Once and a while a car comes along and leaves an indelible mark. Like the rubber seared onto pavement by a raging burnout, its impact is tangible long after the vehicle has gone.
This is the story of the Honda S2000. We were only graced with production for a decade (1999-2009) but the small sports car has been revered in the car community since.
For those less acquainted with the S2000, yes, we said Honda. King of practicality, known for its mastery in the vanilla space of car development, Honda typically does more to impress those “car-as-transportation” folks that often feel at odds with us enthusiasts.
This is what makes the S2000 so special. It’s release was a flare of light shooting into the sky, beckoning sports car fans to come notice, to offer that it was something completely different. It called back to Honda’s convertible sports car origins 50 years earlier.
The Honda S2000 is revered because it is the epitome of a driver’s car. It rewards the driver who works the gears and keeps the revs high, pushing through corners allowing the limited slip differential to do its work.
It successfully leans on Honda’s engineering developments and a tried and true formula for sports car success.
So from here on, we’re going to go through all the gears on this tiny Japanese sports car, revving high and unpacking what makes this car a legend though it’s been gone for over a decade.
Development & History
When the Honda S2000 was released in 1999, fans were relieved to find that nearly all of what they had seen 4 years earlier at the Tokyo Motor Show, where Honda debuted the SSM (Sport Study Model) concept car, had been realized in production.
We’ll dive deeper into each component, but the car offered a 2 Liter engine with VTEC, rear wheel drive with a limited slip differential, and 6 beautiful gears that one had to shift one’s self. In other words, it checked all the sports car boxes.
The first generation, the AP1, was produced from 1999-2003. What cemented it as legend from the beginning was just as much about what it did offer as what it didn’t. No hardtop and – vitally – no automatic transmission.
The 237 horsepower engine needs the driver to do the work of maximizing the power that gets put to the wheels. With a short wheelbase and the power going to the back, every corner in the S2000 is a joy, even if a bit of oversteer threatens to spoil the fun and soil your pants.
Now, clearly, this choice is the stuff of a company who gets car enthusiasts. Which is why we have to backtrack a bit. For all its practicality, 1990s Honda had also perfected one of the most legendary pieces of engineering development.
Sure, Honda was anchored in family vehicles, but it also had a wild side, powered by VTEC, that housed the Integra coupe and supercar-killing NSX and the S2000 joined the party.
In 2004 the AP2 tweaked the success of the first generation with a slightly larger engine (2.2L) that required reworking the gearing to increase torque and maintain horsepower. The results were stellar.
Along with revisions to the suspension and to the subframe which increased stiffness, the AP2 was faster both in a straight line and in corners. It also decreased the tendency to oversteer! Outside, the looks, wheels and a Laguna Blue color option were added.
Lastly, we have to mention the very limited (699 models) Club Racer trim. Lower weight, higher performance, and a rear wing make this the pinnacle stock S2000. Wider tires, a short shifter, and revised exhaust are all just teases of what this hot model could have done.
Sadly, it, along with the S2000, was continued in 2009 due to declined interest.
The mighty F20C engine is the heart of the S2000’s success. As mentioned earlier, Honda had experienced incredible success with their implementation of VTEC in their other sports cars so powering the S2000 with the same technology was an easy decision.
Despite being a lean, 2 liter, 4-cylinder engine, it punches way above its weight.
Before we get into the wonders of variable valve timing, this engine was built with the expectation that it would be thrashed. The aluminum block engine includes fiber reinforced metal sleeves for the cylinders and molybdenum disulfide coated pistons – in other words, reducing friction to effortlessly fly up and down.
For rigidity a timing chain replaces a timing belt. This inline four cylinder is mounted under the hood longitudinally to effectively send the power to the rear wheels. To maximize the efficiency of the dance between fuel and air for optimal combustion, the F20C uses four valves per cylinder with a dual overhead cam setup.
VTEC aficionados, you know this is where the magic happens. The Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control (we know, the acronym doesn’t quite match, but VTALEC has more of a medicinal ring to it), takes this engine and cranks things way up.
Like the incredible Hulk, when driven in low revs and without massive throttle input, the ECU offers a demure, intelligent profile. The engine tells the camshafts to use the smaller set of lobes that push rocker arms that push the valves (sorry that was a lot).
