Sometimes in life, there are certain cars that intrigue. Cars that - subjectively - aren’t really your ‘thing’ or not quite in your usual remit of enthusiasm, yet still occupy real estate in your mind, with time spent wondering what they’re like to drive, how they behave on certain roads, and whether they’re as good as their enthusiast base state them to be.

One such vehicle for this author is the Honda S2000. Etched into my curiosity by the likes of Fast & Furious, Gran Turismo and the Forza Motorsport series of games, this two-seater roadster has always had somewhat of a niche appeal about it, thanks largely in part to its high-revving F20C VTEC engine, with the vast majority of the power, torque and general ‘get-up-and-go’ only coming out to play in the upper echelons of the rev range.

It’s also always escaped my grasp. That is, until a cheeky Tweet sent to Honda UK PR put that right. But, first, a little background…
Arguably, the 1990s and early 2000s were vintage decades for the Japanese automotive industry. The Nissan Skyline reigned supreme, Mazda had the RX7, Toyota were fighting it out with the A80 Supra, and the so-called JDM ‘gentleman's agreement’ designed to reduce road injuries in Japan ended up producing some of the finest sports cars the world has ever seen.

Whilst Honda was certainly taking their slice of the pie with the NSX - still, to this day, one of the most iconic and revered Japanese performance vehicles of all time, especially in NSX-R format - they also wanted to dip their toe in the roadster market, at the time being dominated by the MX-5 from the home market, and with competition from the Germans in the form of the all-new Porsche 986 Boxster.

Well, rather than simply dipping their toe into the water, they ended up pulling off the equivalent of a full-commitment triple somersault into the pool, as the S2000 was, and still is, arguably one of the best sports cars of the millennium era, and a true triple-platinum hit for Honda.

Despite the fact that the first AP1 models broke cover over 20 years ago in 1999, the S2000 still looks remarkably fresh and appealing to this day. Take the age-related registration off the vehicle - as per the press car I drove from Honda’s heritage collection, which had one of the best cherished registrations I’ve ever seen - and I’d wager that the average passer-by would gauge the S2000 to be ten years or-so newer than it really is.
The fact that Honda chose to play it somewhat safe with the design of the S2K - with its set-back cabin, elongated bonnet and none-too-outlandish aero has likely played a large part in its continued aesthetic appeal, whereas other cars of the era that were more ‘mould breaking’ in their styling - the Porsche 986 Boxster, for example - look decidedly more aged and almost old-fashioned by comparison. They say the best style is often understated, and Honda certainly played their cards right here, playing the long game rather than going for short-term shock and awe tactics.

Under the GT-style long-nosed bonnet sits the F20C inline-four VTEC engine. Whilst the styling is certainly part of the S2K’s appeal, the real raison d’être for this two-seat 90s roadster is its beating heart. Or, perhaps, that should be its screaming heart. With only two litres of displacement under its belt and a peak power output figure of 237bhp coming in at a scarcely-believable 8,300rpm (along with a peak torque figure of 153 lb-ft that only shows itself at 7,500rpm) this is hardly laid-back driving territory on paper, and it would appear that the S2000 would lend itself to fantastic track days, and not much else.

Evidently, however, there are plenty of enthusiastic individuals, clubs and aftermarket support networks that would argue otherwise, with people using these 90s icons as daily drivers, or at the very least weekend B-road warriors. So, does the S2000 really live up to its ‘holy grail of roadsters’ reputation, or is it another case of millennial nostalgia putting a car on a plinth it doesn’t deserve?
To find out, I booked a day away from my usual commitments, and Honda UK PR were kind enough to lend me their S2000 - a last-of-the-line GT Edition 100, no less - and I set myself a course taking in some of the best driving roads that the South Downs National Park has to offer, along with some more ‘normal’ sections along the M3, dual carriageways and through towns, to get as much of a feel for the S2K’s character as I could within a few hours, in as many different situations as possible.

