A Photo for Sunday: Honda S2000

Look at that. It has simple, distinct forms and great proportions.

2001 Honda S2000
2000 Honda S2000 in Silkeborg, Denmark.

Honda revealed to the world the S2000 as a present to itself, celebrating the firm’s 50th birthday. It belongs in a class of cars that motoring journalists ask for, receive with mixed feelings and then fade away with little fanfare. On paper, the car is one for serious drivers: it had a technically interesting engine (four cylinders, VTEC, 2.0 litres), rear-wheel drive, a rifle bolt gearchange, fine balance, excellent steering and outstanding looks.

There’s no fat on the car visually or actually. One would have thought that on looks alone it could have done for Honda what the MX-5 did and still does for Mazda. Yet it didn’t do much at all apart from thrill that small fan-base composed of Honda loyalists who wanted a roadster.

Rejected. 2000 Honda S2000
Rejected. 2000 Honda S2000

If we take a look at the magazine reviews we find the usual story arc of excited previews followed by lukewarm reviews. In March 1999 the S2000 made the front cover of Car Magazine with the breathless text “0-60 mph in 5.5 seconds, just £25,000 – we drive it, you’ll want to”. No exclamation mark, thankfully. Below you can read the mini-test drive that accompanied the article, by Paul Horrell.

1999 Honda S2000 review: Car Magazine
1999 Honda S2000 review: Car Magazine

In February 2000, the same magazine included the S2000 in the handling test and decided the car showed too much propensity for oversteer. They still liked the cockpit: “A fine place to sit while having [fun]. But the learning curve for an S2000 novice …is a steep one…” By September, after eleven months, the Audi TT beat the Honda on grounds that it offered a better all-round package.

They called the Honda’s cabin cramped (compared to the TT), “high on function and short on fun” and didn’t like the uncomfortable seats and bad radio. Only the engine stood out for high praise. The TT they deemed “far more stylish, safer in the wet, always as fast and usually faster.”

Take a look at the photo. That is a deadly serious dashboard. It’s meant for drivers to drive. Everything except the IP is featureless so as to focus attention on the speedo and other instruments. No, it’s not “fun”. And it is the better for that.

2003 Honda S2000: no frills, deadly serious: source
2003 Honda S2000: no frills, deadly serious: source

It’s instructive to compare the S2000 and the Audi TT’s fates. The latter car is in its third generation and still as front-driven and Golf-derived as ever. While we can praise Honda for giving the S2000 a unique platform, we must ask critical questions of Audi for not doing more for what has become a steady seller. Why does the TT not get a platform of its own?

The boring answer is that the TT is a nice way for Audi to find cash-richer buyers who will pay extra for a car that is in many ways a lower VW New Beetle. Honda built a whole roadster to demonstrate its technical skills and impressed a few. Audi fetishise cabin plastics and have to fight off customers. Not without their engineering strengths, VAG is as much a marketing outfit as GM or Ford. They are gifted at selling the same sort of thing to different people at different price points.

2000 Honda S2000
2000 Honda S2000

I mentioned that the S2000 belonged in a class of much-anticipated but unsellable cars. Opel’s GT (2007-2009) also faded away quickly despite being a better-looking and better-made Elise. In the US the Thunderbird brought forth much enthusiasm only to wither after a four-year run. Jaguar’s X-Type lasted longer but will be remembered for another decade as a loser. Audi’s A2 suffered a similar fate though unlike the X-Type it is considered visually and technically worthy. Renault’s Avantime: much the same story.

It made great copy initially and went on to not feature in comparison tests or in the sales figures. I might be able to add the VW Scirocco too. I think it looks good, doesn’t cost a lot but it still fails to lure customers. For years the Scirocco existed in people’s minds as the VW that VW ought to relaunch. So they did and nobody really cared. The Mazda RX-8: a great car for road testers and alas a mild form of showroom poison. Who wouldn’t like a fascinating, high revving rotary engine and striking four-door coupe looks? Nearly everybody is the answer.

