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