In todays world of ‘assisted’ driving, dual-clutch transmissions, plug-in hybrids and jack-of-all-trade diesel family wagons, the thought of the S2000 alone is the equivalent of an automotive palette cleansing. Analogue (other than its gauges, though we’ll get to those in a moment) stripped-back, driver-focused and with three pedals, I confess I was thoroughly looking forward to my time behind the wheel of Honda’s iconic roadster, if not a little apprehensive about the unusual driving style required to get the best from the VTEC engine.
With Honda’s base in the centre of Bracknell’s business district, things weren’t exactly off to a flying start. Sat in low-speed traffic virtually from the word go, the S2K made what would be a simple commuter journey feel like a chore, with its weighty steering, lack of low-down grunt and unusual power curve - 15mph was too fast for 1st, but felt like it had not enough grunt for second - rather frustrating, if you ask me.

Heading out on to the M3, I finally had a chance to give the S2K a ‘squirt’ of acceleration, and for a brief moment, there was a glimpse of the addictive VTEC kick that gives the car its soul, though this was quickly replaced by the monotony of 30 miles of 70mph average ‘transit’ miles before I made it to the fun roads of my route.

Whilst perfectly happy sat at ~70mph in sixth, the cabin itself felt far less refined and with higher levels of vibration than I was perhaps expecting, and I feel like a few hours of long-distance driving in the S2000 would leave you lusting after the nearest armchair or budget hotel chain bed for a spot of comfort and reprieve. Heck, even after just 25 minutes when I stopped for a convenience break and some breakfast, the vibration had left a distinctly uncomfortable sensation in my lower half; A refined GT car this is not!

Speaking of the car’s Grand Touring abilities, even if you could put up with the somewhat harsh level of vibration, noticeable NVH and unusual power band on the motorways, you’d have to travel alone to be able to pack anything more than a small carry-on suitcase or rucksack, as - at a glance - that would be all you seem to be able to fit in the boot, with any further luxuries being confined to the passenger seat and footwell.

Settling back into the cabin for the final few motorway miles, I have to say that at this point, I was feeling a little dejected by the S2000. Sure, it looks fantastic, turns plenty of heads and has a push-button start (always a favourite) but the actual driving experience itself had failed to deliver thus far.
Thankfully, it wasn’t long before I made it off the M3 and began winding my way down the A31 around Alresford, where the S2000 started to make a little more sense. A quick stop over to drop the top (wonderfully easy, by the way - thanks Honda!) and a flowing B-road in the sun felt far more like home territory for the car, and for the first time I found myself genuinely enjoying being behind the wheel.

As the roads went from dual carriageways, to smaller B-roads and then on to country lanes, the S2K went from strength-to-strength in my view, and things started to make far more sense as to why these cars are so revered by enthusiasts.

Outside Alresford, there was a small road that led up to my first photo stop in Medstead village, and it was at this point that my opinion on the S2000 changed. It really was one of those fabled ‘lightbulb’ moments, when all the right conditions appear to fall into place, and the appeal of the car came to light. With fast, sweeping corners, excellent visibility for the most part and a few tight, second-gear corners, the chassis, rev-happy engine and transmission won me over completely.
In particular, the gearbox - a six-speed manual item - is worthy of special mention. Typically Japanese in its precision, it is perhaps the single best manual transmission I’ve ever had the pleasure of ‘rowing’ out on the road. Rifle-bolt precise and with a throw shorter than a drunk pirate’s temper, it is enjoyable to use around town, but when you’re pressing on it becomes a near-religious experience.

Speaking of religious experiences, I think it’s safe to say I’m a convert to the church of VTEC. 7,000rpm onwards is the driving equivalent of an epiphany, and snicking the simply astounding gearbox up-and-down the range to keep the engine ‘on the boil’ is, for want of a better word, a revelation. Forget watching the gauges, forget the vibrations, rattles and noises, nothing else matters. It’s just you, the car and the road ahead.
On national limit roads with good visibility and plenty of corners, you know you’re barely going to be troubling the posted limit, instead the fun comes in keeping the engine in its power band, throwing the car into corners and making the most of the platform. The heavy steering that is such a burden around town suddenly makes a lot of sense, allowing considered inputs and giving good feedback through the wheel, whilst the cut slicks on this particular S2K gave scarcely believable levels of roadholding once they were warmed up.

Eyes up, anticipate the next corner, load up the steering gently, drop a gear, and enjoy. Wash, rinse, repeat, and suddenly you’ll appreciate just why these millennium-era roadsters still command strong prices to this day, as there is very little, if anything, that gives the same thrills as I experienced behind the wheel of this S2000.
Once I’d come down from my automotive high, I stopped to gather my thoughts, take a few photographs and evaluate the car thus far. Whilst the aforementioned roads had entirely transformed my initial view on the S2000, it’s still somewhat of a flawed diamond.

