There has been no shortage of words written about the Honda S2000 on the internet. In fact, when a RRR request came in from Ryan in the ATL for his new-to-him 2000 AP1 S2K, my first thought was, “Why? It’s been done to death.”
Okay, that’s a total lie. My first thought was “Hell yes. When and where?”
You see, the S2K and I have a bit of history. There are a lot of pictures on the Internet of me driving various S2000s, and nearly all of them look something like this:
My good friend Marc and I campaigned an S2K in SCCA National Solo for a little over four years. I had some really good results (and some really bad ones) but most importantly, I always had fun behind the wheel. The S2K, especially in its original AP1 format (available beginning in the 2000 model year through 2003), gives even the best drivers fits. In order to get a winning run out of one, the driver must constantly be at the threshold of disaster, trusting both his car and his reflexes to the nth degree. On an autocross course, that can mean a trophy-winning day just as easily as it can mean a day with all dirty runs. High risk, high reward.
On the street, it can mean you’ve found yourself neatly wrapped around a tree, and the low acquisition cost of the S2K meant that younger, aggressive drivers often did. As a result, Honda made several changes to the car for the 2004 model year (AP2), including a more stable suspension, bigger wheels with wider tires, and a slightly longer stroke. The downside of this, in the eyes of many, was the lowering of the redline from just under 9K to 8K. This led to nearly endless bench racing debate on S2K forums about which model was better, a debate that was effectively squashed when Honda released the eye-violating, lightweight Club Racer edition for the 2008 model year. The CR won nearly everything it entered for the next several years, and is still the dominant car in several SCCA classes today.
I realize that for most of you this is remedial knowledge, but ponder this for a moment: the S2000 has now been discontinued in the US for seven model years. If you’re a young man leaving college today, the S2K has never been available for you to buy as new car since you got your license. It has been gone nearly as long as it existed.
While its main competitor, the Mazda MX-5, continues its run into a highly anticipated fourth generation, the S2000 is as dead as John Cleese’s Norwegian Blue. It seems like it was born from a Honda that no longer really exists. Perhaps that is why the S2000 continues to command such exorbitant prices on the used car market. What other modern non-exotic still retains fifty percent of its original value fifteen years later?
Now, let’s meet Ryan. Ryan is a young IT professional from Atlanta. His last car was a 2014 Camaro SS that he bought when GM bought back his 2013 Camaro V6 under lemon law circumstances (heads replaced three times, followed by an entirely new motor). Unfortunately, the SS just became too expensive to own and operate in the city, so he recently set out to find another car that would satisfy his requirements of being inexpensive, small (he owned a MINI before the Zetas), fun, and big-city friendly.
Other options included the NC Miata, NB Mazdaspeed Miata, 350Z, and RX-8. Although he had an FC RX-7 in high school, he didn’t want the hassle and poor gas mileage of the Renesis. The 350Z was a bit of a tight squeeze, and the extra HP of the S2K over the Miata was just too much of a temptation to ignore.
As a result, Ryan says, “I went on a mission to find the best S2000 I could afford.” After several searches, he finally struck gold—or more appropriately, Silverstone, the gorgeous dark grey of his new ride.
“It was a one-family car. The uncle had been the original owner, and after fourteen years, he gave it to his nephew. The nephew sold it to me three months later to pay for a wedding.” Ryan had owned it for all of three weeks when he made the ill-advised decision to let me review it.
After meeting Ryan for a quick and delicious lunch at the Lazy Goat in Greenville, SC, we made our way down to the parking garage where I got my first look at Ryan’s new baby.
I couldn’t believe it. The car looked as through it had somehow been sent from 2000 to 2014 through a wormhole in the space-time continuum. 46,000 miles on the clock. Original shocks. Only one ding—a minuscule dot on the passenger door—and nary a scratch to be seen. No curbing on any of the wheels. The interior was showroom quality. My only complaint? The BF Goodrich g-Force Sport Comp 2 tires it was sporting. There are lots of great tire choices for an AP1—that isn’t one of them. “Please get a set of Star Specs or Ventu R-S 3s,” I offered kindly. “You’ll thank me later.”
As we wound the car up around the wonderfully curvaceous roads of Greenville, the roadster came to life. The engine felt as fresh as that of any S2K I’ve ever driven, and the familiar sound of the short-stroke four cylinder rang out through the stock exhaust as I found the maximum power of the car between 7-8k on the tach.
AP1s have a few known trouble areas, and the clutch and differential are right at the top of any pre-purchase-inspection list. A telling sign of an AP1 that’s seen import racer duty is a worn second-gear synchro. No such troubles here—Ryan’s car snapped through the pattern flawlessly. I was concerned when Ryan told me that he had to replace the rear tires when he bought the car—that meant it had already burned through the original Potenzas and had now burned through a set of BFGs in the rear. However, the diff appeared to be no worse off for it. I didn’t launch his car at any point, though, and I recommended that he be gentle with it, as well.
The best gear of the AP1 is third gear. The motor was happiest here, as the worries of low-end torque disappeared and it simply sang along the road. However, the true magic of the S2K AP1 lies in the gearbox. The pedals are neatly arranged so that even your size-nine-footed author can easily heel-toe his way into a second gear downshift around the tightest of corners. Ryan mentioned that he found it difficult getting the car into first gear under any type of motion.
At the mention of this foible, I shot the car down a side street into a narrow lane with 15 MPH turns. Rev matching an S2K into the low cog takes practice—approximately four years of it, at last count, for me—but it can be done with ease once your ear becomes accustomed to the right sounds. Just getting used to the fact that 8,000 RPM is not only safe, but actually where the car is happiest, can be quite a challenge. The car did exactly what I asked it to do, rotating slightly under throttle after the downshift and correcting.
Unfortunately, my confidence to push the adhesion limits of the car was severely limited by the BFGs. The total lack of feedback from the tires made it difficult to know where the breaking point was, and I certainly wasn’t willing to find out we had passed it in another person’s car on a public road. The AP1 really needs a proper suspension and tire combination to reach its full potential as a driver. Without it, the car feels soft and unpredictable. The good news is that a set of Koni Sports, Hankooks, and a bigger front sway bar are all that’s needed to correct this issue.
And that’s the great thing about the AP1. It’s a blank canvas, but the paint by numbers sets are easy to find and readily available. All the engine tuning and suspension research has been done and done again on it, and the sticky topics are right there on the forums for you to read and duplicate. Provided you find a good early example that hasn’t been thrashed, it’s a hard deal to beat for an enthusiast. Buy a good example for $10K, put another 2-3 into it along with a good rollbar,and you’ve got a car that can run around any road course with nearly anything out there. Ryan said he hopes to get into autocrossing, and I gave him the names of some great S2K drivers in Atlanta who I know will be glad to help him get started.
Despite all the fuss made about Miatas by enthusiasts here and elsewhere, I think I’d make the same call Ryan made—the S2K simply does everything a Miata does and then some. Even at fifteen years of age, the design is a head turner. It has aged much better than other competitors that came later. For whatever reason, it appears to have been abandoned by the import racer types in favor of other cars. Their loss is your gain. Go buy one—you won’t be sorry.
Thanks to Ryan for not only supplying his car but for driving two hours to meet me. Congrats on a great buy!