Honda Australia 50th Anniversary – Honda S2000
A free-spinning four-cylinder engine with a 9000rpm redline and a specific power output – 88kW per litre – greater than any normally aspirated engine in the world at the time. A slick-shifting, short-throw six-speed manual gearbox. A low centre of gravity, in-wheel double-wishbone suspension front and rear, and perfect 50:50 front/rear weight distribution.
These are just some of the key factors that made the Honda S2000 the world’s most advanced sports convertible when it was released in 1999.
The S2000 was the production manifestation of the SSM (Sports Study Model) that was the star of the 1995 Tokyo Motor Show. And as a front-engined, rear-wheel-drive, two-seater drop-top, the S2000 was also the spiritual successor to Honda’s famous 1960s roadsters that started in 1963 with the S500.
Similarly aimed at the sports advantage for the modern-day roadster, however, was that its development could benefit from the expertise gained by Honda engineers during four decades of motorsport activity that included huge success in the pinnacle category, Formula 1.
The S2000’s cockpit-style cabin even included Formula 1-inspired digital instrumentation, with an electronic speedometer and tachometer that illuminated once the ignition key was turned (though the driver actually fired the engine by pushing a button).
That 9000rpm tachometer was like a dangling carrot for the performance motoring enthusiasts the S2000 was designed for, which included motoring journalists, of course.
“At the top of the S2000's 'best features' list is the engine,” wrote Wheels magazine in its January 1999 review of an S2000 prototype. “[Honda has] engineered a powerful engine that not only has a 9000rpm redline, but one that loves to rev to the limit – in fact it seems to hate to stop.”
When the S2000 outclassed European rivals such as the Audi TT, Porsche Boxster and Mercedes-Benz SLK to win Best Sports Car in the Australian motoring clubs’ inaugural Australia’s Best Cars awards in 2000, the multiple judges were enamoured with the Honda’s entire drivetrain.
“The S2000’s six-speed close-ratio manual gearbox has the best gearchange you’ll find in any sports car, bar none,” they said.
“The real joy when driving an S2000, however, is to hear it scream as the revs rise to 7,000 rpm, then look at the tachometer and see that you have another couple of thousand left to play with.”
The Best Cars win followed multiple Best Sports Car awards in 1999, from the RACV, RACQ and NRMA.
However, it wasn’t all about high revs. The latest generation of Honda’s VTEC variable valve timing ensured the S2000’s 2.0-litre engine was remarkably flexible even at low speeds.
And while the four-cylinder could propel the S2000 from 0-100km/h in 6.2 seconds and on to a top speed of 241km/h, it was internally dubbed a ‘high-performance eco engine’ for a reason – it conformed to some of the toughest emissions regulations in the world, including California’s LEV (Low Emission Vehicle) and the full EU2000 requirements.
The S2000’s technologically advanced specification extended beyond its incredible mechanicals under the bonnet.
There was compact electric power steering, anti-lock braking with electronic brake force distribution and a torque-sensing limited-slip differential to guard against wheelspin in tight corners.
This was also a convertible matching the levels of rigidity and passenger crash protection offered by a fixed-roof coupe – thanks to a unique and innovative ‘high X-bone frame’ structure that combined the frame rails and centre tunnel to create an immensely strong body-chassis.
And the stiff construction combined with sophisticated double-wishbone suspension, low centre of gravity and optimum weight distribution to give the Honda S2000 precise, balanced and responsive handling.
In a retrospective article in 2011, Carsales wrote that the S2000 is “rightly regarded as a sportscar classic”.
“The good thing about all this is that the rest of the car upheld the expectations of the engine.
The chassis and brakes dealt very well with what the engine dished out. A 50-50 weight distribution and well-sorted suspension worked in concert with the engine to deliver an exhilarating sports car experience.”
CarsGuide, in its 2009 Used Car Review of the S2000, was also full of praise for the Honda’s dynamic experience.
“With such high performance on tap the chassis also had to be capable, and the S2000’s certainly was.
“[The S2000] is a high performance roadster that offers thrill-a-minute driving if you care to test its limits, while still coping with the day-to-day grind that is the reality of city traffic in the noughties.
“If you want a car that will impress your friends when you pull up outside the local coffee shop, you might be better off with a convertible, or a sports car with a softer side like an MX5 or four-cylinder BMW Z3.
“If you want a car that will deliver a spirited ride with lots of zip when you open the throttle on a winding country road, one that will blow away the cobwebs after a dreary week stuck in town traffic, think about the Honda S2000.”
With an electrically operated folding soft-top roof, open-air motoring was also more easily accessible than with some (manually operated) rivals.
Its boot could also comfortably swallow two large soft bags, making the Honda ideal for weekend trips. Honda Australia created a dedicated website – complete with virtual reality tour – for the local release of the S2000, which was initially priced from $69,950.
The S2000’s appeal to Australian sports car purists was obvious before it even reached showrooms, with 400 of the slinky roadsters pre-sold.
During its decade of production between 1999 and 2009, more than 110,000 Honda S2000s were sold globally.