Spoiler alert: I like this car… but I don’t love it. “Love” is a word I reserve for cars that stir my soul, like the track-prepped early 80’s 911 Targa I drove on a country road one perfect spring day. That moved me in a way this clinical roadster probably never will. But I do genuinely like this car. It’s an excellent sports car in every way, and were it not for the memory of that sonorous air-cooled 911, it might be called perfect.
This was not a car I expected to own. So many have become victims of the Fast-and-Furious craze that it’s hard to find a stock, well-cared for example for less than $20k. That’s getting close to first-generation Cayman S money, and that car is higher on my “want” list. So, the car was not on my radar… until one afternoon late in December of last year. I was searching craigslist as we are all wont to do when bored, and suddenly, there it was. In my town. A 2002 with only 17,000 miles. Bone-stock. For only $16,000! “It’s got to be a scam,” I cautioned myself. But the plates and VIN were included, and a quick Carfax report indicated it was, indeed, a single-owner car bought and serviced its whole life in my town. So, I contacted the owner by email. And phone. And text. And paced my house knowing this deal was too good to pass. Half an hour later we had a gentlemen’s agreement for this outrageous price.
The temperature dropped the next day as we met at a local bank. But I couldn’t care less. The car was as-advertised, which was already better than I could have hoped. The owner, a professor at our local university, had realized his pricing error after getting a slew of phone calls after mine. But he was a man of his word and honored our agreement. A test drive and undercarriage inspection revealed no concerns, and I couldn’t help laughing when he told me, “It goes to 9000 rpm, but I’ve never gotten anywhere close to that.” No wonder he wanted to sell it. An S2000 that never sees the RPM-stratosphere is a waste of a car, in my opinion. More on that later.
Now for my review. Since you can find all the specifications of a 2002 (AP1) S2000, on Wikipedia, I’ll jump right to my impressions of it. Having owned her for six months, I’ve reached a few conclusions.
First, we can put to rest the tired cliché, “It’s just like a Miata.” To some extent, anything with four wheels that burns unleaded is “just like a Miata.” The question is, how much like a Miata is it? I’ve had the privilege of owning both a first and second generation Miata. The first was track-prepped when I bought it. The second was stock, and I built it into a competent track car. I’ve also driven a track-prepped third generation Miata on track. In short, the S2000 stock is more similar to a track prepped Miata than a stock Miata. Out of the box, the S2000 chassis is dramatically stiffer than the Miata chassis. It doesn’t suffer the cowl shakes and audible thuds so common to the Miata life. It is also more engaging around corners than a stock Miata. It exhibits far less body roll and therefore takes a set more quickly. It is more eager to rotate, and can be coaxed between understeer and oversteer with the throttle, while a stock Miata tends towards understeer in most if not all conditions. Part of this tendency to rotate comes from engine placement. Pop the hood and see how far back the engine is placed relative to the front axle (see engine bay picture below). This is actually an FMR layout (front mid-engine, rear wheel drive) rather than simply a front-engine car. That centralized placement of mass lowers the polar moment of inertia, making the car quick to rotate. Yes, this has led to many an amateur street-racer’s demise in first-generation S2000’s. Well, that and the odd dynamic rear toe Honda designed into the chassis. Toe-out increases under compression, amplifying the car’s tendency to rotate, which is fine until you hit an unexpected bump mid-corner near the limit. That can be quite a surprise the first time you feel it! But with good tires and adequate mental preparation, that quick-to-rotate nature leads to very fun driving. It’s hard not to smile when pushing this car around a corner.
However, this increased capability is also where the S2000 suffers compared to a stock Miata on the street. The Miata felt like a go-kart, especially the first gen. Seventy-miles-an-hour seemed like 120 in that car. And that’s a good thing because seventy is as good as I can do most days given traffic and my fear of flashing lights. The S2000 is too capable to feel fun at the speed “regular” cars drive. Result: I’m frustrated at slow drivers much more often in this car than the Miata! Give me an open, twisty road and it’s heaven. Put me behind a Kia Rio and my blood boils. So, in typical driving situations around town, a Miata may actually be more fun and less frustrating. But the S2000 is still far more capable and special of a car to drive. And as for appearance and interior accoutrements… there is no comparison. The S2000 is in a different league than a Miata (and should be for the price).
Second, an S2000 is all about that engine. Back to the previous owner’s comment. A first generation S2000 below 6200 rpm, the approximate point of VTEC engagement, is a dullard. It has no discernible torque. It feels like a Civic… not an SI, mind you, but a base Civic. And that may be too generous. But get it up on-cam and everything changes. It screams to life. It sounds dramatic, especially with the air-box cover removed (yes, purists, I know that hurts my intake air temperatures, but it sounds much better and that’s what I care about!) An S2000 without this engine would still be significantly different than a Miata for the reasons mentioned above. But add that engine and the difference grows exponentially. There are just so few cars that let you rev freely to 9000 rpm. That’s one reason I’d take a first generation S2000 over a second. I’ll trade mid-range torque any day of the week for that stratospheric redline. Other cars that can do this – an LFA, a GT3, a 458 – cost orders of magnitude more. So, for us mere mortals, an S2000 is the only realistic way to experience the thrill of an engine that JUST. KEEPS. REVVING. Now that does take a conscious adjustment in driving style. Every time I get in this car, I have to remind myself to hold a gear longer than I imagine possible (once the engine’s warmed to operating temperature, of course!). It’s just so ingrained to shift by 6000. But stay with it and the engine rewards you with power and a scream unlike any other. The engine makes the car in an S2000.
