’ve cel­e­brated com­pares to the S2000. Its shift has a ter­rific sense of me­chan­i­cal con­nec­tion – boosted by the tac­til­ity of the cold metal ball that tops the gear­lever – com­bined with the speed and bi­nary con­sis­tency of a switch.

The real beauty of it is you can snick it through non­cha­lantly at low speeds or snap it through as fast as your wrist can punch it through the nar­row yet pre­cise gate. It’s a per­fect mate for the en­gine, which needs keep­ing at a rolling boil if you’re to drop into the VTEC zone with each up­shift. Steely, sharp and ap­par­ently bul­let­proof, it’s a marvel of tight tol­er­ances and end­less fine-tun­ing by en­gi­neers and driv­ers ob­sessed with speed and pre­ci­sion.

With its mo­tor sit­ting way back in the nose, the S2000 is very much front-mi­dengined, with most of its 1260kg mass cen­tred within the wheel­base. Later ‘AP2’ mod­els in­tro­duced from 2004 ben­e­fit­ted from 17-inch wheels, re­vised spring/ damper tun­ing and tweaked ge­om­e­try in an ef­fort to tame the tran­si­tion to over­steer and tone down the twitch­i­ness. (North Amer­i­can AP2s also got a larger, 2.2-litre en­gine with a touch more torque but a lower red line.) Our test car is a GT Edi­tion 100, built at the end of the S2000’s life, so ben­e­fits from these mid-life dy­namic changes.

It’s been too long since I drove an early car to give a de­tailed ap­praisal of how the AP1 and AP2 com­pare, but what I can say is this car of­fers more con­nec­tion and less twitch­i­ness than ad­mit­tedly faded mem­o­ries had me ex­pect. On a warm, dry road you’ve got plenty of re­as­sur­ance that the car will stick, even if you still haven’t got truly de­tailed steer­ing feel. How­ever, there are times – mainly in cool, damp con­di­tions – when there are hints of the spiky orig­i­nal. It’s best to treat the S2000 with care on slip­pery tar­mac.

Much of this is be­cause there’s a slight re­sis­tance to the steer­ing, like a piece of elas­tic be­ing slowly stretched. It’s quick­wit­ted, but there’s a slight stick­i­ness to the ini­tial in­puts, and be­cause of that lack of feel at the point of turn­ing in, you of­ten put more load into the front end (the

You look for­ward to the mo­ment the hot cam pro­files come into play

out­side front in par­tic­u­lar) than you in­tend or re­alise. With less mar­gin left than you think, any sub­se­quent use of the throt­tle mid-cor­ner to ad­just the at­ti­tude of the car brings a greater change than you’re ex­pect­ing.

What it re­quires you to do is build a sense of what’s hap­pen­ing where tyres meet tar­mac. But you can only do this by com­bin­ing the frag­mented and some­times patchy feed­back you get from the front wheels, the steer­ing wheel, the rear wheels and the seat of your pants. For a while it’s a bit like mak­ing a jig­saw with­out the ben­e­fit of a pic­ture to work to, but stick at it and slowly the S2000’s in­ten­tions be­come more clear, at which point you can ex­plore the lim­its of grip and trac­tion with­out feel­ing like you’re one step be­hind the car.

What you come to ap­pre­ci­ate is that the S2000 re­lies on the right road for the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence to crys­tallise into Honda’s vi­sion of what a no-non­sense sports car should be. Awk­wardly paced traf­fic ruth­lessly ex­poses the lack of torque – over­tak­ing slower cars re­quires much for­ward plan­ning, pa­tience and ef­fort – but if you get a clear run the S2000 en­ters a zone few cars can get close to. There’s a race car fo­cus and steely re­solve about the way it chases revs. Sec­ond, third and fourth gears have tremen­dous reach, cer­tainly enough to string most cor­ners to­gether, and the noise that en­gine makes when work­ing fit to burst is some­thing oth­er­worldly. If you’ve never been in an S2000 be­fore you’d be shocked by the in­ten­sity that comes with such high revs and its fu­ri­ous work-rate.

If, like me, you look for a sports car to have a com­plete and well-matched skill set, it’s re­gret­table that Honda blessed the S2000 with an en­gine and gear­box that are so clearly at the top of their games while the steer­ing and chas­sis lack the same level of de­tail de­vel­op­ment, fi­nesse and ab­so­lute pre­ci­sion.

Still, you’d have to be a cold-hearted soul not to con­cede that there’s much to be said for a car that aims for the high­est highs in one or two ar­eas, even if that pur­suit re­sults in other ar­eas of ar­guably equal im­por­tance fall­ing short. How much value you place on the un­ques­tion­ably stand-out ar­eas de­pends on how long you’re pre­pared to wait for those fleet­ing, crazy, full-on mo­ments that de­fine the S2000. For some that rush is price­less, for oth­ers it can never com­pen­sate for the dy­namic short­falls or the all-or-noth­ing per­for­mance of the en­gine.

So the S2000 re­mains a work of flawed ge­nius. One ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing mo­ments of ab­so­lute in­spi­ra­tion, but laced with spells of ab­ject frus­tra­tion. Same as it ever was, then, ex­cept the pas­sage of time has only served to in­ten­sify those facets of its char­ac­ter that have never been any­thing less than elec­tri­fy­ing, while soft­en­ing the im­pact of the chas­sis’ short­com­ings.

For diehard fans it mat­ters not that the plan­ets rarely align per­fectly enough to ex­pe­ri­ence the full fe­roc­ity of that high­alti­tude VTEC zone, at least for sus­tained pe­ri­ods. What mat­ters is that, when they do, there’s noth­ing quite like the way the S2000 homes in on 9000rpm. Or how it con­nects you so com­pletely to the process of wring­ing-out ev­ery last drop of per­for­mance. For that alone we have to salute Honda’s sin­gle-minded sports car. There never was, and never will be, any­thing else quite like it. ⌧

You’ll be shocked by the in­ten­sity that comes with such high revs and its fu­ri­ous work-rate

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