Yet, for most people, the S2000 was an acquired taste. Its high-revving four-cylinder engine, manual-only transmission, video game digital gauges, minimalist interior design and décor, and seeming lack of refinement were not what people expected in a $35,000 convertible that competed against entry-level Bimmers and Benzes. The Honda S2000 – a car made for driving enthusiasts, by driving enthusiasts – was not for poseurs.
Unfortunately, being a driving enthusiast doesn’t automatically confer driving skills, and the first iteration of the Honda S2000 had a nasty tendency to lose adhesion with little forewarning, resulting in plenty of crunched sheetmetal after owners ran out of talent. Plus, using the S2000 as a daily driver meant ripping around town way up high in the powerband where the engine made all of its thrust, or bopping about in the lower rev ranges where the motor possessed all the muscle of a Mazda Miata.
To resolve these issues, Honda made several changes to the S2000 for the 2004 model year. A larger displacement, 2.2-liter engine with a broader powerband improves around-town responsiveness. Modified gear ratios with carbon synchronizers on all forward gears help to make the most of the power while easing gear engagement. Suspension tweaks aim to improve stability and ride quality, and larger 17-inch wheels and tires increase stick at the limit. Honda also recalibrated the electric steering for better road feel and less bump steer, and improved brake pedal response, too. Inside, the 2004 model got more shoulder and elbow room, along with an added cupholder. Capping off the updates, revised styling and a new wheel design visually signified the new-and-improved Honda S2000.
These recent changes were my excuse to borrow a New Formula Red 2005 Honda S2000 for a week and enjoy the summer sunshine in Southern California. Always exhilarating but never refreshing, the Honda S2000 is not a car for the faint of heart. To love the Honda S2000, you’ve gotta be a fan of four-cylinder engines, variable valve timing technology, manual transmissions, stiff suspensions, and singular-purpose design to feel you’ve gotten your money’s worth. But regardless of its faults, the car is truly a blast to drive, is extremely well built, and represents one of the purest sports cars on the market today. And with the recent updates, it’s better than ever.
Nuts and Bolts
Under the Honda S2000’s long, low, lovely hood resides a jewel of a motor, an engineering marvel making more than 100 horsepower per liter of displacement. Running on premium unleaded fuel, this 2.2-liter, dual overhead cam, 16-valve engine is equipped with Honda’s Variable Valve-Timing with Lift Electronic Control (VTEC) to maximize power and efficiency at both high and low engine speeds by varying the flow of fuel and air into the cylinders. Its 240 horsepower at 7,800 rpm and 162 lb.-ft. of torque at 6,500 rpm is charged with motivating just 2,835 pounds, giving the S2000 an impressive power-to-weight ratio of 5.4 to 1.
There is no automatic transmission for the S2000, at any price. Rather, a close-ratio, short-throw, six-speed manual transmission with a torque-sensing rear differential delivers power to the Honda S2000’s back wheels. Electric drive-by-wire rack-and-pinion steering guides the front tires, wrapped around lightweight alloy wheels measuring 17 inches in diameter at each corner. The front rims are seven inches wide while the rears are 8.5 inches thick, wearing Bridgestone Potenza RE 050 tires sized 215/45 up front and 245/40 in back.
Four-wheel-disc, antilock brakes include ventilated front rotors measuring 11.8 inches and solid rear 11.1-inch rotors. The Honda S2000 rides on a double wishbone suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars and coil springs all around. And with a near perfect 49/51 front-to-rear weight distribution, the S2000 is clearly designed for performance and handling.
Inspired by Formula 1 racing, most obvious in the digital gauge cluster and big, red “Start” button on the left side of the dashboard, the Honda S2000’s no-nonsense cabin is a study in form over function. Deceptively simplistic in appearance, and clustering critical controls within easy reach of the driver’s fingertips, the S2000’s interior envelops the driver in such a way that it seems the car is saying: “Let’s not screw around. Just drive.”
