20 years on, Honda’s S2000 leads the pack
Roadster lovers were spoiled for choice in the early 2000s. Following the surprise, smash success of the original Miata a decade earlier, automakers rushed to feed a growing hunger for dedicated, two-seat open-air sports cars. These days, the Honda S2000 is among the most beloved (and highest-valued) of these successors. In fact, for more than five years, pre- and post-refresh S2000s have sat atop the 2000s-era roadster market. So what’s this Honda’s secret sauce?
The front-mid-engine, rear-drive, six-speed-manual-only S2000 reached showrooms for the 2000 model year, which made it fashionably late to this topless party. The Germans were first to the jump, with the BMW Z3, Mercedes-Benz SLK, Porsche Boxster, and Audi TT all arriving by 1998. Each car had its merits—the Z3’s smooth straight-six, the SLK’s luxury appointments, the Boxster’s expert chassis balance, and the TT’s cutting-edge Bauhaus design. Leave it to Honda, however, to take the Miata’s formula of sports car purity and add a dose of high-revving thrill.
Based on the Honda Sport Study Model concept for the 1995 Tokyo motor show, and drawing influence from classic Honda roadsters like the S500 and S800, the S2000 prioritized light weight, balance, and responsiveness. The SSM concept drew inspiration from Honda’s Formula 1-winning race cars of the mid-1960s, which won acclaim for their compact and lightweight V-12 engines.
The S2000 does not pack a V-12, but its F20C naturally aspirated four-cylinder was nonetheless remarkable for its time. The aluminum-alloy, dual-overhead-cam engine featured Honda’s signature VTEC variable valve timing, along with a screaming 8800-rpm redline that yielded 240 hp and 153 lb-ft of torque from just 2.0 liters of displacement. Those numbers amounted to the highest specific output (power per liter of displacement) of any production engine in the world at the time.
Honda’s “high X-bone frame” and monocoque body allowed for the engine to be positioned as far toward the center of the car as possible, helping the S2000 achieve an enviable 50:50 weight distribution. Sixteen-inch wheels wrapped around 11-inch disc brakes, hiding double wishbone suspension all around. Known for its fantastic manual transmissions, Honda developed an all-new six-speed for the S2000 that included close-ratio gears, a short and direct-feeling linkage, and lightweight flywheel. A Torsen limited-slip differential came standard.
The car was an undeniable success, touted by media and owners alike for its unfiltered, unfettered sports car experience. Its $32,000 starting price was considerable at the turn of the millennium, when the Accord cost half that much. The S2000 was, however, about six grand cheaper than a comparable Z3, and roughly fifteen grand cheaper than a base-model Boxster. In typical Honda fashion, it was a car that overperformed for its price point and won legions of followers. More than 113,000 S2000s were sold globally until it went out of production after the 2009 model year, with U.S. customers accounting for 66,000 cars—more than half of the total run.
Rarity, then, is not a factor driving the S2000’s value and desirability. Instead, we’d argue, the motivating forces here are twofold: a carefully distilled driving experience and its uniqueness in the pantheon of Honda sports cars.
An S2000 at full blast is a singular experience. Even the 2007 AP2 car we drove at Michigan’s GingerMan Raceway, with its slightly tamer personality compared the earlier AP1, offers delightful sensations that the great-driving Boxster can’t match. The engine is the star—lively and fearsomely responsive to your right foot. Between 6000 rpm and its peak at 8000 rpm, the updated “F22C1” 2.2-liter produces a gorgeous, eager hum. AP1 cars take that sensation further with their higher redline, albeit at the expense of mid-range oomph and tractability on ordinary driving.
We were able to tackle most of the track in third gear alone. During our first passes on the front and back straight at GingerMan, however, we accidentally short-shifted a few hundred rpm shy of the limiter, trusting our ear instead of the F1-style digital tachometer. The shifter is picture-perfect, with short, deliberate throws and a more mechanical feel with each gear engagement than in a Z3 or Boxster.
The chassis, too, feels distinctive. You notice this mostly through the car’s balance, which remains consistent and predictable even at high speed and under heavy inputs. (AP2 cars are known to be more forgiving in this regard, following suspension changes to the original AP1 that in some customer hands resulted in unexpected oversteer.) Body roll is minimal. The S2000 changes direction seemingly the moment you command it to, dancing through a succession of tighter, faster corners with delightful disregard for inertia. Steering is electrically assisted but sniper-precise and mighty quick. Feedback via the Boxster’s and Miata’s steering wheel is perhaps more nuanced, but only the S2000 makes you feel like you’re wearing it rather than driving it.
