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  • Writer's pictureKen

Once Upon a Time: The Honda S2000

When Cars Were Raw, Exciting, and Beautiful.

It may sound a bit cliché to call it Soichiro's dream come true.

Indeed, there were many great Honda twincam sports that rolled off the production line into the fortunate ownership of Honda fans and car enthusiasts alike, over the company's long-standing heritage. The NSX, Beat, Type R versions of Civics and Integras, not to forget their legendary motorcycles true to their roots - they all have their place in the Honda hall of fame. But it never occurs to us an understatement or surprise when we hear spoken highly of, perhaps, one of the most iconic sports cars ever made: The Honda S2000.

It combines a high-revving, naturally aspirated engine, a slick-shifting manual gearbox, a balanced rear-wheel-drive chassis, and a timeless roadster design. It has all the hallmarks of automotive greatness, backed by the innovations, dreams, and passion of those who designed, engineered, and built it, starting with the vision of the company's founding father, Soichiro Honda. The S2000 beams with the pureness of enthusiasm and excitement seen in many of the legendary sports cars of the '80s and '90s - the golden era of sleek, modern high-performance sports cars and JDM car culture.

But how did Honda, as with many of the car manufacturers over 20-30 years ago, manage to bring into production such legendary cars? What were the challenges and inspirations behind its production and development? And perhaps the most burning question: when will the car industry put a stop to its obsession of producing boring, cookie-cutter crossovers, and start looking back to their heritage of creating excitement - what they stand for, what cars stand for, aside from mindlessly moving from point A to B as mundanely as possible? It's time for the industry to cut its addiction to banal.

That's why we're talking about the S2000 today - a story that began at a certain unveiling event at the Tokyo International Motor Show in 1995, when the Honda Sport Study Model (SSM) was first presented to the public audience. It was a front-mid engine, rear-wheel-drive roadster powered by a 2.0-liter inline five-cylinder engine, featuring a rigid ‘high X-bone frame’ that improved the vehicle’s rigidity and collision safety, and an aluminum body that reduced weight. The SSM was designed by Honda’s own staff, and was inspired by the first Honda Formula 1 racing car, the RA272 from 1963, and the Caterham Seven.

The SSM was well received by the public and the media, and hinted at the possibility of a production version. Honda announced in 1999 that it would launch the S2000 to celebrate its 50th anniversary. It followed the naming convention of the S500, S600, and S800 roadsters of the 1960s, and indicated the engine displacement of 2000 cubic centimetres (CCs).

The production version of the S2000 was very similar to the concept car, but with some changes and improvements. The engine was changed from an inline five-cylinder to an inline four-cylinder, but it retained the same displacement and output of 240 horsepower. The engine was also mounted longitudinally behind the front axle, creating a front-mid engine layout that improved weight distribution and handling. The engine was also notable for its exceptional specific power output of about 124 hp per litre, or about two horsepower per cubic inch, the highest of any mass production, naturally-aspirated engined car at the time.

The engine was mated to a six-speed manual transmission that delivered smooth and precise shifts. The transmission also featured a Torsen limited-slip differential that enhanced traction and stability. The chassis was based on the ‘high X-bone frame’ of the concept car, but with some modifications to improve rigidity and aerodynamics. The suspension was composed of double wishbones at all four corners, with coil springs and gas-filled shock absorbers. The brakes were four-wheel disc brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD). The steering was rack-and-pinion with electric power assist.

The exterior design was sleek and sporty, with a long hood, a short trunk, and a low-slung profile. The interior design was simple and functional, with a driver-oriented cockpit that featured easy-to-read gauges, a digital speedometer, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, bucket seats with leather upholstery, aluminum pedals, and a centre console with storage space and cup holders.

The S2000 was launched in Japan in April 1999, followed by North America in October 1999. It received rave reviews from critics and enthusiasts alike, who praised its performance, handling, styling, quality, and fun factor. It also won several awards and accolades, such as Car and Driver’s 10Best list for four consecutive years (2000-2003), Automobile Magazine’s Automobile of the Year for 2000, and Top Gear’s Car of the Year for 1999.

The S2000 underwent several revisions throughout its production life span, which lasted until 2009. The first major revision occurred in 2004, when Honda introduced the face-lifted version of the S2000, known as the AP2 in North America and Japan. The AP2 featured some changes to the engine, gearbox, suspension, interior, and exterior.

Both the early AP1 and late AP2 models appeal to different types of drivers, depending on what characteristics best match their driving preference. Both models have their pros and cons, and there is no definitive answer to which one is better. However, here are some of the main differences and advantages of each model:

  • The AP1 has a higher redline of 9000 rpm, which makes it more thrilling and exhilarating to drive. The AP2 has a lower redline of 8200 rpm, which makes it more refined and smooth to drive.

  • The AP1 has a smaller engine of 2.0 litres, which produces 240 hp and 153 lb-ft of torque. The AP2 has a larger engine of 2.2 litres, which produces 237 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque. The AP1 has more power per litre, but the AP2 has more torque at lower rpm.

  • The AP1 has a stiffer suspension, which makes it more responsive and agile in corners. The AP2 has a softer suspension, which makes it more comfortable and stable on the road.

  • The AP1 has a simpler design, with a black section in the middle of the front bumper and no side ridges. The AP2 has a more aggressive design, with side ridges on the front bumper and a revised rear bumper.

  • The AP1 has a glass rear window on the soft top, which improves visibility and durability. The AP2 has a plastic rear window on the soft top, which reduces weight and cost.

The choice between the AP1 and the AP2 ultimately comes down to personal preference and driving style. Some drivers may prefer the rawness and excitement of the AP1, while others may prefer the refinement and ease of the AP2. Either way, both models are excellent examples of Honda’s engineering prowess and passion for sports cars.

Our Feature AP1 in Berlina Black

The comparison brings us back to our feature vehicle, a low-mileage early model that may perhaps lend a clue to our readers our relative preference of the AP1 models. The high-revving engine, the stiff suspension, and the unforgiving mechanical rawness that may have caused many a casual commuter to spin out at the slight hint of damp tarmac is precisely the excitement that we feel lights the fire of automotive enthusiasm. In addition to being the somewhat less docile generation, our example has the rare colour combination of being finished in Berlina Black with red leather interior, which adds to its sporty appeal and value. It is a deep and glossy black that we think contrasts well with the silver wheels and the red interior, while nicely complementing the sleek lines and curves of the S2000’s body.

A low-mileage example like this is a rare find, as most S2000s have been driven extensively or modified by their owners. We have Kyle to thank for bringing one of his prized cars out of his immense collection for this feature, and guest photographer Ilya for capturing these incredible moments with the car.

A Passion Project That Became A Legend

Since its introduction in 1999, the S2000 has become a legitimate modern classic car, having seen a significant appreciation in price for valued examples in good condition. In the JDM community and the car community as a whole, it is admired as much as ever for its pure driving experience, its timeless design, its reliable engineering, and its fun factor. The S2000 is not only a great car to own and drive, but also a great investment for the future. It is rare to find a car that combines performance, style, quality, and value in such a perfect package.

The Honda S2000 is truly a passion project that became a legend, and one that deserves to be celebrated and enjoyed by generations to come.


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