In 1995, Honda displayed two distinct and distinctive roadster concepts. Did they make the right choice?

1995 SSM Concept. (c) innermobil

In 1995, Pininfarina, in conjunction with Honda – who enjoyed a long-term relationship with the carrozzeria, presented Argento Vivo, a purely conceptual two-seater roadster. Designed very much in the classic idiom, Argento Vivo (as the name suggested) employed aluminium for its extruded substructure and its upper body cladding – the resultant weight loss intended to allow for the use of smaller-capacity engines than might otherwise be considered.

There was little meaningful correlation between them it seems, (although there were reports of Pininfarina putting Argento Vivo into small-scale production), but the very same year, Honda themselves debuted a two-seat concept at that year’s Tokyo motor show, dubbed the Honda Sports Study Model (SSM for short). A more determinably ‘Japanese’, modernist and conclusively less romantic shape than that that of the Italians, SSM was created at the carmaker’s Wako Design Centre near Tokyo; Honda stating that it showcased “the company at its innovative best applying state of art solutions to a traditional sport car concept.”

Four year’s later, it made its production debut in subtly watered down form. The 1999 S2000 employed a naming system intended to evoke memories of Honda’s Sixties’ sportsters, arriving at a time when roadsters had become the cars to have – especially in the sunshine states of the US. Viewed as something akin to the Mazda MX5’s larger, brawnier and slightly less predictable cousin, the S2000 was nonetheless well received. At least initially.

1995 Argento Vivo by Pininfarina, (c) old concept cars

Employing a rear-biased front engine, rear drive layout to aid weight distribution; instead of the 5-cylinder unit of both SSM and Argento Vivo, a four cylinder, double overhead camshaft unit with Honda’s VTEC variable valve timing was used. Later in the model’s lifespan, this was substituted for a longer stroke 2.2 litre version. At the same time, production was moved from Takanezawa to Suzuka, while changes were made to the suspension settings to correct a perception towards waywardness at the outer edges of the dynamic envelope.

Production lasted until 2009, by which time sales had fallen through the floor. The S2000 shone brightly for what appeared to be a nano-second, before being eclipsed by flashier looking, if technically inferior fare that managed to shout louder and cost less. Did the S2000 suffer from being too visually self-effacing? It’s certainly a relatively easy car to forget, despite its obvious charms. Perhaps they should have gone with their Italian tailor after all?

In lieu of the full profile we didn’t write on the S2000, I offer today this fine piece by our onetime resident R. Herriott, which I recommend you also continue reading.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

11 thoughts on “Quicksilver”

  1. Very interesting post. I will say, with all due respect, that hindsight is 20-20.

    In my opinion, the “understated” looks of the S2000 are part of its charm. It looks good, but it’s the entire package—including the insane VTEC motor that generated 240 HP from a 2-liter, naturally aspirated engine—that makes the car a classic.


    1. I would hasten to add that there is nothing at all the matter with the S2000’s appearance, apart from the fact that the SSM concept which preceded it had a little more, shall we say, personality?

      Personally, I don’t much care for Pininfarina’s design, but its more classical appearance might have chimed more with the tastes of the times. But of course, you’re correct. We’re all geniuses in hindsight. Thanks for stopping by…

  2. The Argento Vivo wasn’t Pinanfarina’s finest hour as far as I’m concerned. I think Honda did well with the S2000. Good proportions and such clean lines. Throw in the high revving V-TEC engine and a manual box that’s great and it’s not all that difficult to fall for this car.

    My only gripe with it has always been in the details: the headlight washers and the position of the switch to operate these(was it only the early cars that had these?), the antenna and a couple of more things like that. But that’s small beer compared to the good stuff.

    A quick look on Wikipedia shows that 110,673 S2000’s were produced. Not a mega seller, but given the fact it wasn’t cheap and you could have a badge with more prestige attached to it for similar money or less, it’s not bad.