Interior designers took a minimalist approach to the S2000s interior. It’s snug rather than cramped, but for longer road trips something like a Nissan 350Z would be more comfortable. Everything is arranged with the driver in mind. The tidy suite of climate controls are stacked next to the steering wheel. There is no typical center console, and even the radio is hidden behind a small plastic door. The steering wheel itself is small without feeling dainty, with thin yet still substantial-feeling rim. Leather trim on the seats and doors offers a slightly more premium experience than your typical 2000s Honda, which helped justify the S2000’s position above the Miata in the marketplace.
Looking at #2-condition (Excellent) cars, AP2 S2000 values surpassed the earlier AP1 in early 2022. One possible explanation for this phenomenon is that they’re newer and lower-mileage, as well as a bit more usable in daily driving thanks to the improvement in low- and mid-range torque.
No S2000 commands more dollars in the market than the Club Racer, however. This limited-run, special-edition S2000 was specially tuned for track work. Offered solely for the 2008 and 2009 model years, the CR represented a subtle but comprehensive overhaul of the entire S2000 package. At launch, American Honda executive vice president John Mendel called the CR “the closest thing you can get to a Honda-built racecar with license plate holders and a horn.” Changes included revised exterior aerodynamics, structural bracing and stiffening, a standard aluminum hardtop replacing the ordinary soft top, a quicker steering ratio, stiffer dampers and anti-roll bars, wider wheels (still measuring 17 inches in diameter), and a cloth interior with yellow stitching. Total weight savings amounted to 90 pounds.
In the CR’s case, rarity certainly plays a role in its appeal. Honda built fewer than 700 examples when production was cut short mid-2009, ostensibly in light of slowing sales following the global financial crisis.
An S2000 CR in Excellent condition now commands $108,000, an increase of 21.5 percent over the last year. For context, that’s the exact same price for a 1992 Acura NSX. A base AP2 S2000 over that same time frame has gained just 5.3 percent, costing $44,000 on average. This massive price leap for the CR exceeds even what we’ve seen from the Porsche Boxster Spyder and Cayman R, as well as the BMW Z3 M Roadster.
Jonathan Wong owns the white S2000 featured here. He’s had a blue 2008 CR in his stable since 2011, a car he’s casually and regularly tracked throughout his ownership. Wong picked up the white car a couple years ago after driving a friend’s modified S2000, eager to dive into a higher-mileage car that he’d feel comfortable tweaking as he saw fit.
“I knew there was a possibility that if I went down the modification hole, I may end up going farther than I originally intended to. Was I going to do those things to my still clean, low-mileage CR? I thought about it for a second, but I stuck with the promise I made to myself when I originally bought the car 12 years ago that it would remain stock.”
So far the only changes he’s made to his white 2007 are braided brake lines with high-performance fluid and pads, but he’s eyeing a set of Öhlins suspension to swap on when time allows.
For normal road driving, he already much prefers the standard S2000 to the CR: “My white S2000 is certainly more compliant compared to the CR,” he says. “There’s more give in the suspension, which is very appreciated while bumming around town and taking drives across the state. In the CR, after a driving a couple hours to and from GingerMan from metro Detroit for an open track day, I’d feel wrecked. That’s not the case in the white car, which is not itself a luxurious ride, but the difference is noticeable.”
Naturally, the CR has the edge on track. “The CR feels a touch more buttoned-up—crisper and more rapid to respond at turn-in. Weight transitions are quicker side to side and under braking. All of that stiffening and bracing don’t represent a gigantic leap over the stock car, but they sharpen an already sharp knife. The base car is still hugely enthralling to drive on a track, though, more so even today’s Mazda Miata with its high dose of body roll before the car takes a set.”
Regardless of which S2000 enthralls you most, all signs point to Honda’s roadster remaining a healthy collectible for the foreseeable future. Maintenance is not Civic-cheap, but it’s certainly more palatable than a Boxster or Z3, and the clean, frill-free styling has aged well since the car’s debut more than two decades ago. And for Honda die-hards in the U.S. especially, the S2000 represents an anomaly—the brand’s only rear-drive sports car on these shores since the Acura-badged NSX supercar. It’s a dedicated roadster on a specialized platform, a consequence of several driving-obsessed Honda engineers scrambling into a room and locking the door before the marketing wonks could claw their way inside. A Honda with the S2000’s particular combination of power, agility, and classic sports-car design is a special one, indeed.