Thrilling and fast appreciating, the open top Honda S2000 is one of the smartest places to put your money. Read our quickfire buyers' guide to know more
By Craig Toone | Images by Honda Media
It’s not often a car manufacturer gifts itself an entirely clean-sheet design, let alone one as a birthday present. Most milestones disappear in a flurry of special editions and marketing press releases, but for its 50th anniversary in 1999, that's exactly what Honda did. The S2000 was first mooted in 1995 in concept form at the Tokyo motor show as the striking SSM - Sports Study Model. Styled by Pininfarina, the concept featured an in-line five-cylinder VTEC engine mated to a five-speed automatic transmission.
By the time the car made it into production - minus a cylinder - the spec sheet remained the stuff of dreams. As always, the VTEC engine took centre stage, developing over 240 bhp from a high-revving, naturally aspirated two litre engine. This was backed up with rear wheel drive, a six-speed manual transmission, a locking differential, compact dimensions, perfect 50:50 weight distribution and a sub 1,300kg kerb weight.
Given the last time Honda took on the supercar establishment they produced the paradigm shift that was the NSX, expectations were high for the marque's first dedicated sports car since the S800 of the 1970s. The S2000 was manufactured between 1999 and 2009, and in total over 100,000 cars were sold worldwide.
Honda employs some of the most inspired engineers in the automotive industry and they were let fully off the leash for the S2000. They cranked up the company's signature VTEC engine to 11, resulting in a world-beating 124bhp/litre specific output and a stratospheric 9,000rpm redline, which wouldn’t be eclipsed until the arrival of the Ferrari 458 Italia 11 years later. The engine resides behind the front axle meaning the S2000 is actually a front-mid engine car, lowering the rotational inertia.
Best of all, however, was the prospect of fully independent, double-wishbone suspension all-round, mated to bespoke Bridgestone Potenza S-02 tyres on 16” alloys. One blight on the copybook was the early adoption of electrically assisted steering (EPAS), which became a factor in the S2000’s quickly garnered reputation for spiky lift-off oversteer amongst motoring journalists.
Over the life of the car, Honda would take three bites of the apple trying to rectify the trait, and the first attempt came in 2002 with stiffer springs, softer anti-roll bars and retuned dampers. At the same time, a higher specification GT model was introduced and the plastic rear window morphed into a glass item.
By 2004 the car warranted a facelift and further improvements were drafted in. Cosmetic changes were restricted to new bumpers, larger 17” alloys wrapped in a new compound of Bridgestone, updated head & tail lights and oval tips for the exhausts.
However it was under the skin was where the real work took place. The subframe now featured additional bracing whilst even firmer springs appeared, a softer rear anti-roll bar, further damping revisions and tweaked geometry that reduced toe-in under cornering loads, all geared towards a more balanced handling set-up.
Facelift cars are often mistakenly referred to as the AP2, but this designation only applies to the US market, which received a special 2.2-litre engine. Japan, the U.K & Australia all continued with the 2.0 displacement and power output. Curiously, despite Honda never admitting to any engine changes, facelift cars consistently produce stronger numbers on dyno days.
Finally, in 2006 Honda introduced an optional drive by wire throttle with stability control, which was later made standard in 2008. A final run-out model of 100 was created in 2009 to celebrate the end of production. The obviously titled Edition 100 featured cosmetic changes which included never before available Grand Prix White paint, anthracite alloy wheels with black bolts, an aluminium gear lever with red stitching, black badges and a commemorative plaque.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Honda is also renowned for the reliability of its cars, it's therefore no surprise to learn the S2000 is very robust. There are checkpoints however that any serious buyer should consider. Any VTEC unit is famously robust, however, they do like to consume oil - up to a litre every 1,000 miles - so make sure you quiz the seller...a lax attitude here could lead to long term bearing damage. Thankfully the transmission is as bulletproof as they come.
Pay close attention to the suspension & geometry - annual checks are a wise investment. Lower front arms are susceptible to wear whilst the bushes are good for between 80,000 to 100,000 miles. If possible take the car to an inspection ramp as Honda used a light touch with the underseal to keep the kerb weight down, but on the other hand, the bodywork is well protected and should be blemish-free.
Roof seals around the pillars are a known weak spot - a key indicator is damp carpets so make sure to poke around the footwells during your inspection. One last thing to note - the S2000 tends to come with eyebrow-raising premiums from insurers, so make sure to factor this into your man maths.
