Front engine, rear-wheel drive, two seats and an open top: it’s a classic recipe for a swift, sure-footed sports car with more than a dash of fun. And that classic layout was what Honda chose for the S2000, the company’s 50th birthday present to itself.
Making it even more fun was the choice of a high-output normally-aspirated engine – no turbocharger here to spoil the smooth delivery of power – and a rigid structure that meant the suspension could do its job properly. Sharp styling and a driver-focussed interior layout sealed the Honda roadster’s enthusiast appeal.
Now, in the S2000’s first major revision since its launch, Honda’s sports car has been treated to a set of revisions which aim to improve its appeal still further.
It looks little different, though seasoned S2000-spotters will notice the new lights front and rear, and a new rear bumper which extends lower to tidy up the appearance from the back of the car.
Detail changes inside free up more elbow room and add some useful storage space, but the ambience is much the same.
There are no surprises under the bonnet either, with the same four-cylinder twin-overhead cam engine developing 240PS thanks to Honda’s clever VTEC system which varies valve timing and lift to optimise performance. Lighter carbon fibre synchromesh cones are now used to reduce inertia and improve the gearchange quality, and the clutch has been fitted with a delay system to smooth out over-eager clutch engagement.
Where the new S2000 differs most noticeably from its predecessors is in its body structure and suspension.
Honda has set out to improve grip and at the same time make the S2000 easier to drive near the limit: the old car certainly had high limits but it was always a bit tricky to handle, particularly in the wet. Additional bracing at the front end of the car and in the rear bulkhead stiffen the structure still further, and there are detail changes to the suspension front and rear.
The springs and dampers are now stiffer than before at the front, and softer at the rear, and the rear anti-roll bar is reduced in diameter by 1.8mm – all measures which will tend to curb the S2000’s natural tendency to oversteer when that 240PS is applied through the rear wheels.
To complement the changes the rear suspension geometry has been revised to lessen ‘toe in’ as the springs are compressed, and the car now rides on larger diameter 17in wheels with wider Bridgestone Potenza RE050 tyres, 215/45R17 at the front and 245/40R17 at the back, which are said to give a better balance between wet and dry performance than the Bridgestone S-02 on the old car.
The steering, too, as been revised for the new car with more rigid mounting to improve feel and a slightly less direct gearing so that the S2000 feels less nervous. Rounding off the chassis changes is a lighter and more advanced ABS braking system which is said to deal more intelligently with situations where grip differs momentarily between one wheel and another.
Though some of the changes sound worrying from an enthusiast driver’s point of view – the slower steering and softer rear suspension particularly – the good news is that the S2000 has lost none of its appeal as a true sports car. First impressions are good, with a comfortable straight-ahead driving position despite the lack of an adjustable steering wheel, which some drivers might find a little high. The new gearchange is slick and precise and the steering nicely weighted, though there’s still a curious lack of feedback at the helm which does little to aid driver confidence. This is still a car you would have to know well and treat with respect if you were to try to drive it at or beyond the limit of adhesion.
Grip isn’t something the S2000 is short of, at the front end at least. The nose tracks faithfully into corners and despite the stiffer front springing the Honda isn’t disturbed by mid-corner bumps. But at the back even those big rear Bridgestones can’t get the better of the prodigious output of the engine, and judicious use of the throttle is required in slippery conditions.
Fortunately the VTEC engine is easy enough to drive gently. Below 4000rpm it’s smooth and reasonably refined, and punts the S2000 forward with decent pace. At 6000rpm, just at the point where you would be changing up to the next gear in most cars, the exhaust note changes completely, taking on the hard edged snarl of a racing engine as the VTEC system swaps to its ‘performance’ settings and the LCD rev-counter rockets towards 9000rpm. Even then the 2.0-litre, four-cylinder motor never sounds strained, just eager for more.
Use that slick six-speed box to keep the revs up and the S2000 is genuinely fast, and that high-revving race car appeal is central to the Honda’s character. If it’s effortless performance you want, look elsewhere: the S2000 demands driver involvement to deliver its best. Which is what makes it such fun.
But don’t get the impression that just because this Honda is a driver’s car through and through that it must be difficult to live with and impractical to use. Far from it. The boot is a decent size and a useful shape, the interior is comfortable and spacious enough for two, and the S2000 GT I tested comes complete with a removable hard top – a sensible accessory for chilly UK winters.
The S2000 GT costs £1000 more than the base S2000’s £26,513. Both get Honda’s famed build quality and reliability thrown in for free, which means the S2000 is appealing to the head, not just the heart.
2004 Honda S2000 GT specifications
Engine: All-alloy, in-line four cylinder wih four valves per cylinder. Twin overhead camshafts, VTEC variable valve timing and lift. Bore x stroke: 87x84mm. Capacity: 1997cc.
Power: 240PS/177kW @ 8300rpm. Torque: 208Nm @ 7500rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed manual transmission. Rear wheel drive with limited slip differential.
Suspension: Double wishbone and anti roll bar front, Double wishbone with to control arm and anti roll bar rear.
Steering: Rack and pinion with electric power assistance. 2.63 turns lock to lock. Turning circle: 10.8m.
Brakes: 300mm ventilated discs front, 282mm solid discs rear. Anti-lock system.
Wheels & tyres: 7x17in front wheels with 215/45R17 tyres. 8.5x17in rear wheels with 245/40R17 tyres.
Dimensions: Length 4135mm, width 1750mm, height 1270mm, wheelbase 2400mm, front track 1470mm, rear track 1510mm, ground clearance 130mm. Kerb weight 1271kg.
Performance: Maximum speed 150mph, acceleration 0-100km/h 6.2sec, fuel consumption (combined) 28.5mpg.