Driven: The Honda S2000

Driven: The Honda S2000

Words: Abhay Verma
Photography: Sachin Kawankar

Front engine, rear- wheel drive, 240bhp from a naturally aspirated 2.0-litre petrol and a kerb weight of under 1200kg. Back in 1999 when Honda launched this car it held the record for the highest specific output from a naturally aspirated engine – 120bhp per litre – a record beaten only by the Ferrari 458 Italia a decade later and that too by a mere 5bhp. Honda’s gem revved to 8900rpm and got sports car enthusiasts all messy in the pants when they drove it.

Of course the engine had VTEC and no, the Honda S2000 didn’t need a VTEC badge on its rump like the Honda City. Its lithe two-door, open-top silhouette gave enough hints about its intent. Powered by a twin-cam, 2.0-litre, naturally- aspirated engine mated to a slick close ration six-speed manual transmission, unequal length control arm suspension and disc brakes all around, Honda didn’t leave much unturned when the S2000 was being designed.

This engine boasted of having the highest mean piston speed and highest specific output for a naturally aspirated production motor. That in effect means that, for its time, the Honda S2000’s pistons moved faster than any other in the world, also making better use of its 1997cc displacement. And of course it revved to the moon with a sonorous exhaust note blaring out once the VTEC kicked in at 6000rpm.

The car you see here is the first generation Honda S2000 that was codenamed AP1 and in production from 1999 to 2003. It attained cult status rather instantly – there’s wasn’t much low rev shove, so it encouraged drivers to rev its nuts off. Because it’s a Honda, there was no problem repeatedly hammering against the redline – the insides of the Honda S2000’s cylinders were coated with special composites, previously used only on the NSX and Prelude, to reduce frictional losses and quicken the step of those super-fast pistons. Also, for the first time, Honda used a chain driven valve train in a bid to do away with the usual risks of failure and inconsistency. With this kind of techno-wizardry the S2000 was a typical Honda – way ahead of its time in terms of both technology and design. Today I’m going to drive it. The car you see here belongs to one of evo’s friends – Amer Beg – a professional racer and petrolhead. With Amer willing to let me drive his car, I was quick to convince the Ed to allow me to make a trip to Hyderabad and let the VTEC kick in! And this car is no grey import, it was his daily runner back when he was studying in Canada and after pulling a few strings was able to get it down when he returned to India.

It’s the Honda S2000’s super-long hood that first catches your attention thanks to the longitudinally mounted inline four. But an open top and two sporty, supportive seats are what truly dictate the S2000’s roadster credentials. The cockpit is a simple affair from a time when cars themselves were simpler but this one’s instrument cluster did have a nod to the future – a large, amber-coloured, digital strip running horizontally served as the rev counter. And quirkily, you have to turn a key and press a start button to bring that engine alive. And no, the same button does not kill the engine! To do that you need to turn the key. It did get cruise control, but no other electronics like stability or traction control. I like it!

The engine fired up as soon as I thumbed the starter button, and that’s despite over 50,000km on the odometer. It sounded pretty quiet at idle, with just the smooth purr typical of Hondas. This was the first time I was driving a left hand drive car with a manual transmission in India and that did take a few minutes to get used to. The gearbox seemed to respond with precise, clinical shifts, the lever slotting in perfectly. Now, the VTEC on this one, kicks in only at 6000rpm and until then it really feels like a lull before the storm. In fact Amer tells me you could potter all day long at revs below 6000rpm and drive the S2000 like an everyday car. He said driving sanely also returns great fuel efficiency, and that’s what VTEC is meant for.

However, step on the gas and let the revs hit that sweet spot and the car is quick to display its alter ego as the cam lobes switch over. The exhaust note changes, the engine powers the car ahead with an urgency that hitherto was hidden and you’re thrust deep into the bucket seats. It is a wonderful feeling, and you really can’t help but keep the loud pedal buried. Acceleration is quick, and once VTEC kicks in properly the S2000 becomes a genuine sportscar. The engine pulls cleanly to the redline, and the exhaust note only gets sweeter as you close in on it. Watching the tachometer’s digital slider hit the 6000rpm mark is a delight in itself with the amber coloured lights coming on quickly, but I had to keep my eyes firmly on the road given the brisk pace with which the car was building speeds.

The handling is still sharp by modern standards, the steering feels precise and well- weighted and this is partly down to the rigid chassis that uses a large section centre tunnel to keep things stiff. The stiff chassis also allowed engineers to go soft on the damper settings which is why the ride in this Honda S2000 feels taut but not too stiff. It’s proof that suspension tuning is indeed a black art – so few get it as right as this.

It’s time for me to hand the keys back to Amer but just before I do, I can’t resist one last run to the redline in third. The Honda S2000 maybe a fantastic car to drive but it’s highlight will always be the engine. It’s no wonder then that back in the day, before turbo-petrols turned things on its head, Honda proudly carried around a reputation of making the best engines in the world.

They really don’t make ’em like they used to anymore.

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