Review and road test of the Honda S2000 (1999 - 2009)
F1 FOR THE PEOPLE
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Honda celebrated its 50th birthday with a present to itself, the manic S2000 roadster. With one of the most remarkable engines ever built, this was the Japanese giant's way of flexing its corporate muscle, showing just how clever it could be. 240bhp from a normally aspirated 2.0-litre engine? That was a higher specific output than a twin turbocharged Lotus Esprit V8 GT and indicated how far Honda had raised the technical bar. The rest of the car benefited from their vast expertise in motorsport, and promised nirvana for the enthusiast driver. As used examples filter onto the UK market, is the S2000 an affordable dream or a potential nightmare? Find out here.
Here is a car that, on paper at least, offered performance to match the range-topping NSX model at less than half its price. Throw in sharky good looks and an engine that brought the soundtrack of a Formula One pit lane to a trunk road near you, and you've got a recipe for success. After an initial bout of high demand, the S2000 has disappeared from the 'most wanted' list. Has it been eclipsed by better rivals or was the mix just a little too main for the British roadster buyer? Find out here if a used S2000 makes the grade.
(2 dr roadster 2.0 petrol)
The history of the S2000 goes way back to the first of the Honda S-cars, the S360 and S500 unveiled at the 1963 Tokyo Motor Show. Early models revved to 14,000 rpm and were powered by chain drive, betraying Honda's roots as a motorcycle manufacturer. 1965 saw the S800, and it wasn't until 1999, with the 50th anniversary of Honda that we saw the arrival in the UK of the S2000.
Since its launch, little has changed. In late 2000, an optional hardtop with a heated rear screen was offered, in part to placate those who felt that the S2000 was somewhat uncompromising. The 2.0-litre engine, developing 237bhp, boasts a specific output of 119bhp per litre, a record for a non-turbocharged car. In early 2004 a number of changes were made to the S2000's suspension, in part to tame what some owners felt to be a notable tail happiness.
What You Get
In a battle for showroom appeal, a Honda S2000 would trail a distant third behind an Audi TT roadster and a Mercedes SLK. Yes, you get grippy leather seats and, well, that's about it. There are vast expanses of plastic in a cabin that looks a little bland for the price. It's not until you turn the key that you realise where the money's gone.
Turn that key - and nothing happens. Not until you realise that someone with a charming sense of eccentricity in the Honda design department has decreed that this car should have a push-button starter. You'll find it to the right of the steering wheel, inscribed with the legend 'ENGINE START'. Press it and the fun begins.
The first thing you notice is the F1-style instrument display, with its digital speedo in the middle and a LED rev counter arching over it like a rainbow. The graphics suggest that you can light it up all the way to 9,000rpm - and for once they don't lie. This is the highest revving production engine you can buy, a four-cylinder, 2.0-litre unit that puts out an astonishing 237bhp without the aid of a turbocharger.
This is the highest output per litre of any production car engine in the world, a unit which makes most other powerplants look like something out of the Ark. To put it into perspective, most normally aspirated 2.0-litre engines struggle to put out 150bhp. This is Honda emphasising its position as the world's biggest engine manufacturer. It alone has never resorted to the crude medium of turbocharging to boost the output of its engines and the engineers say they never will.
Anyway, if you're going to give yourself a present, you might as well do the job properly. Which is why almost nothing about the S2000 is borrowed from any other Honda model. The platform it sits on is completely new, as is the classic rear wheel drive set-up. That glorious engine meanwhile, though on paper front-mounted, in practice sits between the front axle and the dashboard for near perfect weight distribution.
In true Honda tradition, this is a car that anyone can easily drive with a light clutch and good all-round visibility. There's even an electric folding roof which lowers or raises in only ten seconds. I would advise however that you pay a little extra for the optional wind deflector, an oblong square of glass that sits between the seats and stops you from being flayed alive by your own hair.
Everything you'd expect to find fitted as standard is included - a gorgeous set of alloys, air conditioning, ABS, an alarm, headlamp washers, remote control for the stereo and so on. Curiously, on a car of this price, there's no traction control system: Honda says a limited slip differential is all that's needed to keep all that horsepower in check. Nonetheless, minimalism appears to be the order of the day; that and a soundtrack to die for.
