Retro review: Honda S2000 CR

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Time machines do exist.

If you want to remember what was really quick – and state of the art – circa 1999, take a drive in a 2008 Honda S2000. It hadn’t changed much since then – which had its good points as well as its bad points.

It all depended on your perspective.

First, some background:

In late 1999, when the first S2000s appeared, the 9,000 RPM capable 2.0 liter VTEC dual overhead cam four caused jaws to drop and hands to clap. The thing had a rev range like a 1,000 cc sport bike – and felt and sounded like one, too.

On the other hand, there was virtually no low speed torque – literally. Barely 100 lbs.-ft. under 3,000 RPM. It was easy to stall the thing in traffic. But this only enhanced its exotic, race-car feel. Because you had to work it to drive it – and  once up in the power band – around 6,000 RPM – the thing came alive like a nest of angry yellow jackets. That was the point at which the VTEC variable cam/valve timing (very high tech stuff in ’99) got Medieval, so to speak. The digital bar graph tach swept wildly past 8,000 and output spiked at a then-impressive 240 ponies.

Looked at in terms of power per liter of displacement, the S2000’s little four was making more hp than a same-era Viper’s V-10. Put that kind of power in a featherweight (2,600 pounds or so) short-wheelbase rear wheel drive roadster and the resulting performance was exotic: Zero to 60 in about 5.5 seconds, with a top speed around 150 mph. Wow!

Fast forward eight years.

The ’08 S2000 was still quick – but others had caught up. Nissan’s 350Z, for example, got to 60 in about the same timeframe. Ditto a BMW Z4 roadster. A MazdaSpeed Miata would run with it, too. And those were just mid-pack performers, by the standards of 2008.

If you got into a Mitsubishi EVO or Subaru WRX – both of which cost less than the $34,300 (to start) S2000 –  you’d get to 60 about a second sooner. And you’d have a much more everyday driveable car, too.

Nonetheless, the S2000 deserves to be remembered for how high it raised the bar.

In the Late Clinton Years, 240 horsepower from a 2 liter engine was almost supernatural.

Today, the S2000’s straight-line performance has been eclipsed. But even several years after the last one rolled off a dealer’s lot, few can match its cornering.

It remains one of the best handling, no-BS, hard core, high-performance roadsters you can buy – new or used – at any price. Especially the  CR (Club Racing) version, which is about 100 pounds lighter than the standard S2000 and among other upgrades included a  faster ratio steering box, chassis stiffeners, track-firm suspension calibrations (skip the coffee!) and super-sticky 45-series Bridgestone Potenza tires. When they were new, CR models even came with a a disclaimer on the side window advising the buyer that reduced tread life is a fact of life with such tires.

Steering response in this thing was – is – sharper than a Samurai’s Katana sword. “Cutting the corners” becomes just exactly that. There is no body roll at all. If you like ’em stiff, you will love the CR. The car has a near-perfect 50-50 weight split. A Lotus or M3 BMW is the closest to it. But all play on the same level – and that is a serious compliment for a car whose basic design was so much older than either of those two. An EVO is similarly sharp, but its AWD layout gives a different feel under high-g cornering. If you enjoy being able to wag your tail every now and then, the rear-drive S2000’s got what you want. It’s no Burnout Master due to the low torque output, but the wild side is still more accessible than it is in anything with AWD. And arguably, it takes more skill to see things through on the knife edge of a RWD car’s grip. AWD lets you go a bit faster with less skill. The S2000 is an expert’s car. It can be extremely rewarding. But it can bite you, too.

Be careful.

The CR version (2008 MSRP $36,300) also got you a body kit that with integrated front chin spoiler and rocker panel extensions – plus a huge trunk-mounted airfoil. It’s a functional piece (on the race track and at high speeds, it provides downforce to keep the tail end planted) but to my eye does not fit the car’s lines at all. It’s also the visual equivalent of rolling down the window at a traffic light and saying “oink oink!” to a cop. It makes them draw a bead on you – even if you’re doing just exactly the speed limit. Anything over and you will be sweating if you pass Officer Friendly. He might ignore a Taurus doing 72 in a 65. He will not ignore you. I liked the CR’s chassis enhancements (and manual removable hardtop) but Honda should have put the airfoil in the trunk, not on it.

The interior was minimalist but fitted the car’s single-purpose mission. Everything you need – nothing you don’t. The digital dash was basically the same throughout the car’s entire production run.  I personally am not a huge fan of the bar graph tach layout. It is highly legible, but doesn’t seem as immediately responsive as an analog gauge.

Honda did provide a green up-shift light, however.

Still, the S2000’s cabin was arguably much better laid out than, for example, the much newer-design Saturn Sky (and same-era Pontiac Solstice). Those two had inaccessible switches for the power windows, a fuel gauge so deeply tunneled into the dash that it was sometimes impossible to read – and so much wind/road noise intruded into the cabin at highway speeds that you’d swear you were driving a ’69 MG.

