Want a relatively inexpensive but stupidly fun roadster that isn’t an MX-5? A Honda S2000 should be your first port of call. But what do you need to know before taking the plunge? We sat down with two-time S2K owner and CT staffer Gabor Szedlak to find out.
The S2000 was given numerous updates throughout its life. 2002 saw the plastic rear screen ditched for a glass unit for instance, but it’s the 2004 facelift changes that are worth giving the most attention. Springs and anti-roll bars were softened, and in 2006 traction control became optional, before being fitted as standard in 2008.
If you’re in North America, it’s worth noting that the post-facelift cars are known as ‘AP2’ (European AP1 facelift cars are also referred to as AP2 by some), and have a larger 2.2-litre F22C engine fitted in place of the older 2.0-litre F20C. The redline dropped from 8800 to 8200rpm, and although power was unchanged, torque received a modest six per cent boost.
You might be wondering why Honda softened the suspension rather than stiffened it. It’s because earlier cars were known to be snappy on the limit - very swift reactions are required if the rear does go. It’s something our resident S2K lover reckons you get used to over time, but if you want something a little less demanding, we wouldn’t judge you for getting a later car with the softer suspension and traction control.
S2000s can get through oil particularly quickly - as much as a litre for every 1000 miles - so should you buy one, keep a close eye on that level. It’s also worth checking if the current owner of any car you’re looking at has kept on top of it; if he or she seems like an inattentive moron, walk away. If the car has been run with the oil level too low, you’ll hear a knocking sound which indicates broken bearing shells.
As well as regular top-ups, frequent oil changes are advisable. Preferably every six months or 6000 miles, whichever comes first. You might hear a tapping on the top end if the four-pot is overdue a change; this noise is usually caused by a sticking hydraulic pin.
With 237bhp but just 152lb ft of twist available from the 2.0-litre versions, the S2000 probably added more fuel to the ‘still more torque than a Honda’ fire than any other car from the company. However, Gabor reckons it’s easier to live with than you might expect, and it’s all thanks to the sweet gearbox: “You don’t feel the lack of torque so much because of the gearing, and changing down isn’t an issue because it has the best gear shift I’ve ever tried.”
The dreaded tin worm isn’t a major issue with S2000s, but Honda didn’t add a whole lot in the way of rust protection underneath, so it’s a good idea to give any potential used buy a good check down there. Rear wheel arches are also a known problem area, so be particularly vigilant here.
The timing chain tensioner or ‘TCT’ will produce a distinct rattle on startup when it’s on its way out. If left for too long, a faulty TCT can cause the timing to slip out, with potentially disastrous consequences for your top end. They cost around £100/$160 and are reasonably easy to fit yourself; we recommend checking out S2Ki’s thorough guide before attempting the job. If you’re going to change the TCT or pay someone else to, it’s worth considering buying one of the modified replacement units recommended by the S2Ki guide, as these are stronger than the Honda-manufactured parts and shouldn’t ever need replacing.
If you want the ultimate S2K, arguably it has to be the CR or ‘Club Racer’. It was only available in North America, and just 699 were built. As a consequence it’ll cost you a lot more than a regular S2000, but they’re well worth a look.
The CR is the brainchild of former Honda Chief Engineer Shigeru Uehara. He has a bloody good CV, being the man behind the original S2000, NSX and Integra Type-R, and this motor was essentially his retirement project. It has no more power than a standard S2000, but it lost weight due to the removal of the electric-folding roof, replaced with a set of gorgeous buttresses and a removable hardtop. The spare wheel was taken away, while air conditioning and the stereo were merely options.
It also received aero upgrades - including a new front splitter and massive rear wing, reducing lift by 70 per cent - plus stiffer suspension and a quicker steering ratio.
If you’re interested in an S2000, don’t put off your purchase for particularly long. In the UK at least, values are starting to rise, so now is almost certainly the time to buy. Values of the earliest examples seemed to bottom out around the £5000 mark not so long ago, and now it’s getting to the point where you need at least £7000 for the cheapest tidy S2K. Buy one, keep it standard and out of a ditch, and you’ll have something you can sell for more than you paid, should you ever want to part ways.
If you’re still not sure if the S2000 is the roadster for you, there are alternatives to look at, but none will offer anything like the same driving experience. Think of a petrolhead-friendly roadster and an MX-5 naturally comes to mind, but Gabor - a former Miata owner himself - is quick to dismiss any perceived parallels: “I don’t like people saying it’s a ’more powerful MX-5.’ It’s not even comparable.”
So, what of the first-generations of the Porsche Boxster and BMW Z4? Both are roadsters and if you go for the Boxster S or the 3.0-litre Z4 you’ll get a similar power output, but these six-pots are much lower revving and torquier. They’ll probably be easier to live with (the Boxster’s potentially pricey IMS and RMS issues aside), but you’ll miss out on the hard-charging nature of the Honda, and the sweeter gearshift.
Because there’s so little else like it out there, and because it’s rather sharp (in the way the drivetrain and suspension are setup, rather than the electrically assisted power steering, which isn’t the most feelsome) you might find that any other sports cars don’t quite cut it any more. “After the rawness of the S2000, even the sharpest road cars feel rubberised,” Gabor expains, citing the example of a drive in a GT86, which he reckons felt a hell of a lot softer in comparison. You have been warned…