Smaller lobes equals valves open for less time, resulting less fuel used. Beautiful for calm city driving.
Put your foot down though and get the revs up past 6000 RPM and the engine activates the Hulk, switching over to larger lobes, which keep the valves open longer, which means (in VERY simple terms) more power.
What you need to know is this. Honda built the F20C engine to scream to a 8900 RPM redline and the VTEC system means that all the power and all the fun can be had in the top third of the range of RPMs.
Where most cars are tapping out, the S2000 is just getting started. Fun driving can be had when drivers keep the revs high and milk the engine for all its worth!
- 0-60: 6.8 seconds
- Horsepower: 237 hp
- Torque: 153 lb. ft.
An impressive engine can easily be let down by a failure in chassis performance (think early muscle cars). The S2000, though, couples the powerhouse to a scalpel of a chassis, small but mighty, built for the job.
First, we need to mention the beautiful gift by Honda of the 6 speed manual and only a 6 speed manual! It’s the first indicator that Honda was single minded in their pursuit of creating a true driver’s car.
Even if not working the gears like a ninja to keep the revs up, the S2000 remains nimble thanks to it only weighing 2800 pounds.
In case you were wondering, when released the S2000 had a power to weight ratio that few other cars of its time could top – the Corvette, Dodge Viper, Ferrari 355 Spider, and – according to Car & Driver – the Plymouth Prowler.
Oh Y2K, you gave us so much more than a lifetime of canned goods and bottled water in the back of our cabinets.
The light, rigid frame connects to the road via independent double wishbone suspension. Connected, the S2000 takes each corner with confidence, hesitant to let go of the rear wheels.
It wants you to enjoy the entire drive, not just the first corner where you overcook the tires! The suspension was a primary area of improvement from the AP1 to AP2, where spring rates and shock absorption were adjusted to provide even greater control while changing direction.
Now of course, we have to talk about how the S2000 is cemented in sports car stardom; it’s standard limited slip differential. The LSD ensures that power heads to both wheels, on occasion allowing them to spin at different speeds (essential for those winding corners), but limiting the divide between how much power they receive.
This means that when the driver does push the car a bit past its traction threshold, they may be lucky enough to encounter a bit of rear wheel spin. In case you didn’t catch my drift….you did now.
Grip is the fastest way around a corner, but drifting provokes a different yelp of emotion after composure is regained.
Impact On Sport Cars
It is a shame that after a decade of production, the greatest recognition that the S2000 received was thanks to a pair of lackluster, largely inaccurate movies named for their speed and anger.
Perhaps the S2000 deserved a wider reception and yet, perhaps, it didn’t, and was received by exactly who it needed to be.
Sure on the one hand, the S2000 has become a favorite by tuners looking for both performance and style. In that respect, it has gone on to be a showstopper, coveted by vaping youths (one day we’ll get through an article without sounding old).
On the other hand, the S2000 made us realize exactly what is and isn’t needed in a great sports car.
The simple formula that Honda assembled – a 6 speed, two door, rear wheel drive, light convertible with an LSD, is all that is needed for an amazing drive and constant fun. Sure, for $50,000 more you can get even more grip from the wider tires of a 911, or you can beef up the engine for constant power – both low and high end – with a big turbocharged V-6 or V-8.
Strip everything away though (except VTEC, never strip away VTEC) and the S2000 gives you all you really want, and it does it corner after corner!
Even without this persuasion, the current reality of this car offers its own defense. Since being discontinued in 2009, the S2000 has only grown in popularity. Not a month goes by that an online car auction site isn’t displaying a clean, fairly low mileage S2000.
Each time, the cost of the winning bid is higher than the last. If you see someone in an S2000, you know they are in that car on purpose. They know what they are driving. It’s a car that is an excuse for a conversation, justification to prod about its owner.
S2000s will continue to age gracefully, with unadulterated models becoming the silver foxes of the road.
Maybe one day, as they are doing with the Integra, Honda will resurrect the S2000. For now, we’ll enjoy the rare moment when we see one on the street, frantically rolling down our window and muting the music so as to catch it screaming by revving gloriously high.