Aspirational Japanese modern classics – there aren't that many to speak of, at least not when compared with the many exceptional models that European brands have produced. Thankfully, there is one example from the Far East that almost everyone agrees is certain to reach classic-car status. Enter the Honda S2000.
At the 1995 Tokyo Show, Honda caused a stir when it unveiled the Honda Sport Study Model concept car. Powered by a 2.0-litre 5-cylinder motor, the SSM heralded the return of a Honda roadster – something the brand hadn’t offered since the S800 was discontinued in 1970. Honda then proceeded to tease the world with the SSM at various events, until 1999, when the S2000 made its debut.
Many enthusiasts' first exposure to the S2000 was its starring role in the Need For Speed Underground console/PC game, or perhaps it was Suki’s dazzling pink Veilside S2000 in the 2Fast 2Furious movie – whatever the case might be, the S2000’s rather small dimensions and striking proportions would likely have raised more than a few raised eyebrows and a elicited a number of intrigued smirks.
The keys to the S2000’s appeal, however, were its balanced, lightweight chassis and the screaming F20 4-cylinder DOHC-VTEC motor with a peak power output of 177 kW and a stratospheric 9 000-rpm rev limit! Finish the package off with a deliciously notchy 6-speed manual gearbox and legendary Honda reliability, and the result was more special than anyone could ever have imagined…
Two models of S2000 were offered with 2 different engines and various versions of those engines, however, only the AP2 S2000 with the F20C 2.0-litre inline-4 was offered in South Africa. You will, however, find a few of the earlier AP1 S2000’s floating around the Republic – S2000s are snapped up so very quickly and, as a result, some people feel that it's easier to just import them.
Shigeru Uehara was the engineer in charge of the S2000's development, and with iconic cars such as the legendary NSX and Integra Type-R on his CV, he most certainly knew a thing or two about honing cars' handling characteristics. A close friend of Ayrton Senna, Uehara was a "car guy" through and through and in true Japanese style, he loved "going sideways". As a result, the S2000’s handling was set up to be perfectly balanced just for that, something which led to many AP1s spitting themselves backwards out of a corner at the point where the soft and squishy bit behind the 'wheel ran out of talent.
A decision was made, perhaps wisely so, to bless the AP2 with slightly tamer handling, something that was achieved by reducing bump steer/the vehicle’s tendency to oversteer. What this translated to was a more progressive loss of traction at the edge as opposed to the AP1’s snappy tail-wagging party piece.
Aside from this and a few cosmetic changes, there was not much to differentiate between the AP1 and AP2. From 2006, VSA (Vehicle Stability Assist) was available and subsequently became standard fitment in 2008 – a welcome addition, considering the S2K’s penchant for dishing up some lairy oversteer action.
This a question that elicits a pang of sadness to answer – since the S2000, Honda has not launched another front-engined RWD sportscar. In fact, one would be forgiven for thinking that the Minato, Tokyo-based brand just isn't too keen on performance cars altogether (even though it's been an engine supplier in Formula One for the past 6 years). CVTs are generally the order of the day now and while the Civic Type-Rs are fun and fast, they’re not quite the same as the topless, meticulously balanced "S2K". “But there’s a new NSX!” you may say. Yes, but it’s not available locally and even if you could afford to import one, its hybrid powertrain and trick four-wheel-drive systems are a far cry from the simple and mechanical cult two-seater. It would likely cost north of R4 million, too, which is just plain silly.
Is the S2000 still good by today’s standards?
As you lean down to give the door handle a gentle tug to open the door, you are welcomed by Japanese simplicity at its best. The cabin features a lot of plastic, but Noughties-era Hondas had a magical way of making plastic feel premium and that’s just what you’re treated to in an S2000. Our shoot vehicle was finished in spectacular Grand Prix White over a red interior, and while you won’t find obnoxious features such as lane-keep this and blind-assist that, the instrument cluster is a spectacularly retro digital item that, to put it simply, gives you "the fizz."
As you slip into the leather seats, it feels as if you’re being gently hugged, with everything that you could possibly need for a thrilling drive perfectly within your reach. The clutch is weighty enough to feel sporty, but it's not so heavy that it’ll leave you walking in circles for the rest of your life. The radio is hidden behind an ‘S2000’ badged metal flap where the centre console and dashboard meet, however, there are also radio controls just to the right of the instrument cluster so as not to festoon the steering wheel with buttons galore.
The steering is electronically assisted, but not overly so, resulting in a firm, but relatively communicative, steering setup. Later cars were fitted with drive-by-wire throttle control (reportedly in order to accommodate the traction control system), however, the 2005 AP2 that we had a go in had a good old-fashioned throttle cable.
The crisp and dense Joburg evening air definitely helped the naturally aspirated F20C motor feel a little livelier up on the Reef – in true N/A (naturally aspirated) fashion, it pulls linearly – and without much fuss –through the rev range until just below 6 000 rpm, at which point the "V-TEC kicks in, bru" and the intake cam adjusts itself. There is an audible change in induction noise, and the hike in power output is definitely noticeable. With your right foot firmly planted on the accelerator, your bleeding ears suggest that you might want to swop cogs, but the ‘80’s disco display in front of you suggests that you should keep going – there is another 1 000 rpm or so left, after all. It’s a bizarre experience and certainly requires re-calibration, especially to those who are used to the modern glut of forced-induction motors.