These are all cars that people like the idea of but which fail to close the deal. You can see why Ford has resisted the temptation to do another Capri. The owners of old Capris don’t want a sterile, characterless exhumation when they have their thrillingly ropey old rear-drive cruisers. And non-Capri owners under 40 years of age don’t care and would just go and buy a Qashqai whether they needed one or not. Or a TT if they desired a two-door coupe with not much luggage space.

We might ask how Honda views the S2000 now. Disappointment? It disappointed in not selling too well. It also might remind people of when Honda sold a broader range of cars. The S2000 existed alongside the Shuttle, Prelude, Accord (saloon and coupe), Legend and NSX. The little HRV had crisp, intelligent styling, a small but sober vehicle to admire whether you drove one or not.

The S2000: a driver’s car that not very many people wanted to drive…

[Statistibox: 2000 Honda S2000 – Engine 1997, 16V VTEC four, 240 bhp, 151 lb ft torque, 1250 kg. 150 mph, 5.5 seconds 0-60, £27,999 as tested.]

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

17 thoughts on “A Photo for Sunday: Honda S2000”

  1. Just enter Honda S2000 on YouTube and see what a huge cult following it has in North America and Japan. As early TT’s head for the scrapheap, S2000’s continue to rise in value.

    1. Agreed, firm values indicate the S2000 is heading towards modern classic status, especially as clean unmodified examples are becoming rarer.

  2. That the S2000 didn’t do for Honda what the mx-5 did for Mazda might be down to the fact that the Mazda was a much cheaper car to buy and run. It gave you the good looks and great drive with relatively little power. The Honda sure was lean in looks and weight but the little mx-5 appeals to a much wider audience. I’ve seen people from 18-80 in a mazda. The same couldn’t be said for the Honda.

    1. Agreed. The S2000 was expensive to buy (not far off Boxster money and far more expensive than an MX5) and was group 20 for insurance – the very highest group. It was very hard to even get insurance if you lived in a city and didn’t have a garage.

      The S2000 was an indulgence, as already mentioned. A showcase of what Honda could do. They could have had an MX5 competitor if they scaled back the technology, maybe used the simpler 1.8 engine from the Civic VTi of the time, but perhaps they felt the market wasn’t big enough to justify going down that route.

    2. Spot on. I ran an insurance quote on an S2000 back in the days when I could afford such things and the annual premium was just shy of a quarter of the value of the car.

  3. I always assumed the ‘birthday present to ourselves’ tag implied that Honda never expected them to sell and sell. It was an indulgence, which is an odd thing for a motor manufacturer to do, but then Honda have always been an odd company.

  4. The point has been made about the Honda’s pricing.

    Honda had similar sales issues with the even better received NSX, quite probably for the same reasons. It reminds me that there are only so many people really genuinely interested and enthusiastic about cars. You’d have to be a bit auto-geeky to go for a Honda over a Porsche (Boxster or 911), let alone a Ferrari, even if the Honda was the better car(maybe not in the case of the S2000 vs. Boxster). Hence, the addressable market was probably smaller than Honda first appreciated.

    I agree with Richard, though, the styling of the exterior and the dash design are exemplary – the former so sheer and elegant, the latter so efficient and ergonomic – making the S2000 a highly desirable proposition. Would that Honda could produce something as desirable today.

    I guess I’ve just confirmed myself as being an Auto-geek.

    1. That crop of answers plus the others too provide a good resume of the reasons the S2000 didn’t make a bigger splash. I didn’t consider the price in my haste. However, I’d like to say the high price never stopped Porsche shifting their wares. Tricky handling never stopped Porsche either. The S2000 does show that a good product is no guarantee of recognition. The deadly serious dadhboard, precisely meted-out power/engine and lean-as-sushi styling are all strong assaults on latter-day Porsche value. That people mess with S2000s’ by after-market addenda is also a shocker. The S2000 – can we say it was too pure? And perhaps Honda’s gift to its customers would have been a roadster cheaper than the S2000?