Yet despite its spare design, the S2000’s interior materials are impressive, with very little hard plastic in evidence. Real aluminum, a soft-touch dash pad, rubberized control knobs, and high-quality leather upholstery dominate. Standard equipment includes a CD player, air conditioning, power windows, power door locks with remote keyless entry, power mirrors, and cruise control – no luxuries, but you’re not left wanting. The dealer can install headrest speakers if you like, and XM satellite radio is also available. Dual front airbags and three-point seatbelts with pretensioners are the only safety features on board, unless you count the integrated roll hoops behind both bucket seats.
An old-school single-DIN stereo head unit is hidden behind an aluminum panel embossed with “S2000.” It includes knobs for volume/power and tuning/audio settings, but the controls are buried low and deep in the dash. Honda provides handy rocker switches and buttons located immediately to the left of the steering wheel to control volume, mute, pre-set radio stations, and mode functions to handle just about anything you might want to do with the audio system. They work well, and we used them almost exclusively, keeping that slick aluminum panel closed to preserve the S2000’s minimalist ambience. Like the remote stereo controls, a simple mix of knobs, toggles and buttons located immediately to the right of steering wheel manage all climate functions.
Otherwise, the S2000’s interior is a bit difficult to use. For example, the defogger is hard to find and reach, a button completely hidden behind the turn signal stalk and steering wheel spoke. The button to activate the cruise control is right next to the defogger, equally hard to see and operate. Adjusting the power mirrors requires an uncomfortable twist of the wrist. And personally, I’m no fan of the video game instrumentation. A nice set of white-on-black analog gauges would suit me fine.
At least the switch that powers the convertible roof is easy to find in the center console. Equipped with a glass rear window and defroster, the power top and the side windows go down in seven seconds, making it easy to let the sun shine in while stopped at a traffic light. And if the weather turns foul, the Honda S2000 can be completely buttoned-up in just 11 seconds.
Austere yet elegant, gorgeous yet purposeful, all blended with just the right hint of aggressiveness, the Honda S2000 looks best with the top dropped – though the optional dealer-installed aluminum hard top looks terrific, too. Lovely design details abound, from the sharply creased high-intensity discharge headlights and the way the front fenders flow tautly over the wheels to the sexy twin exhaust outlets and smoked taillight lenses at the rear. The new 17-inch spoked wheel design gives the S2000 more character than the simplistic style that preceded it, and the build quality of our test car was almost flawless.
Honda sells the S2000 in seven exterior colors paired with one of four interior hues – all with a black top. Suzuka Blue gets an exclusive blue interior, and if you like tan leather upholstery your only paint choice is Grand Prix White. All other exterior colors – New Formula Red, Sebring Silver, Silverstone, Berlina Black, and Rio Yellow Pearl – get a black interior. An appealing black-and-red interior color combo is offered only with Sebring Silver and Silverstone.
Drive it like you hate it. Critics agree that, traditionally, that’s the best way to wring every ounce of performance out of the Honda S2000. And while the modifications for the 2004 model year make it easier to access the S2000’s power and handling, this is still a raw machine that performs best when flogged to within an inch of its life.
Despite suspension modifications designed to make it easier on the backside, the S2000 produces a rough ride, and though docile enough thanks to its lower power peak, is tiring when driven in city traffic. Get the car off the urban grid and into the countryside, and the fun-to-drive factor improves exponentially. Above 6,500 rpm, the Honda S2000 is a rocket, a mechanical symphony accompanying every run to the red. The clutch is easy to operate, heel-and-toe downshifting is simple, and the gearbox is tight and fluid with ultra-short throws, making the S2000 a delight to run hard. It possesses exceptional brake pedal feel, balance, and stamina. The steering is quick with excellent heft, and the suspension communicates every nuance of the road surface through the pedals and the seats. Indeed, the Honda S2000 feels hard-wired to your nervous system, responding instantly to inputs – sometimes almost too quickly.
As much fun as the S2000 is, it’s got a few flaws. The quick steering can make the car feel almost darty with even the slightest lapse in concentration, and because it’s a drive-by-wire system there’s no real road feel coming up through the steering column. Everything the driver learns about the road surface comes through his feet and butt. We also noticed that the current S2000 exhibits more body lean and understeer than we recall from the original recipe car, and that the Bridgestones feel a little greasy at the limit. Maybe these traits make the Average Joe more comfortable with the S2000’s performance envelope, but honestly, our favorable memories of the admittedly more unpredictable 2000-2003 model recall a sharper handling automobile.