Never mind the fact that the S2000 is still alarmingly quick, especially with the top dropped and an interesting feeling of exposure to the outside thanks to the relatively high driving position (should you be in the region of 6 ft tall). You can tell that the S2K was made for smaller people, but at no point does this translate to a feeling of discomfort. The ride is supple yet planted, with the rear providing an analogue form of communication to one’s posterior – tune in perfectly and you really do get a sense that a great deal of time, effort, money and engineering know-how culminated in the way that the S2000 feels to drive and, of course, it handles. It's unlike anything money can buy today unless you turn to the farms of the UK ie: Lotus and Ariel (who, incidentally, still make use of Honda motors).
So it will definitely be a classic – what’ll break, though?
Well, um... it’s a Honda, so not much. There are a few important things to consider, though. Due to its JDM street racer appeal and its appearance in a few movies, many examples of the S2000 have been modified, and of the few that haven’t been "fettled", a great number of them will have rather high mileages. Familiarise yourself with what a stock S2000’s engine bay looks like – modifications can cause headaches down the line, especially if the rest of the engine hasn’t been tuned properly to work with the mods. Due to the S2000’s low torque figure of just 208 Nm (at a lofty 7 800 rpm), turbocharging and supercharging are common modifications, but again, can become an absolute nightmare should the necessary improvements have not been done across the board.
One of the most common modifications (and the least likely to do any considerable damage to the motor) is a retune in which the VTEC crossover is lowered to 4 500 rpm from 5 800 rpm in order to increase the engine’s peak power curve. Should the previous owner have modified the vehicle in any way whatsoever, it would be wise of them to advise you as such. A good tell-tale of modification is to check if the stock NGK PFR7G-11S spark plugs are fitted and more importantly, torqued correctly to 28.5 Nm – a loose spark plug will almost certainly end in tears in an S2000 motor.
VTEC is a pretty hardy system that allows more fuel and air into the cylinders, thus increasing power. There are no known common faults with the system, however, due to the motor’s high-revving nature, the oil should be checked and changed on a regular basis. Every 10 000 km should do, but make sure to use 10W30 fully synthetic oil only. S2000s have been known to develop a bit of drinking problem as they age, consuming as much as a litre of oil every 1 500 km or so – this doesn’t happen to all cars, but it’s a good idea to determine whether or not the vehicle you’re interested has a known issue.
A notable rattle on start-up would indicate that the timing chain tensioner is on its last legs, something which may cause some serious damage should the engine timing go awry. These are relatively inexpensive to replace, though, and not the most difficult DIY job for those of us who like to get our hands a little dirty. There are also strengthened aftermarket units available, which should be considered as they will never need replacing again. Regular checking of the valve clearances is also recommended, just to ensure that the rev-happy F20C is perfectly healthy.
Ask the owner if the vehicle overheats or if it ever has – no more than seven bars should be displayed on the digital temperature gauge. If it has ever overheated, it’s best to just walk away as this is a frightful gremlin that’ll most definitely return.
Should there be a slight hesitation when pulling away during the all-important test drive, it could be one of a couple of issues, a faulty lambda sensor or a failed manifold absolute pressure sensor (MAP) that sits atop the inlet manifold. MAP sensors can sometimes be cleaned, but if it’s the lambda sensor, a replacement will be necessary.
Worn soft-top catches will make a noticeable rattling noise and likely result in water making its way between the windscreen rail and roof, however, this can be a relatively inexpensive and easy DIY replacement.
Rust was never a serious issue with S2000s, however, the rear wheel arches are the most susceptible to rust as Honda didn't exactly apply underbody rust protection liberally. It’s really important to take a close look for inconsistent panel gaps and dodgy paint finishes, which may suggest that the vehicle has been in an accident.
Whether you choose to go the good condition – but modified or high mileage – but unmodified route, that’s up to you. The first prize would obviously be an unmodified low-miler, but finding one’s guaranteed to be quite a challenge. S2000s are in such high demand that they seldom "last a day online" if they’re in good condition.
Where do I find one?
Well, that’s the tricky thing – as mentioned, there are people who monitor forums and classifieds closely, and lap up good S2000s the moment they’re listed. A look online at the time of writing only coughs up a handful of S2000s, and they’re a bit of a mixed bag ranging from a poorly modified one that isn’t running for just over R100k to four immaculate examples at the R250k mark, presenting with around 150 to 200k on the clock. The unfortunate thing with vehicles as good as the legendary S2000 is that people tend to hang on to them, especially considering that their values are starting to climb.
It's arguably the most modern of analogue sports cars that one can find and, at a push, some may even describe it as peerless. There’s something wonderfully desirable about an otherwise sensible Japanese brand's ability to create iconic vehicles that far outshine those of its German rival brands. Of course, E85-generation BMW Z4 and 986 Porsche Boxters are superb in their own right, but none are quite as timeless or clinically precise as the lithe S2000. Fingers crossed that Honda decides to revive the S2000 nameplate in the near future, and if it doesn't, best you find a minter and hang on to it!