Bringing 9000 rpm to the masses | Honda S2000 Buyer's Guide

Robert
By Robert Bowen
May 20, 2022 | Honda, S2000, Buyer's Guide | Posted in Buyer's Guides | From the Nov. 2008 issue | Never miss an article

[Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Grassroots Motorsports, back when the S2000 was still on the market.]

It might not be as common as a Miata, but the Honda S2000 represents an impressive sporting achievement from a company better known to the masses for its front-wheel-drive people-movers.

Even though it first came out in 1999 for the 2000 model year, Honda had been planning the S2000 for years—at least since the 1995 Tokyo Motor Show. That’s when Honda took the wraps off its rear-wheel-drive convertible, dubbed the Sports Study Model. The car appeared again at the 1997 Tokyo Motor Show as well as a few similar affairs in between. The lines were clean, and its 2.0-liter engine was mounted low and far back in the chassis to promote balanced handling.

After the SSM got a warm reception from enthusiasts and the press, it was no surprise to Honda-watchers when the Japanese company launched the S2000 in late 1999. Some were surprised when the U.S.-market cars received the Honda badge and not an Acura logo, as the price point was above $32,000. The Honda badge and model name, however, were intended to echo the first sporting Honda cars—the S500, S600 and S800 of the 1960s.

[How the Honda S600 Changed the Way We Looked at Japanese Cars]

The production model delivered on the SSM’s promises. It had a perfect 50-50 weight distribution, six-speed transmission, Torsen differential, staggered 16-inch wheels and a jewel of a naturally aspirated engine. The chassis was stiff and its A-arm suspension was tuned for performance over comfort. Extremely fast steering and Bridgestone Potenza S-02 tires came standard. 

This was a car made to be driven and driven hard, a positioning enhanced by a Spartan interior and a refreshing lack of electronic driving aids. It did, however, offer some sparse comforts: Leather upholstery plus electric doors and windows came standard. Only one trim level was available, and there were no options. A few factory accessories, including a neat hard top, could be added. Everything about the S2000 screamed performance, including a cool racing-inspired start button. (Remember, this was before these buttons became cliché.)

However, it was the 2.0-liter, F20C-spec engine that received most of the praise heaped on the package. The engine was unusual for Honda at the time, since it featured a timing chain as well as a conventional clockwise rotation. Mechanical tappets instead of hydraulic adjusters sacrificed quiet running manners for a high rev limit. 

The S2000’s most significant feature is its insanely high-revving inline four-cylinder engine—in 2.0-liter trim it generates a stunning 120 naturally aspirated horsepower per liter. Honda livened up the interior with a variety of bright colors to match the bold exterior palette. Despite the lack of a fixed roof, the car keeps up its torsional rigidity thanks to a structural beam that runs along the floor in front of the seats. The digital dash is an homage to race car data displays. Photography Credits: Courtesy Honda

The F20C was more like a motorcycle engine than other automotive designs, both in layout and specific power output: The F20C whizzed through its rev range to a stratospheric 9000 rpm redline, producing 240 horsepower at 8300 rpm. On a per-liter basis, no other naturally aspirated production engine could touch it. Later revisions to the ECU didn’t increase rated horsepower, but they did allow the engine to dyno better.

The six-speed transmission exhibited typical Honda precision and shift feel. Early versions had rough synchronizers in some gears, but they were revised in 2002. Overall the drivetrain was tight and as responsive as the rest of the package. 

The S2000 suspension was tuned for expert drivers looking for the fastest way around a race track. It was set up loose, even with the stock staggered tires, and could be rotated with the brakes or throttle as conditions warranted. It was not an easy car to drive fast, but experienced drivers loved the way it could be thrown around. Unfortunately, the handling proved to be a weak point with some customers, especially those raised on front-drive Civics. 

The balanced chassis and loose handling meant that ham-fisted control inputs often resulted in the rear coming around unexpectedly, especially when panicked drivers mashed the brake mid-corner. Honda repeatedly revised suspension tuning to tone down the S2000’s tail-happy nature, fiddling with anti-roll bar sizes, rear control arm bushings and alignment specifications for 2002.

Lower Redline, Wider Appeal

Honda revised the still-impressive car in many small ways for 2004. Overall it was the same S2000, but with some welcomed tweaks. Honda felt the car had changed enough to warrant a new chassis designation; where the original S2000 was known as the AP1, the new one was the AP2.