What to Look For
Take a long hard look at the S2000 owner you're thinking of buying from. Two sorts of folks bought this car. The first set are those who bought it to be seen in and have probably never revved it beyond 5000rpm. They now feel the car has slipped from vogue slightly and are looking for something a bit more 21st century. These are the ideal vendors, as they will have been easy on the car. The other group will have every back edition of Performance Car magazine in their loft, will be able to tell you all about the lift off oversteer characteristics and will know all about the tyre degradation characteristics of the Bridgestone S-02. Unless they've maintained the car scrupulously, watch out for this type. You just know that their car has been beaten off its 9000rpm rev-limiter for a good proportion of its existence.
Regarding the car itself, make sure that the hood operates quickly and efficiently and is in good shape, ie not sun-faded, stretched, torn or stained. Pre 2002 model year cars were fitted with a plastic back window. Make sure this isn't misted or cracked. Also take a good look at those 16-inch alloy wheels for kerbing damage. On the test drive make sure the front brake discs aren't warped and let the car rev up to 9000rpm once or twice. Apart from being great fun, you should be able to tell if the car is pulling properly if it accelerates like a stabbed rat once the revs hit 5850rpm (the point that the VTEC variable valve system gets it second wind). Do make sure that you run it on 98RON super unleaded petrol. You'll need it to get the full 240bhp. Check for a full service history, and invest in an HPI check - it's a wise investment.
Look for accident damage. The S2000 is notably tail happy, especially when braking into a corner. Whilst fun for the enthusiast this characteristic may be something that can catch out the unwary. In the wet you really have to watch your step, even at suburban speeds.
(approx prices based on 2001 S2000) Although nothing like the price of spares for some 'exotics', S2000 prices are not by any stretch of the imagination inexpensive. A new clutch assembly is £270, while a new exhaust system, not including catalyst, retails for £324. Front brake pads are just £50, but a new alternator is £387. A starter motor is £280, and should you break one of those beautiful headlights, expect to pay over £300 for a replacement.
On the Road
The Honda S2000 is disappointingly flaccid until the needle hits 5850rpm, whereupon it starts screaming like a banshee, drowning out the driver's own hysterical cackling. It's an intoxicating experience that will have you searching out tunnels and narrow streets to hear that magnificent wail bring passers-by to a standstill. Unfortunately, to extract this sort of performance you need to determinedly wring the S2000's neck. It provides none of the tactile pleasures of a TVR Chimaera or a Porsche Boxster at sane velocities, and at low to medium revs feels no more potent than an MGF. Torque is noticeable by its absence - Honda can't have had many hopes pinned on the S2000 when the 'Tow Car Of The Year Awards' rolled round. Leather the car into the peak power band at 8300rpm and you'll be rewarded by a rest to 60mph time of 5.6 seconds on the way to a top speed of 147mph. Just so long as there isn't an uphill stretch in the way.
For those addicted to that engine note, this won't matter a jot, at least until they've totted up enough penalty points to give them cause to reconsider. For others the S2000 can be a frustrating partner. The steering is quick and accurate, but doesn't provide a great deal of detailed feedback from the road surface. Likewise, the suspension and chassis anaesthetize the driver to a certain extent. Special mention must be given to the gearchange however, surely the best in any production car. The titanium plum of a gear lever is light, super swift and a joy to use, especially if you can match the engine revs in one seamless, screaming downchange. When it all comes together you wouldn't want to be behind the wheel of anything else.
The brakes too are nothing short of magnificent. You'll have the capability to turn even the most blase passenger into a gibbering wreck by dint of the way the anchors can scrub off great gobs of speed as you approach roundabouts and corners. The handling, as mentioned earlier, verges on the tail happy, but it's great fun and the ride is supple. Just expect to get thoroughly wind blasted if you attempt to drive quickly with the hood down.
The Honda S2000 has never enjoyed the same level of sales success in the UK as the Porsche Boxster, Mercedes SLK or BMW Z3. Perhaps it's due to some remaining snobbishness regarding the Honda badge, or possibly due to the fact that it's a specialised tool, lacking the Islington wine-bar interiors and surprise-and-delight features. It's more focused than any of these cars, yet at the same time a bit more civilised than a Lotus Elise or Vauxhall VX220. Most used examples have been well looked after, and there should be few rogue cars about. Check for accident damage and signs of obvious neglect and you could end up with one of the most distinctive and technologically advanced sports cars available. One thrash up to the 9000rpm redline will convince you that you've made the right choice.
Honda S2000 (1999 - 2009) review by ANDY ENRIGHT