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By Ben Selby
The year was 1999. A new millennium was just around the corner, George Lucas was on the verge of releasing the first new Star Wars film in 16 years, and Gran Turismo 2 was the greatest racing game franchise on the Sony Playstation.
For Gran Turismo 2, over 500 licensed cars were available to race and win across real life and fictional race tracks. One of these cars, also launched in 1999 during the game’s development, was one of the “hero” cars of the game itself. The car was the Honda S2000, and it was an instant hit.
The Mazda MX5 may have reignited the public obsession with the back to basic sports car, but Honda were the manufacturer to take it one step further. With the NSX, Integra and Civic Type R leading their VTEC performance arm, the Honda S2000, which harked back to iconic S600 and S800 Honda Sports Cars of the sixties, was Honda’s open top sports car for the noughties.
Produced from 1999 to 2009, the S2000 was a relvealtion, becoming a cult icon with fans and the specialist motoring press. One of the chief reasons of the S2000’s fame, was its engine. The AP1 2.0L F20 and AP2 2.2L F22C VTEC four-cylinder engine.
Producing 177kW and 221Nm of torque, the VTEC with its hot cam profile and superb engineering resulted in a six-speed manual sports car which would reach the national New Zealand open road speed limit in a snip over six seconds and reach 250km/h.
This New Zealand new AP2 example is without doubt the best S2000 in New Zealand. Built in 2009, this S2000 was produced right at the very end of the model’s life. Oh, and it has done 13,500kms since new. With all the original stickers, immaculate engine bay, and even the lingering new car smell still present, its literally like it left the factory.
During recent years it has spent most of its time on display in the new car showroom of Honda Cars Christchurch. Upon seeing it, I was very keen to experience what was essentially a brand-new Honda S2000.
However, as it was not owned by Honda New Zealand, the owner had to give consent to letting me put some mileage on his pride and joy. Fortunately for yours truly, permission was granted, under one condition, don’t let the mileage increase by triple figures.
When I came to collect it, it hadn’t been started in months. However, in typical Honda fashion, it started first pop and settled down to a purring idle. The engine note of an idling S2000 is not terribly exciting. However, once you lean forward to inspect the digital instrument cluster with a 9000rpm redline, you know you are seated in something very special.
The interior itself is completely devoid of anything which would otherwise distract. The stereo is located behind an aluminium-esque panel, all the switchgear for the lights, air conditioning, and volume controls are housed around that aforementioned digital dash and steering wheel. There is no denying Honda want you to focus on the art of driving. Also, who doesn’t love a big red starter button.
The rest of the cabin wraps itself around you, leaving you feeling cocooned by your surroundings. The leather seats are supportive, with decent lateral bolstering to hold you tight. You do sit quite high, resulting in you looking down on the steering wheel somewhat, rather than looking at it.
First gear selected, and I navigated my way out of the showroom and into the heart of inner-city Christchurch. Roof down of course. At a commuting pace, the S2000 is very docile, but not that quick off the mark. In fact, a modern-day hot hatch would probably leave it for dead in a traffic light Grand Prix.
The ride is by no means soft, but its no where near as harsh as I was expecting. It also feels as tight as drum in terms of build quality. Sure, there are a few squeaks and rattles here and there, but not to the point of being annoying.
Hang on, this isn’t right. Pootling around the Christchurch CBD is not the correct way to fully enjoy the Honda S2000. No, you need to aim that handsome nose out of the city, and onto the great wide open. So, I did, and boy was I in for a treat.
Below 4500rpm, there is nothing really dramatic about acceleration. Then you plant you boot, build the revs up to above 5000rpm, then it wakes up. The cam profile changes as VTEC kicks in, and the journey from timid commuting soft top, to balls-out driver’s car begins.
Approaching 7000rpm, every ounce of my being was screaming to change up a gear. Still 2000rpm left. At 8000rpm, your immediate surroundings are engulfed by a screaming naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine.
You are also making very brisk progress indeed. It is at this point the penny drops, this is why the Honda S2000 is so good. Finally, at a snip under 9000rpm, you dive for third gear, and the process begins all over again.
To keep it in the power zone, you need to change gear quite a bit, but shifting through the gears is a pleasure in itself. Honestly, I have seldom found a more satisfying and precise manual gearbox to use.
A modern-day turbo sports car with a larger torque curve will get you up to speed with less effort required. That said, the S2000 is a way more rewarding experience. It wants to be driven hard. It begs you, and constantly says to you, “go on, push a little more”. With no turbo lag, the joys of naturally aspirated VTEC are enjoyed to the full.
Thanks to balanced, well weighted, direct steering, you can coax the S2000 into a fast left or right hander. Plus, you know exactly where the back end is at all times.
It constantly talks to you, letting you know how much to give and when to lift off. With this level of communication ever present, a fast exit out of each bend is guaranteed, and you are reunited with that seductive 9000rpm redline.
My S2000 drive lasted only a few hours before time, and rapidly increasing mileage dictated it was time to return. Back to the showroom it went, and as I walked away, it was hard not to look back in admiration.
The Honda S2000 really gets under your skin. It is already a classic in its own right. Sure, many sports cars have done plenty to change the game, but the S2000 is still so coveted, and just as exciting today as it was then. Gran Turismo for real.