The most significant change could be found under the hood, as the engine was stroked from 2.0 to 2.2 liters while the compression ratio was bumped from 11.0:1 to 11.1:1. While the stated horsepower remained 240, maximum torque moved from 153 lb.-ft. at 7500 rpm to 162 lb.-ft. at 6200 rpm. The insane 9000 rpm redline found in the AP1 was replaced by a more piston-friendly 8000 limit. Gearing was revised to better suit the new powerband.

Purists decried the AP2’s slightly softened suspension and civilized larger engine, but in many ways these mods made for a better car. Some of the snap-oversteer tendencies were gone, and the bump in torque reduced the clutch slip needed when leaving slow corners. The car still wasn’t as mass-market as the Mazda Miata, for example, but ultimately it proved to be faster and more comfortable than the AP1. The performance gap between the $33,000 Honda S2000 and $52,000 Porsche Boxster S narrowed even more.

[Project Car: 2001 Porsche Boxster S]

After the introduction of the AP2, minimal tweaks marked each year until 2008, when Honda broke its tradition of offering only one trim level. To boost sales of the now-aging S2000, the Club Racer model was introduced. 

For 2008, Honda introduced a second trim level to the S2000 lineup, the CR. Shown above in yellow alongside its standard sibling, the CR has the same 2.2-liter engine as the 2004-and-up S2000s. However, the suspension and aerodynamics have been reworked to better suit aggressive on-track use. Plus, grippier cloth seats replace the usual leather-wrapped chairs. Photography Credits: David S. Wallens

Honda claimed that its body kit was designed to reduce aerodynamic lift, and the car’s weight was reduced by making air conditioning and a stereo optional instead of standard. The base car’s leather gave way to cloth seats in the CR, and the soft top and its mechanism were replaced with a hard top only.

End of the Road?

Honda has always been an engineering-driven company, and the S2000 is no different. While on the surface it doesn’t have the gee-whiz features of some of its competitors, including the mid-engine Porsche Boxster and all-wheel-drive Audi TT, it’s a solid, no-compromise driver’s car. Thanks to a stiff rear-drive chassis and a sweet, revvy four-cylinder engine, the S2000 offers a lot of performance for comparatively small money. It’s so nearly perfect that most of us would have no trouble leaving it stock.

After a few years of depreciation, we’d still be hesitant to call it a bargain. However, a used S2000 makes a true enthusiast’s car with very low running costs compared to some of its rivals.

Image Courtesy Honda

The S2000 is an easy car to live with, though perhaps it’s not the best choice for an only car. It might not be the fastest car on the market in a straight line, but it was made to go around corners faster than almost anything else. It remains a competitive car in A Stock autocross competition, and it makes an amazing weekend back road companion or track day toy.

The S2000’s production cycle has also lasted a surprisingly long time. Nine years with only incremental changes is almost unheard of in the industry, and it looks like Honda’s going for at least one more year. Let’s hope that whatever Honda comes up with to replace it will be just as impressive.

Things to Know

While the S2000 came from a mainstream supplier, the cars can be on the rare side. You can’t assume that you’ll find an example in your ideal year, color and price range right away. 

S2000 experts suggest simply picking a budget and buying the newest car that you can. Each year has a few small differences in its details, but they’re all great cars—even the oldest S2000 will provide lots of driving thrills. The most common are 2001 and 2002 cars; sales of these models peaked around 9600 units per year. Inexperienced drivers might be better served by a car with stability control, but we assume the average GRM reader would be fine without it.

Photography Credit: Courtesy Honda

Drivetrain

Swapping the 4.10:1 final drive for Richmond Gear’s 4.57:1 cog is an easy move for quicker acceleration. It increases revs on the highway, of course, but it makes the car sprightlier from light to light.

Chassis

In the suspension category, again, the car is well sorted from the factory. The biggest bang-for-buck upgrades are stickier tires and a good alignment. You can get more than a degree and a half of negative camber up front on a stock car.

The S2000 is an incredible A Stock autocross car, and the formula for success is simple: a huge front bar, R-compound tires, lightweight wheels and alignment.

Body and Interior

A combination of youthful appeal, moderately high power and a tail-happy chassis have resulted in hundreds of these cars going off the road backward. The number of salvaged-title S2000s is pretty staggering. When you inspect a car, make sure it has typical Honda fit and finish. These cars were assembled very precisely from the factory, so a trunk or hood that has weird gaps should be a red flag. Check all the body panels for the VIN sticker, particularly the fenders, hood, radiator support and trunk lid. If you find one that’s been replaced, don’t automatically reject the car. Just ask some hard questions and make sure you’re not paying top dollar for it. 

The sheet metal and stock Honda paint is very thin, so get used to seeing minor scratches. 