Third, the gearbox is without equal. Much has been written on the perfection that is the 6-speed manual in this car. Every “snick” feels perfect. I hope that when manual gearboxes become extinct, this will be the exemplar encased in glass at the Smithsonian. It is just that good. Porsche, BMW, and Miata manuals are great, but none can compare to this.
Fourth, passengers can go jump in a lake. They don’t count at all in this car. They get one vent and zero controls. There’s a huge hump in the middle of their foot well. Honda built this car for one person: the driver. I’ve never been in a cockpit so singularly focused towards the steering wheel. I can reach everything I care about, other than the shifter, without removing a hand. AC? Check. Fan speed? Check. Radio volume? Check. Cruise? Check. Everything is within immediate reach. That goes for the gauges as well. I did not expect to love the tachometer. Digital tachs feel 1980’s Corvette-cheap to me. But I was wrong. This one is right where I want it and it’s easy to see even when at speed. It even flashes when you get close to redline, a helpful feature with an engine that revs so quickly. The speedometer is also easy to read with your eyes still on the road, another helpful feature to have in a quick car. Overall, the interior gets four out of five stars. Why take off a star? For the same reason everyone else does: there is just not enough storage in this car. The “glove box” behind the driver’s shoulder is a pain to get into when buckled. Why not have a real glove box? It wasn’t like Honda cared about the passenger anyways. I’d trade a bit more of my passenger’s comfort for a descent glovebox.
Fifth, there are a few shortcomings. Let’s divide these into two categories: shortcomings that are endemic to roadsters, and shortcomings that Honda could have easily avoided. There are a few shortcomings with this car that are simply unavoidable in a roadster. It’s cramped inside and, as mentioned, storage is very limited. Trunk space is also at a minimum since Honda kindly included an actual spare tire. Road and wind noise are, of course, significantly higher than in a coupe or a car with a retractable hard top. Ingress and egress are challenging, though not Lotus Elise challenging.
Now for shortcomings Honda could have mitigated. At the top of my list is the undefeatable passenger airbag. I have twin eight-year-olds to whom I’m trying to pass on my love of sports cars. What better car than an S2000 with the top down on a spring day in the country? But Honda would have none of that. Their manual explicitly states no one under twelve should ever ride in this car. Seriously?! All they had to do was put a weight-sensing switch in the passenger seat or, better yet, give us a manual “off” airbag lock like in second generation Miatas. Bad call, Honda. Next up, they gave us an excellent, supportive, beautiful leather driver’s seat… with very limited adjustability. It’s too high up for my tall torso, but I can’t adjust height or bench rake. I can only move it forward and back and adjust back rake. I don’t need electric seat adjustment in a roadster. But I do need more adjustment than this. Couple that with the non-adjustable steering wheel, and your options are limited. I may buy a rail lowering kit to get an extra inch of clearance. But I shouldn’t need to. This was easily fixable.
Some owners would add two more items to our shortcomings list. First, the aforementioned dynamic rear toe that makes the car less predictable in cornering. Personally, it doesn’t bother me because I like a car that keeps the adrenaline flowing. Turn off the radio, put the phone away, PAY ATTENTION and you’ll have a blast. Second, the dreaded timing chain tensioner that tends to fail at some point in one’s ownership. Yes, this should have been better engineered. But come on, this is an engine that can rev to 9000 repeatedly for tens of thousands of miles without damage. One deficient, and easily replaceable part is hardly worth docking points over, in my opinion.
Finally, one word of warning. If you buy an S2000, please don’t skimp on tires. From what I’ve read, many of the S2000’s that have ended up in a ditch suffered from cheap or dry-rotted tires. This is a brilliant sports car with a twitchy (and therefore fun!) rear end. So, give it grip. My first purchase was a set of Conti Extreme Contact Sports in stock staggered size. Six months later, I couldn’t be happier with that choice. They grip well in any condition for a truly streetable tire. When they do break away in a tight corner, it’s always predictable and easily catchable. If you’re going to pony up for an S2000, don’t cheat your car with cheap rubber. Give it what it deserves!
All this leaves me with just one question: how long should I keep this S2000? I really do like this car, but I don’t love it. So, it’s no surprise to find me still surfing Craigslist when I’m bored. My holy grail is still the mythical air-cooled 911 listed thousands below fair market value. There’s plenty… and they’re all scams. But I hold out hope because, for all the wonderful competence of my S2000, it still doesn’t captivate me the way that old 911 did. But if that 911 never materializes, I will count myself fortunate to have owned this brilliant roadster as long as she’ll have me.
As always, comments, questions, likes, and shares are appreciated. Let me know if I can improve my writing and/or automotive reviewing skills. And let me know if you have an interesting car you’d like me to review. A lengthy test drive will be required, though 😉