MODIFICATIONS & TUNING
Despite the focus of the S2000, there are notable weak spots should you wish to attend track days on a consistent basis. The ABS calibration is very well judged however the rear discs are solid and therefore prone to overheating due to being only 282mm x 12mm thick.
This then transfers more bias to the front, which at only 300mm x 25mm (although at least vented), thermally overload, leading to cracking. Fitting ventilated rear discs or a big brake kit are the best solutions. Another pre-emptive strike would be fitting a baffle to the sump to avoid oil starvation due to the high cornering speeds the car can achieve.
A square set-up is proven to hugely aid turn-in. The tyres are staggered from the factory - pre-facelift cars are 205/55R16 on 6.5J ET55 front and 225R16 on 7.5J ET65 rear, with the facelift cars running 215/45R17 on 7J ET55 front and 245/40R17 on 8.5J ET65 rear. However, the centre bores are different (the rear is smaller than the front) meaning you’d have to machine the bore out on the wider wheels to fit. The geometry is fully adjustable - facelift settings can be applied to earlier cars
Engine-wise the F20C responds well to having the VTEC crossover point lowered from 6,000rpm to 3,800 - although as a consequence you’ll have to sacrifice the famous VTEC ramp up. Another 20-30bhp in the mid-range however should make the trade-off a worthy one. Any re-map will also only provide marginal, single-digit gains in BHP at the top end, but teaming it with a decat can unleash 8bhp at the wheels.
The S2000 is also one of the few cars that genuinely responds to an induction kit, despite the factory airbox already being very efficient. A popular modification to release the car's voice is known as the “UK exhaust mod” which involves welding a link pipe to allow some flow to bypass the rear silencers. The benefit is a deeper tone at wide-open throttle without any extra drone at motorway speeds.
Overall, given how high the specific output is from the factory, the gains to be had from the S2000 are impressive for a naturally aspirated engined car.
You’ll need a pound sterling for every single one of the F20C’s 9,000 revolutions if you want even a bottom of the market S2000. Such cars will have covered well over 100,000 miles, perhaps a testament to the reliability of the car.
However, it’s not very often an S2000 comes to market - at the time of writing, there are only sixteen for sale on Autotrader and three on Pistonheads. The top of the market is currently £25,000 for a facelift car with circa 30,000 miles, but we predict it won't be long before the high mileage cars hit that point. Given Honda’s reputation, and prices only trending one way, the S2000 could provide you with some very happy, guilt-free motoring.
OWNERS POINT OF VIEW - Mike Rainbird
A good many people seem surprised there’s an S2000 in my garage considering my past history of cars, with many deeming it nothing more than a hairdresser's car. To answer that question, I would first suggest you go on YouTube and search for ‘Best Motoring Amuse S2000’ where you’ll witness a relatively mildly modified S2000 monster everything on the twisty mountain Touge course in the hands of the Drift King Keiichi Tsuchiya.
The reason the car is so good is that like most race cars (and over two decades before Porsche added it to their road-going GT3) it has double A-arm suspension front & rear, providing perfect geometry control as well as allowing increased negative camber.
This means there is no bump steer throughout the suspension travel, making the car predictable at the limit. When you combine that with one of the greatest engines of all time and match it to a gearbox that receives even greater plaudits, it's no surprise that I hold the car in such high regard.
Sure, by today's standards it's no longer fast, but a consequence of that lack of straight-line performance is that it can be rung out through all the lower gears without fear of going to prison, which is hugely entertaining.
And then on a nice sunny day, the added element of being able to drop the roof and enjoy the additional sights, sounds and smells just adds to the experience and puts the icing on an already very high-calorie cake.
Those that also know me will know mine obviously isn't standard, featuring Ohlins suspension, Recaro Pole Positions, Spoon subframe collars, a J’s Racing strut brace, RS29’s SRF and a square set up with 245/40 tyres all around. But these are the only mods required to tame the standard car and turn it into a Touge challenger.
Engine - 1,997cc naturally aspirated inline four, DOHC-VTEC, 16v, max 9,000rpm
Output - 227bhp @ 8,300rpm, 153lb.ft @ 7,500rpm
Weight - 1,320kg, bhp/tonne – 172, lb. ft/tonne - 116
Transmission – front engine, rwd, 6sp manual, LSD
Performance - 0.60 – 6.2s, 1/4m – 14.5, top speed 150mph
List price - £27,730
Value today - from £8,000-£30,000 (July ‘22)