Comfort and Convenience
As for the driver’s environment, there’s little difference between today’s Honda S2000 and the older model. The seats are snug and stiffly bolstered, with significant lumbar support. Some people might find the driving position to be too high – there’s no tilt steering wheel here, and the top of the gauge cluster can be hard to see from some vantage points. But that small, thick steering wheel is a joy to grip, and Honda pads the spots where your knees are likely to brace for improved comfort. But despite reported gains in shoulder and elbow space, it remains true that the bigger you are, the unhappier you’ll be inside the S2000. Also, it’s not easy to enter and exit through the small doors.
Ride quality, as mentioned before, is stiff and tiring. Significant wind, road, and engine noise doesn’t help. California’s dotted lane dividers sound like automatic gunfire under the tires, and the engine tachs around 4,200 rpm at 80 mph in sixth gear. Even with cruise control, the Honda S2000 might not be a great choice for a road trip.
Other reasons to skip over the S2000 for a weekend Interstate blitz are the small five-cubic-foot trunk, the lack of interior storage areas, and poor visibility. Terrible with the top raised thanks in part to the integrated roll hoops, visibility is somewhat impaired even with the roof stuffed into its compartment just in front of the cargo area. Though usefully shaped, with a square floor well that keeps briefcases or backpacks from sliding about, the S2000’s trunk is still small. Inside the car, there’s a small bin on the rear bulkhead, nets on the doors, and a rubber lined tray on the center console. That’s it. And the cupholders block the gearshift when in use.
Test Vehicle: 2005 Honda S2000
Price of Test Vehicle: $33,665 (including a $515 destination charge)
Engine Size and Type: 2.2-liter inline four-cylinder
Engine Horsepower: 240 at 7,800 rpm
Engine Torque: 162 lb.-ft. at 6,500 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Curb weight, lbs.: 2,835 lbs.
EPA Fuel Economy (city/highway): 20/25 mpg
Observed Fuel Economy: 18.8 mpg
Length: 162.2 inches
Width: 68.9 inches
Wheelbase: 94.5 inches
Height: 50.0 inches
Leg room: 44.3 inches
Head room: 34.6 inches
Max. Seating Capacity: 2
Max. Cargo Volume: 5 cubic feet
Competitors: BMW Z4, Audi TT Roadster, Chrysler Crossfire Roadster, Ford Mustang Convertible, Ford Thunderbird, Lotus Elise, Mazda Mazdaspeed Miata, Mercedes-Benz SLK, MINI Cooper S Convertible, Nissan 350Z Roadster
2nd Opinion – Blackett
I know I’m supposed to like this car. It’s a 2,835-lb. roadster with 240 of Honda’s bulletproof horses, Exacto-knife build precision, and an amazingly tight six-speed manual transmission. Interior accommodations are firm but supportive, the price is reasonable, and the visual appeal is undeniably aggressive.
But, I’m a grown up now. The 2005 Honda S2000 is the car I wish I’d had (or had access to) in high school, back when having fun with a vehicle meant beating it to within an inch of its useful life. Like the withering hulks from those days, the S2000 needs to be abused to wring from it any real performance. The difference, of course, is that those relics from my teenage years cost about $33,000 less than this Honda and handled like Jello-O.
Fans of Honda’s VTEC system will suggest that I just don’t get it – the high-revving, lofty nature of these Honda engines is what makes them so impressive and, admittedly, 240 horsepower from a naturally aspirated 2.2-liter four-cylinder is laudable. However, that power is available at 7,800 rpm, and torque only measures 162 lb.-ft. at 6,500 rpm. If I’m going to push the tach needle that high, I expect to feel my back planted against the bucket seat – and that’s not the case with the S2000. There’s lots of noise, but this roadster’s power fails to thrill, and if you don’t delay the next upshift as long as possible, you put the engine into its gutless lower rev range and lose any momentum you’ve gained. And that’s too bad, because the S2000’s slick six-speed is one of this driving enthusiast’s guilty pleasures. -- Thom Blackett
Photos courtesy of American Honda