  3. I see shades of the BMW Z8 in the Argento Vivo – the proportions and the rear 3/4 view. If it wasn’t for the distraction of the shiny metal and 2-tone paint effect I think it would hang together nicely. I also like their approach of sculpting the entire dash from wood and using it structurally – like the Ranger Rover L322 but in a more dramatic fashion. The overall dash design has dated a bit now and looks very mid-90s, but there’s a conceptual purity and executional elegance that I really like. You don’t say that a lot about Honda interiors.

  4. Then S2000 sales numbers would be fifty percent higher than those of the Alfa 916 that was a failure in the market if ever there was one for much the same reasons.
    An S2000 was an uncompromising car for a very small focus group and if you fitted that group you could be very happy and if you didn’t an S2000 simply wasn’t the car for you (just as with the Alfas – the big difference being tha the Alfas were hard work to drive every bit as fast as an S2o00 but were much safer to drive due to the their forgiving handling).
    An S2000 was hard work to drive because of its rev-hungry engine, its interior was not a place of well being with Flash Gordon-type instrumentation that was out of fashion at the time the car arrived and above all it was an unpredictable handful on the road because of its unpredictable handling and the absence of driving aids like ESP which competitors had at the time. There’s not much fun in driving an expensive car with a tendency for snap oversteer if you are no hard core TVR Chimaera customer.
    Early TTs were as unpredictable but Audi quickly reacted by transforming it into an hairdresser’s/poser’s car much to the benefit of sales numbers but Honda did nothing – only the last S2000s had ESP and were less unpredictable to drive.

  5. I was really impressed with the styling when I first saw on of these up close. But I always thought of it as a classic pre-financial crisis car. Convertibles have a long history of gaining and then declining in popularity in North America, and they were already going down by 2008.

    The S2000 also had some faults that limited it to niche buyers. The engine had lots of hp but little torque. Even a guy who drives a lot of track events like Jack Baruth derided it as a torqueless POS in everyday driving. The switch to 2.2 liters for North America was an attempt to deal with that, but they were competing against 3 liter Boxsters and Z3/Z4 and the S2000 just couldn’t cut it.

    Also, the S2000 was one of the early electric steering racks so I don’t think the steering feel was all that great. Which is too bad because that is usually one of the great pleasures of a smaller sports car.

    1. Another limitation of the S2000 was no automatic transmission. A significant fraction of sales for the S2000 competitors were automatics. You could argue that an auto sports car is not
      “pure”, but for people who have to drive a lot in stop and go traffic, it’s hard to beat a torque convertor automatic.

      Yeah, you lose something on a Sunday morning backroad trek with an auto, but what about the other 6.5 days of the week ?

  6. For some reason to do with motorbikes and 1/8 scale RC car racing, I got slung into the mddle of the local Honda car fanboy clique at our local race-track. These were motorcycling folk who, having discovered Civics and Accords in the late 1970s and early 1980s thought that no other car makes existed. They had no experience whatsover of VWs and dismissed them out of hand. From Honda motorcycles to buying Honda cars was natural for these youngish people. They were rewarded with superb rust, and Honda’s car specialty, no low-end torque from long stroke engines that actually liked to rev.

    Quite a few of these people subsequently became involved with Honda commercially. Of the ones I knew best, one opened up a huge motorcycle dealership, one went to work for Honda themselves and was involved with Honda’s decade-long attempt to quantify rust – HQed here in Halifax NS, and a further chap who became a senior associate at the local Honda car dealership.

    The S2000 arrived about three years after Honda magically discovered as every other major car manufacturer had already, wow! double-sided galvanized sheet tin actually works to reduce rust. Funny people, very much of the view that Not Invented Here was rubbish. My pal brought over an S2000 for me to check out. The price was ridiculously high at $50K, and the car’s introduction was a decade behind the Miata and the Mitsubishi Eclipse turbo. Although both this engine and the previous 1.6l, 160 bhp VTEC were not long stroke, they were also really weak as kittens at low revs. Saw some amazing stalling incidents from rest with that 1.6l engine, it wasn’t made for tootling about in town, but some people bought them because it was the “highest” model with the “highest” power. Wrong thinking.

