The tail end of the 1990s was a wonderful time for Honda, at least in the performance department. On the track, Honda engines were powering open wheel racers in both Indy and Formula One. On the road, the new twin-cam Civic Si and Prelude SH were marvelous little sport compacts, the mid-engine NSX was still going strong and limited quantities of the pocket rocket Integra Type-R were hitting U.S. shores. As if those weren’t enough, Honda then dropped the S2000 onto the world. First shown in 1995 as the Sports Study Model Concept, in 1999 a production version was introduced to celebrate the company’s 50 years in business. This new roadster was clearly formed in the spirit of Honda’s first sports cars, the S500/600/800 of the 1960s, but the S2000 blended the classic roadster concept with twenty-first century technology.
The first series Honda S2000, known as the AP1, featured a 1997cc four with dual overhead cams and Honda’s pioneering variable valve timing system, VTEC. With an 11:1 compression ratio, the Honda S2000 made 240hp and 153 lb-ft of torque. Relative to displacement, it was the most powerful normally aspirated automobile engine available at the time. The only transmission was a 6-speed manual and a Torsen limited-slip differential was standard. Set entirely behind the front axle, the lightweight engine allowed the S2000 to have 49:51 weight distribution.
The Honda S2000 really is a “driver’s car” in every sense of the word. Its incredible balance, sharp handing and soft top aside, the engine encourages spirited driving. It has power, but it doesn’t come until way up in the rev range. The car makes you work for it, but on full song and up towards the insane 9,000 rpm red line, it makes it all worth it. This is one of the best sounding four cylinder engines ever made, and the car really is at its best after VTEC kicks in. According to an early Motor Trend test, “Most people will never drive in the best rpm range (7000 to 8500), shifting too early. Our advice is to treat the S2000 like you hate it and you’ll get the most out of it. We did and loved every minute of it.”
0-60 mph came in slightly under six seconds and the quarter-mile in 14.2, but where the 2,750-lb roadster really shines is in the corners, making it a common sight at track days and autocrosses. And while the S2000 has spirited driving in mind, it is not without creature comforts. Power windows and power steering came standard, as did a power folding top that could raise or lower in under 10 seconds. The instrument panel was digital, and ignition came at the push of a button rather than the turn of a key.
To the casual observer, it looked like Honda had moved into the territory of the hugely popular and essentially unrivaled Mazda Miata in the world of cheap sports cars. That wasn’t really the case, though, as the S2000 was a step above the Miata in just about every measurable way, including price. The real target audience for this car was the people who had been buying more expensive roadsters like the BMW Z3 and Porsche Boxster. The S2000 could do everything that the German cars could do and sometimes did it better, but it cost less, looked better and offered bulletproof Honda reliability.
The Honda S2000 changed very little from its introduction in 1999 until a facelift in 2003. 2001 U.S. market cars added Spa Yellow to the list of available colors and 2002 added Suzuka Blue. There were also a few tweaks to the suspension in 2002 as well as a glass rear window to replace the old plastic one. S2000s are already fairly coveted sports cars in just about any condition. Since the model was discontinued in 2009, there hasn’t been anything quite like it. Unfortunately, many have been modified and made regular trips to the track or have just been driven hard in general. The good news, though, is that these cars were very well built and they seem to take abuse better than most. High miles shouldn’t necessarily be discouraging, either, since Honda engines seem to last forever even if you don’t take care of them.