The first Honda S2000 came out over 20 years ago in 1999. It was a sensation then and still holds its own against the best roadsters today. There’s been a lot written and filmed about it since. I’m not sure there’s a lot left to say about them on track or in the canyons. Almost all of my favorite YouTubers (need moar links!) and some of my favorite writers have owned one at some point. One thing I’m not sure a lot reviewers take the time to convey is what a pleasure one can be as a daily driver—with some qualifications.
I’ll start where everyone does, with the engine, a two liter naturally aspirated four cylinder that revs to 9000 rpm and makes 237 hp. (For North America in 2004, Honda gave the facelift version a 2.2 liter that didn’t rev as high but made more torque.) That may not sound like a lot of power today but in 2000 a V8 Mustang GT made 260 hp and was slower to 60 and the quarter mile. So naturally, when one gets in a Honda S2000 for the first time the thing to do is wind out the engine. Blessed with VTEC, Honda’s variable valve timing system, a second larger cam shaft comes on at around 6000 rpm and the engine really wakes up. I won’t go into details about the chassis details suffice Honda put as much work in there as they did the engine. Again, if you’re an enthusiast you’ve probably heard this story.
What you may not have heard is how good the S2000 is at just being a car around town. I wouldn’t recommend an S2000 for its luxury and comfort alone, duh. That’s not why I have it. I have it because it’s fast enough to be fun, I can push hard on the streets at legal speeds more or less, and the handling is sublime. Having said that it’s marvelous daily, not in spite of it the reasons it makes a great sports car but perhaps because of them.
I’ll start with the steering which is as precise as anything I’ve ever driven. Steering may the most underrated part of luxury; the thing that makes some sports cars more luxurious than some luxury cars. Let me sidetrack here with a Lincoln Navigator. I drove one on a trip to Utah last year. The rental place was out of stock on my usual budget sedan but they were nice enough to offer me a ‘Gator for just $15 extra per day. The Lincoln checked almost every box for luxury one could imagine—plush lush leather seats with heating and ventilation, big infotainment screen with CarPlay, etc. The engine was powerful and the tranny fast. The problem was the steering was so vague, so Mario Kart, that I couldn’t be sure where the thing was going. Even driving straight on the highway I was constantly—and more important consciously—tugging at the steering wheel. In the S2000 I just look where I want to go and the car seems to go there on its own. Track guys say that the electric steering rack of the S2000 doesn’t communicate when the front tires are losing grip. I’m sure they’re right but in almost any street driving, the lack of tire feel through the steering doesn’t matter.
The ride of the S2000 isn’t soft like the Navigator but it does have double wishbone suspension front and rear which means that the handling is fantastic (see above: steering) and the ride is also compliant. (This is true of Miatas.) It’s a shame more cars don’t have double wishbones. I’m not that technical but I’m told they are more complex, take up more space, and are expensive than typical McPherson struts. This is also illustrates something that I love about purpose-built sports cars, as opposed to, say, hot hatches or a BMW M sedan. The ride and handling are built in. The S2000 doesn’t start life as an entry level car that is then handed to another division called, M, N, AMG, etc. to make it sporty. It doesn’t have to be made stiff in order to handle. (I’ll acknowledge that some of the modern adaptive suspensions like GM’s magnetorheological dampers do deliver on handling and comfort.)
The seats of the S2000 look sporty and well bolstered but the operative word is “look”. They don’t actually hug you in place so under hard cornering you end sliding on the slippery leather between the door and the transmission tunnel. Most guys who seriously track these end up installing aftermarket bucket seats. Having said that, the stock seats are comfortable.
The build quality of these Hondas is fantastic. They’ve held up far better than Porsches and BMWs of the early aughts. If you’ve been in those cars lately, you know this is faint praise. The grab handles are still tight. Buttons click with a positive, well, click. The doors close with a satisfying thunk.
Careful readers will note I made a qualified statement about rattles—the interior. The soft top and its metal latches are the biggest noise makers though I don’t hear much from them with the top down. I’m usually listening to music so I don’t hear them at all. When I’m not listening to the stereo that’s because I’m driving hard and listening the induction noise aft and exhaust rear—again, I don’t hear the rattles. Driving top up is a different story. Not only are there rattles but the thin top seems to transmit and reverberate noise. I’m not sure it’s louder than top down but its a bad buzzy sound. In my case, it matters not. I only drive with top up if its raining or a passenger is complaining. Since its not the car I use for driving in the rain or transporting people for anything but short trips, it’s not a problem.
The shifter of the S2000 is a masterpiece. If there’s a better one I haven’t used it. Invariably any current or former owner will use the S2000 shifter as the benchmark to judge all others. It’s simply a joy and when I’m not winding out engine because I can’t always “VTEC Yo!”, I find myself short shifting just so I can rev match down shift. (The pedals are perfectly spaced for heel and toe.) As with the steering, the precision and confidence of shifting the S2000 makes it luxury in way that, say, BMW and its vague shifters don’t. There’s none of that worry of “am I going into fourth or second here?”
Another element of luxury is torque, that feeling of easy power. The S2000 doesn’t have it. The 237 horsepower engine makes just 151 lbs feet of torque. I’m ok with that. I don’t want the S2000 to be a luxury car, not totally, and it will remind me of that every time I pull away from a stop light and have to hit 5000 RPM to keep up with modern minivan. And I’m not talking about drag racing, just regular driving.
The top itself, rattles notwithstanding, is another example of Honda really putting in the extra effort. To put down the the top, you engage the parking brake, undo two latches, hold a switch for six seconds, and voilà, top down. On a typical day of going to the office, lunch, running errands, and sometimes picking up a kid, I can find myself putting the top up and down at least 10 times.
Fall is my favorite time of year for driving and if there’s a myth that convertibles are for warm weather the S2000 explodes it. The S2000 blocks out wind and cold nearly as well as my dad’s Jaguar F-Type, those sticker for over $80k new. The Honda doesn’t have the Jag’s heated steering wheel or seats but it does have a set of vents specifically for top down. I first thought it was gimmick but it really works. Tomorrow the forecast is set for 45 degrees in suburban Chicago and it may be the last day before the S2000 goes into the garage, not to return until Spring. Writing that I’m on the verge of tears because I’ll miss the damned thing so much. Temperature concerns per se aside, an S2000 is not made for salted streets. They will rust.
Where the S2000 can be knocked as a daily driver or road tripper is on the highway. My car sounds tame cruising up to 45 mph but at highway speed, the revs really climb and the noise becomes ear bleeding. 85 mph spins the engine to 4500 rpm. If I did daily highway driving I don’t think I would have this car or at least use it for that purpose. A BMW Z4M roadster or whatever $20k buys in Boxster would make more sense. Alas, most of my driving is below 50 mph so the S2000 stays a great daily—for me.