    So my short drive in an S2000 around town with only only a couple of blasts in bottom gear showed me my 1990 Eclipse AWD turbo had nothing to fear as a daily driver. There was nowhere to really use the Honda’s high revs, it was annoying at low revs, and the Eclipse just got up and went without me having to do anything but mash the gas in any gear. That was the 4G63 engine which subsequently ended up powering EVOs. The car was little more than half the price of an S2000 not counting inflation, handled without vice and was almost as quick without really trying.

    Only a few S2000s got sold around here, an acquaintance professor of astronomy got one, but ditched it after a year. Too hard core. On the other hand, I thought the Audi TT was just a glorified New Beetle that cost as much as the Honda, looked weird (upside down mini-bathtub) and was assembled with the usual aplomb shown by the Germans — lots. They were not reliable cars. I was on my last Audi of five at the time, able to afford two cars and knew a thing or two about Audis. The times they change. They probably sold as many TTs as the S2000 which wasn’t many. Those type of cars’ time had passed. The perky Miata, though, seemed to transcend all that bother and was sort of classless and fun, and it survived.

    The Honda looked good but it never seemed to quite click with the public, and especially not at the price. Since the NSX was an Acura here, the S2000 was by far the most expensive Honda car in the dealership. Rose-coloured glasses have changed opinions with time, I think, and now people almost put the car on an altar. Why, I really cannot fathom.

    The sort of last gasp of these Japanese “sports” cars was the Toyota GT86/Subaru BRZ of 2012. I had convinced myself that a BRZ would be my retirement present to myself. Just three months before that date I drove the Toyota (known as an FR-S here). Within a few hundred yards, I knew it was a torqueless wonder as it struggled up a small hill at town speed, 50 kph in third. It had a strange hole in the midrange power output as well, and zizzed away like an old VW Beetle engine at any speed. You had to put up with a strained coarse engine and high revs to get anywhere, driving like a hooligan. Shock. No thank you – my Subaru Legacy Turbo was in a different league for power on the quiet and much, much nicer inside.

    With everyone about to unleash uninteresting EVs on us whether we want them or not (and my goodness, have you seen the outlandishly brutal Tesla pickup truck?), I’d say the Miata MX-5 has the field to itself in the cheaper two-seater category. The public buys anonymous two-box crossovers and thinks they’re sporty. Actual sports cars need not apply as the great automotive unwashed are quite happy wobbling around up in the air raving about improved sightlines.

  7. A thought-provoking article.

    The S2000 arrived before the era of 8 and 9 speed torque converter automatics and DSGs, so that phenomenally high-revving engine would have been mismatched to a contemporary automatic. Not that it stopped Honda elsewhere in the more sporting offerings in their range. Their autobox technology at the time of the S2000 was not exactly state of the art, and they didn’t like using other people’s transmissions.

    The S2000 was a wholly indulgent product to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary, with something of a a “what would Soichiro do?” brief. The engine is exclusive to the car, with very little commonality with other F Series variants.

    It’s interesting to read that five cylinder engines were used for the S2000 precursor concepts. Presumably these were G Series units. Given Soichiro’s predilection for unpredictability, if the S2000’s designers had channeled him properly, he might have told them to go for a G25 with an extra cylinder, to make something in the spirit of a Triumph TR6 or Austin-Healey 3000.

    1. The NSX had an automatic paired with a slightly detuned VTEC engine, so maybe something similar could have been done with the S2000.

  8. What a splendid name. “I drive an Argentio Vivo” would sound superb if mentioned in the golf club. However, if said down The Swan, someone would get confused believing you to have just paid a lot of money for some new-fang led “Viva, I think he said…”
    I like the looks and the two tone theme. But I get family pressure for not liking sprouts.

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