The S2000 also had a nice little cubby in the console; not huge – but big enough for things like house keys, a cell phone and some pocket change. More importantly for a serious sports car, all the S2000’s controls were no fuss. And the body integrity/sealing was among the best on the market at the time.

In the rearview:

I still love the S2000. It’s no longer one of the quickest performance roadsters or sport compacts out there, but it is  raw and fierce and free of a lot of the (to me) stifling over-technology that is creeping like Kudzu into modern performance cars. The CR model I tested back in 2008  had an old fashioned hardtop (in place of the standard S2000’s power soft-top) that you just unbolt and stow. No electronic nanny running interference between you and the peaky little wasp of an engine. Switch off the VSA – and it is off – and stays off. I have noticed that in more and more new cars, not only is the traction/stability control hard to turn off, if you do manage to shut it down, the damn thing will sometimes turn itself back on after a few minutes. And even when it’s off it’s not really off. The system either stands poised to interfere, or is already partially interfering.

In the S2000, you were on your own – sink or swim.

There is still nothing like the S2000. The Lotus Elise is similar, but its Toyota-sourced engine can’t match the sweetness of the still-impressive Honda VTEC, especially as the thing gets “on the cam” beyond 6,000 RPM. A Porsche Boxster comes close but cost $10,000 more – to start. The Saturn Sky/Pontiac Solstice were very pretty cars – but seriously flawed from an ergonomic perspective and could never match the handling capability or quality feel and “put togetherness” of the Honda.

It’s one for the ages – and I really miss it.

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9 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve always loved the car, at least the idea of it. I once tried sitting in it, though, and I didn’t fit. I’m about 6’3″ and I could not get my knees free enough, front to back, to operate the clutch/brake/gas. I was essentially wedged in. Very tight. More so than even a Miata, which at least I can drive (hunched over if the top is up). Definitely not a car for anyone much over 6′ tall.

    Being a car nut, there are a few cars out there that, when I spot them, I know mean their owners have a true sense of what makes a great car. It’s not always raw numbers. Horsepower is great and all, but it’s not everything. 0-60 is nice. Lateral g’s also nice. But it has more to do with the whole packaging.

    Lots of guys get M3’s just because they’re “supposed to be the best” and don’t have a clue what they’re driving. What’s worse is seeing a grandmother tooling along at 15 under in a CTS-V. The S2000 is not like that. If someone bought it, there’s a greater than average chance the guy knows what he has and why it’s good. It’s a jewel that is too often overlooked. It’s not the Corvette that middle-aged men have always wanted “because” it’s a Corvette, and once they get it they never drive it. It’s not as crude as a Mustang or Camaro. It’s not as boy-racer wannabe as the WRX or Evo (which is the shame about that wing on the above pictured model).

    It’s not the fastest, the prettiest, the most expensive. It’s unique, though. methylamine had it right, in a sense. It’s very much like the NSX in spirit.

    Spotting one on the road, especially without the coffee-can muffler, the huge wing, etc., I know the owner and immediately have a great deal more respect for him or her. I’m struggling to think of a current production car that would garner such automatic respect from me.

    Pure.

    I think that’s the right word for it.

    • We’re about the same, but probably have different leg/torso lengths – because I could comfortably drive the Beetle (and did so, for several years).

      Agree on the S2000 – it’s what a BMW used to be before BMWs became trendy….

      • Wow, I’m replying to a message one year later, but what the heck… I used to have one (MY2000 model) and I switched out the seats for a bucket seat and mounted it as low as I could. That let my head come to a reasonable height in the cabin so I could see the traffic lights at a stop w/o bending over, and the lower position allowed me to extend my legs out more. I’m not as tall as you, but others have done similar mods to the car to make it fit better. The bucket seats were also pretty awesome! I got the upright position I like anyway and it was very comfortable since I could keep my body relaxed in cornering, etc.

  2. Excellent timing. I just started contemplating an S2K. I’m planning to opt for the early model with the higher redline, and add a turbo. The savings over the CR make it awfully tempting, even with internal engine work.

    • I think it’s a good plan. One can usually duplicate (or even improve on) factory packages such as the CR for less money; or you can put the money into different areas, such as engine work over the CR’s body kit, etc.

      I had the opportunity, years ago, to drive one of these things at Ludicrous Speed through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel at about 2 in the morning…. the reverb off the tiles was incredible!

  3. The used prices of these reflect their excellence; I contemplated an S2000 as a track car before I settled on a Miata. The S2000’s go for five times the price!

    Granted, S2000’s are newer and I was looking at mid-90’s Miatas.

    The S2000 is the affordable brother of the NSX, long live the NSX!

    Today’s NSX-equivalent is the Audi R8–the V8, not the V10; the V8 mimics the NSX’s slightly under-engined feel. The engine never overpowers the chassis in an NSX, and the R8 V8 has the same delicacy.

    Heck, adjusted for inflation the R8 is slightly cheaper, too!

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