  5. One wonders just how well suited an engine with peaky power delivery was to a rear driver? If I dropped two cogs and gave it some welly in my 2008 Civic Type R, the front wheels would scramble like Dougie Lampkin doing trials. I very much doubt I would have the wits to catch the rear end of an S2000 if it lit up the rears in such a manner.

  6. That dash is adorable. I was never aware of this before. I already feel sorry for those people who need chrome surrounds and stitched leather to look at in order to have fun in a car.

  7. I do remember early versions being criticised for their twitchy handling. I believe this was improved later, but perhaps the car’s reputation as a bit of a handful was already entrenched. And interesting about the insurance – Audi’s TT is much less interesting, but you can bet they have well-sorted finance options in place.

    I firmly believe the VW Scircocco will become a (modest) modern classic. Especially as it’s unlikely to be replaced.

    As for other slow-selling models mentioned in the article – the Mazda RX8 is great, but too many people are scared off by the engine (which requires dedicated servicing… not something most people care about).

    Sadly, the X type Jaguar bombed and so became an even more meek version of itself before it finished production. The petrol V6 with 4WD drivetrain is interesting but it is all but impossible to find one of those.

    1. The RX8 is a terrific car hobbled by an engine that is more engineering curio than viable performance powertrain. Used values are very soft because at some point the Wankel will suffer compression failure, leading to a costly rebuild. Also, in part due to the engine’s prodigious appetites for fuel and oil, the RX8 attracts a tax rate of £515 per year.

    2. Chris – on tax rate … so does a 2.7 diesel C6, which never seems fair and is probably another reason why people with more sense should avoid them. Simon may disagree.

  8. It is a while since I have thought about these. I was disappointed with it at launch, because I desperately wanted it to look more like the SSM concept than it did. Perhaps subconsciously, that disappointment has stayed with me all the way to now. Looking at it now, I can’t say there is much wrong with it – and yet, it is hard to see anything that really speaks to me, either.

  9. Eóin has today flagged up this piece by Richard as worth revisiting, and it is. My recollection of contemporary reviews of the S2000 was that it was quite a demanding car to drive, with an engine that needed to be pushed hard to high revs and slightly wayward handling. This rather raucous and highly strung character, and the high price, probably deterred all but “serious” drivers from committing to an S2000.

    In contrast, the genius of the MX-5 was that it was as easy to live with as any supermini. It could be driven gently or really hard and was always rewarding. My Mk1 model was used for my daily 20 mile commute without complaint and was always a blast on a sunny afternoon.

    On the subject of cars that we thought we wanted, but actually didn’t, do the Toyota GT86 and Subaru BRZ siblings now fall into this category? They seem to deliver everything an enthusiastic driver might want, with a decent engine and rear wheel drive, but have sold rather poorly. Perhaps crowded roads and environmental concerns is killing the appeal of driving as a sensory experience rather than tedious necessity?

  10. Daniel, I think you maybe right about Sunday morning drives. Or lack of them in appropriate machines. I remember as a younger chap getting up early for drives just to see what was around that corner, or where does that road go. And in cars far from being exotic. Now when we’ve got a few quid and could afford something a little expensive, after a weeks commuting and shopping, speed cameras, roadworks, Christmas shoppers and blithering idiots, I’m certainly not bothered any more.
    But a favourite memory of an S2000 stems from of all things, a moorland walk. Many years ago, we were rambling along an open moor and I could hear the engine from afar and for a long time. The path crossed a road and the silver (naturally) Honda yowled round the corner with the driver wearing a stern face. Was that for he was cold? Or hanging on for dear life around the corner? But wotta sound. I liken it to a Tie Fighter a-la Star Wars

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