The cabin, for example, is somewhat cramped - particularly with the roof up, which seems to do little for noise levels other than remove the wind noise - and there is virtually no sign of any convenient storage cubbies or trays, further removing the S2K’s long-distance touring abilities.

Equally, in day-to-day scenarios, the S2000 does feel like somewhat of a chore to drive, constantly working up-and-down the gearbox to give enough torque around town, whilst the heavy steering and poor visibility with the roof up make 'normal' situations arduous at times.
That said, the digital gauges ahead of the driver are surely among the most iconic instrument panels ever fitted to a production vehicle, and they - in combination with the push-button start, metal-topped gearstick and red seats/carpets - make me smile as soon as I settle in to the driver’s seat for another stint across the South Downs.

It’s not without its flaws, but the S2000 certainly makes you smile in spite of them, though I find myself struggling to see how it could be used as a daily / weekend GT car without severe compromises in the packing department, and perhaps a few paracetamol kept within the vehicle at all times.
Another 30 or so miles of cross-country, twisting tarmac ribbons lay ahead, and I found myself becoming more and more enthralled by the car as the odometer reading increased, and the fuel gauge started to dip. In these days of near £2/litre for super unleaded, the driving experience really does have to be worth every penny, and under the right conditions, the S2000 delivers.

Once again, on the right road, you find yourself shutting out the rest of the world, and focusing entirely on the task at hand, the gearbox, the addictive VTEC chase, and the impressively raucous exhaust note. This really is automotive therapy at its finest, and the driving equivalent of ‘chasing the dragon’ - going after the elusive ‘high’ of the upper echelons of the tachometer, squeezing every last drop of performance out of this astounding engineering masterpiece.

Interestingly, the S2000 has somewhat of a reputation for fighting back, though this was somewhat addressed in later AP2 models (post-2004 cars) and I have to say that never once did I feel like the car was getting away from me, even when really pushing on with some gusto. I can, however, see how a distracted corner, unexpected road conditions or sudden obstruction in the road could cause some bother. When pressing on, this is a car that demands your full concentration, and woe betide those that become complacent when chasing the 8,800rpm redline.
Towards the end of my time in the national park, I found myself stopping, stepping out and simply admiring the S2000. Its near-bulletproof engine, addictive personality and timeless styling, this really is a high-water mark of the Japanese sports car industry, and I find myself entirely understanding the appeal of this legendary roadster.

This really is a car that you love in spite of its flaws, rather than one you avoid buying because of them. It’s impractical, uncomfortable on long journeys, loud, thirsty, hard work on average roads, outdated and - frankly - underwhelming in everyday situations, but none of this matters. None of the usual criteria by which you’d judge or, indeed, purchase, a car apply here.
The S2000 is a car that you buy with your heart, not your head. You buy it for the engineering, its uncompromising pursuit of performance, for its timeless styling, for those wonderful moments when man and machine become one.

You buy an S2000 for those brief glimpses of engineering genius, when the road opens up, you can work your way down the gearbox, open up the taps and go after that VTEC zone, the times when you can shut out the rest of your life’s worries, thoughts and reasoning, and experience the sheer driving nirvana that is on offer here.
Your friends may not understand it, the world may think you’ve gone mad, and there will be times you’ll be sat in traffic, cursing your choice to drive a highly-strung, manual Japanese roadster with seemingly no bottom-end torque, but all of these negatives, uncomfortable situations and expensive fuel fill-ups will pale in comparison to the good times, the addictive rush of the F20C engine, the satisfaction of perfectly rev-matching your downshifts, the aesthetics, the digital gauges and the way the S2000 gets under your skin.

Buy one before the world goes mad, dinosaur juice becomes prohibitive for all but those with six-figure bank accounts, and the combustion engine gets outlawed. Don’t think, just do it - you’ll thank me later.
With thanks to Honda UK PR for the loan of the vehicle, their accommodating nature, and their lovely heritage fleet technicians that took the time out of their day to show me around and share their passion for Honda’s legendary heritage.
Back to Top