I loved my S2000. I’d wanted one for years and when I finally got it, it was every bit the flawed messiah I’d been hoping for. It was the car I wanted to keep and keep, but fate intervened, I lost my job, I changed career paths and it had to go to pay for something more practical. It’s a good job I’m writing this, not broadcasting it, because you can’t see the Niagara Falls thundering from my eyes to the keyboard.
But during the nine months that I had it, the S2000 presented me with a whole list of quirks that I hadn’t been expecting. From the tyres to the roof, it was a car that you didn’t just own: you lived it.
Most of the time, with most cars, the benefits of super-unleaded are confined to lab results, where science can tell you that yes, high-octane stuff with extra additives does help clean your engine and does burn better.
With the S2000, though, there’s a clear, noticeable difference in how it actually feels. After living on cheap fuel with the previous owner, three tanks of super progressively improved the throttle response, made that glorious VTEC step more pronounced and made it outright smoother as well. All the better to chase 9000rpm with.
I’d read plenty of “I sold my S2000 for something more comfortable” stories, so I was expecting that first motorway slog home after buying the car to be a thoroughly horrible experience. So I was pretty damn relieved to find that, actually, the high-revving Honda was totally civilised.
Sure, it was no Lexus LS, but the short-travel double-wishbone suspension is really well damped, giving a consistency and predictability to the shock absorption that’s easy to adapt to and, frankly, much easier to live with than some of the wimps on the Internet had made me expect.
The first time I lifted off and left the engine braking to do its thing, I immediately thought I had a problem. Coming from a background of testing modern cars in all their relative civility and refinement, the S2000 was so… noisy. Chief among those unexpected sounds was the gearbox whine.
Honestly, I thought it was broken. Third, in particular, sounded like it had had enough of life and was about to jettison itself out of the gearbox altogether – at least it did compared to the silence of a modern gearbox. I had it inspected and there was nothing wrong with it; it’s just meant to sound so mechanical.
You don’t realise how strong modern brakes are until you drive an older car. Until I was fully used to it, whenever I had to stop from higher speeds it was a case of pressing the pedal gently, realising my error, pressing harder, then pressing even harder, then starting to sweat, then really pressing.
Mine also used to fade quite badly on a fast drive. Only a handful of hard stops would start to alter the pedal feel for the worse and introduce a frustrating amount of fade. Although, admittedly, that was still better than the time, a few months into ownership, that I hammered the middle pedal and a corroded brake line burst, leaving me with fluid pouring out and almost no brake pressure…
Let’s be clear: the S2000 is not what you’d call practical. The boot lid flips up to reveal a space that you ask yourself what the hell you’re supposed to do with, but actually, with soft baggage and the time-tested skills you learned from a misspent youth in the company of Tetris, you can get more than you’d think on board.
Height is the main problem. Even medium suitcases are too fat to fit. Still, don’t let that stop you: all it takes is a bit of imagination and an absolute rule that no large or hard cases are allowed. I’m sure your other half will understand…
People often bang on about the early car’s lack of any safety aids whatsoever. True, mine didn’t have traction control, or stability control, or even ABS. I wanted it that way, as it happened, because I can be a bit of a masochist when it comes to choosing a car.
Instead, all I did was spec it with some brand new good tyres. They were a left-field choice, at least in mainstream thinking, but the Firestone Firehawk SZ90s that went onto it were absolutely biblical, both in grip and feedback. The S2000’s steering isn’t particularly detailed but the Firehawks gave a totally sure-footed and solid feel. They were brilliant tyres and I’d use them again in a heartbeat. A-rated for wet grip, the fresh rubber could suddenly stop the car on a penny if you hit the anchors hard, even in the rain.
Mine was a great-looking thing underneath. I got under it a couple of times while it was on four-post lifts, and even the independent mechanics who looked at it said it must never have seen a winter. There was no rust other than the common surface corrosion pretty much every car has below the waistline, and the chassis and body were both rock-solid.
However. Despite that, the adjustment bolts on the front lower suspension arms, which are crucial for wheel alignment, had seized solid. It happens to any S2000 that hasn’t had them removed and cleaned regularly, and you’d be lottery-win lucky these days to find a standard-spec early car with free and easy adjusters.
Having a roof with a plastic window shouldn’t be a deal-breaker, because the rest of the car is so good, but I won’t beat around the bush: plastic rear windows suck. The roof on mine was an aftermarket replacement but had a zip around the clear window.
You could either unzip it and lie the plastic pane down flat before operating the roof, which was a faff, or you could retract the roof about a third of the way, get out, push the rapidly creasing window into the proper curve and then get back in to finish the roof off: also a faff. If you did neither, the plastic window creased badly – and permanently. A glass window is an advantage.
It’s not a small car, and it does have a long bonnet, but the S2000 shrinks around you as though it’s a heat-sensitive wrap. My 1999 car was engineered with all the racecar pointiness and front end bite that the engineers intended, which, with instant throttle response helping out at the back and an even weight distribution, gives the car a precision and fine balance that rewards good driving – and punishes the bad.
Go into a corner too fast, off the throttle, and it’ll lean towards understeer, which feels especially wrong in this car. Get on the gas too hard, too soon on VTEC mid-corner when grip isn’t A1 and you risk making a detour to the fresh trouser department. The feeling of being so close to the edges of the car makes the worry even stronger. Balance the car by learning it; finding the precise mid-point between under- and oversteer and then passing 6000rpm as you begin to wind off the steering and lean more on the rear tyres. Do that and the car comes alive. It’s a difficult chicken to roast, but the taste is so damn good.