A reported problem includes tears in the soft top material behind the driver’s head area. The stock mechanism rubs against this part of the top, eventually leading to excessive wear and tear. 

The plastic rear window used on early cars doesn’t seem to last very long either, as it eventually fogs up and cracks. The solution is an aftermarket top with a glass window. If you can swing the extra cash, the factory hard top is a great solution that increases security and cold-weather enjoyment. It’s also lighter than the folding soft top assembly.

Engine

Like all Hondas, mileage is simply not an issue assuming proper maintenance. Any S2000 with less than 200,000 miles has lots of life left in it. Luckily most have not reached even half that figure, especially those from cold-weather states. Look for the lowest mileage you can, but don’t stress over an extra 20,000 miles.

The S2000 has one maintenance issue that’s not typical for a Honda: The AP1 cars have a reputation for being oil burners. The 2.0-liter engine seems to have been built with ring tolerances that are on the loose side. While this helps its high-revving nature, it also leads to about a quart of oil consumption per every 1500 or so miles.

Check any prospective purchase for the right level of oil and a good history of oil changes. An S2000’s engine is very hard to rebuild successfully, so you might want to pass if you see any evidence that someone’s been into it. This includes oil leaks and excess silicone around the oil pan, although that last clue could indicate nothing more than a replacement pan. Check the compression if you’re serious about a car. The magic number is 240 psi, plus or minus 10 percent.

AEM offers some of their neat bits for the S2000, including cold-air intakes and engine management options.

Look out for a rattling timing chain, as it’s fairly common for the auto tensioner to wear out. This causes a high-pitched buzzing or rattling noise. Other noise is common from the S2000’s non-hydraulic valvetrain, but tensioner noise is louder and more persistent. It will eventually cause the chain to fail, so it should be taken care of right away. 

Sometime in 2002, Honda changed the oil squirter banjo bolts to ones that flow better. These can be upgraded with the engine in situ and might not be a bad idea if future plans include lots of track work or forced induction. It’s probably not necessary for a stock-engined car, but the European Honda distributor did issue a recall for it. 

Need a programmable ECU for the S2000? Hondata has the tools and knowledge needed to mate a user-programmable Acura RSX control unit.

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Comments
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Slippery
Slippery GRM+ Memberand UberDork
3/24/22 1:40 p.m.

According to Hagerty these are moving up in price. I think I am going to stick to my '06 for now.

Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
3/24/22 1:55 p.m.

In reply to Slippery :

I'm not totally surprised, as it's really only a matter of time before they go way up in price–but I do feel the S2000 is deserving of a decent price.

sobe_death
sobe_death Dork
3/24/22 4:36 p.m.

I plan to keep my '04 until I can no longer get into and out of it.  Nice to know that it's turning into a little nest egg haha

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
3/25/22 2:19 p.m.

They have been going up since we first posted that guide. And, yeah, find me a decent one at a decent price. 

When the 2.2L came out, Honda did a press event where we drove both cars back to back. Both terrific choices. 

Slippery
Slippery GRM+ Memberand UberDork
4/23/22 10:00 p.m.

Insane. 

jharry3
jharry3 GRM+ Memberand Dork
5/20/22 11:50 a.m.

When we bought our last Odyssey van a S2000 was on the showroom floor. 

I sat in it and made vroom-vroom sounds.   My then wife had to drag me back into reality.   

ORIF (Forum Supporter)
ORIF (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand New Reader
5/20/22 4:09 p.m.
jharry3 said:

When we bought our last Odyssey van a S2000 was on the showroom floor. 

I sat in it and made vroom-vroom sounds.   My then wife had to drag me back into reality.   

Same thing happened to me in Feb 2000. I was Odyssey shopping, but brought home an an S2000. My wife was a little upset nd I had to show her research from the NHTSA that a car seat could be safely used in the front of the S despite the airbag.

We have gone through 3 minivans since then, but I still have the S2000. ; )

californiamilleghia
californiamilleghia UltraDork
5/20/22 6:10 p.m.

What other models have the 9000 rpm motor ?

probably wishful thinking.......

Pete. (l33t FS)
Pete. (l33t FS) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
5/20/22 6:15 p.m.

In reply to californiamilleghia :

None.  The F20C was S2000 specific.

The original Civic Type R had a 9000rpm rev limiter with an 8400rpm redline.  These are each 100rpm higher than the 1.8l version of its engine in the Integra Type R.  185hp from a 1.6l.

 

There are a few Kei cars with ≥9000rpm redlines if you enjoy the idea of a 660cc engined car that makes no more than 65hp.  A lot of the newer fun ones use turbos to make a broad 65hp powerband, too.

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