Japanese Sports Cars, Part 7: Honda S2000

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The S2000 was on the market for only 10 years, but it became a classic as soon as it rolled off the assembly line.

When in 2009 Honda announced the end of production for the S2000, the news was received with sadness by the car's many fans. Ever since this small roadster with true sports car behavior became the epitome of driving pleasure that also combined great handling and performance, it stood out amongst automotive purists until the very end of its run. It had the real driver's car formula of being fun to drive, with the driver positioned way back almost over the rear axle.

The front-engined, rear-wheel drive roadster had an excellent suspension that contributed much to its handling and general performance. Then there's that wonderful VTEC engine, something only Honda could have done so well. As a whole, the car might even be described as a modern day Lotus 7. Its complete elimination, after just 10 years and without a successor, was a deeply sad event. The S2000 was first conceived in order to commemorate Honda's 50th anniversary. It was first shown as a concept in 1995, but even then it wasn't Honda's first foray into the sports car arena.

The letter 'S' was used decades before just when Honda added to its business card the 'automaker' term. Early on in its automotive career, Honda built some prominent sports cars that gave the company a unique aura among its Japanese peers and set it apart from mainstream Asian automakers. Starting with the S360/500 and culminating with the NSX supercar, those cars were famous for their engine capabilities more than anything else. Appropriately, those sports cars always enjoyed the fanfare of Formula 1 promotion, since Honda was the first Japanese automaker to take on the established F1 teams.

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They became a force to be reckoned with during the 1960s and later in the '80s and '90s. Honda also took part in IndyCar racing and other motorsport categories, always enhancing its image as a sporty and technically minded brand. Honda's reasoning for its massive motorsport involvement was its goal of training engineers and technicians in a racing environment and with racing technology that demanded faster reaction times, an innovative approach and perfect understanding of technologies. Most of its F1 personnel were on the job for just a season or less before going back with their newly acquired experience to work on road cars.

This huge pool of knowledge helped in the design and engineering of the S2000 that was launched in 1999. It was an instant classic the moment it was revealed; a blend of sports car and racing heritage and a successor to the S500 and S800 sports cars launched in the 1960s. Like its predecessors, the S2000 was a lightweight two-seat sports car powered by high-revving engines that utilized unconventional engineering. And just as founder Soichiro Honda claimed he "didn't want to build a car like everyone else's", when questioned about his early sports cars, S2000 chief engineer Shigeru Uehara chose to seek new approaches to the car's design.

He used clever engineering solutions to create a highly efficient and powerful engine that also minimized emissions. Honda introduced its first cars, the S360 and S500, at the 1963 Tokyo Motor Show. 'S' stood for 'sports'. They were small cars with a front engine, rear-wheel drive configuration and a soft folding top. Power for the S360 came from an aluminum 360cc four-cylinder engine with 33hp and could rev to 9,000 rpm. On early models the rev counter actually read up to 14,000rpm. For Honda, revving up engines is a way of life guided by its mechanical philosophy. The S500 was propelled by a high-revving 531 cc engine that produced 44hp at 8000 rpm.

Its motorcycle technology inspiration was evident in its engine as well as in the chain transmission system. It was radical for its time in the handling, performance and balance departments. The car's color scheme, either red or white, wouldn't have been approved by Henry Ford but for Soichiro Honda, who was famous for his untraditional and colorful clothes, it was a natural fit. The S360 never went into full scale production and the S500 was only made until 1964 when it was replaced by the 606cc S600. That car was available as a fastback coupe and a roadster.

Kiwi racer Denny Hulme, the 1967 Formula 1 World Champion, even drove an S600 to a class win in the 1965 ADAC 600km race at the Nurburgring. The S800 made its debut at the 1965 Tokyo Motor Show. It had an independent front suspension with wishbones and torsion bars, precise rack and pinion steering, box-section ladder frame, and a cross-braced chassis. At launch it was chain driven but later this arrangement would be replaced by a conventional live rear axle and a five-speed gearbox. The 791cc engine generated 71hp at 8,000 rpm and revved easily to 10,000rpm.

The NSX, first launched in 1990, showcased Honda's abilities that were built on its F1 experience. The all-aluminum mid-engined supercar brought together rewarding, yet forgiving handling and blistering performance. But all those were only preparations for the S2000 that became a symbol for a generation of driving purists. The first generation S2000 was propelled by a four-cylinder DOHC-VTEC 2.0-liter engine with an output of 240hp and 153 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual gearbox and Torsen limited slip differential were responsible for the power transfer to the rear wheels. The design was inspirational.

The long hood was prominently characterized by bold and sharp lines and wheel arch bulges that emphasized the power under the hood. In 2004 the second generation was launched with improvements done to the chassis components along wider Bridgestone tires. Power output also increased some and some minor changes were also done to the gearbox. Exterior styling wasn't dramatically changed, thought the front and rear ends received some attention. By 2007, less than 2,000 units were being built annually and it was clear that Honda either intended to replace the S2000 or discontinue it outright in the near future.

Besides from the Club Racer trim that premiered in 2007 and the Japan-only Type-S, Honda opted not to launch anymore trim levels. While early work did begin for a replacement, the global recession forced Honda to ditch the project. There has been some early talk once again about a new model that could have an electric motor incorporated for extra boost. Unfortunately, that's still a rumor but the era of a true gasoline-powered Honda roadster appears to be over, making the S2000 a true and timeless classic.

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