In 1995, at the Tokyo Motor Show, Honda unveiled a concept car that would preview what what become the S2000. It was dubbed the ‘SSM’ – the ‘Sports Study Model’ – and was a radical-looking machine with eye-catching design cues such as low-slung front lights and individual ‘cockpits’ for the occupants.
However, the SSM was not just an attention-grabbing styling exercise. Underneath its exterior panels, which were designed in collaboration with Pininfarina, was a stiff chassis that rode on double-wishbone suspension derived from the flagship NSX. The SSM’s engine was similarly evocative; its five glorious-sounding cylinders displaced two litres and benefitted from Honda’s fabled VTEC system.
Alas, the SSM also inherited some other hardware from the NSX that might have raised the odd eyebrow – namely a five-speed automatic transmission, which was developed from the F-Matic unit found in its bigger brother.
Nevertheless, the 155mph-capable Honda drew much interest – and it was patently obvious that it was more than a mere concept. The company had much history producing similarly compact two-seat sports cars, for starters, such as the 9,500rpm-redlined S500 of 1963.
More to the point, the company was soon to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Launching an advanced new sports car, without a shadow of a doubt, would be a fine way to commemorate such a moment.
A 50TH BIRTHDAY PRESENT AS CONCEPT BECOMES REALITY
Three years later, Honda marked its 50th anniversary by unveiling a prototype of an all-new sports car called the S2000. The sleek rear-drive roadster, aimed at keen drivers and underpinned with race-bred technology, was effectively a production version of the SSM.
It retained the arrow-like nose and low bonnet line of the SSM, for example, as well as features such as the double-wishbone suspension. Even the F1-inspired liquid-crystal display used for the instruments in the SSM made the leap to the S2000, albeit in a redesigned form.
One area that was notably revised for the production car, which arrived on the market in 1999, was the powertrain. Gone, to the delight of many an enthusiast, was the automatic transmission; instead, in its place, was a lightweight six-speed manual transmission with a short-shift gear lever.
Unfortunately, also canned was the five-cylinder VTEC engine. Not all was lost, though, as what replaced it was a more compact four-cylinder engine called the ‘F20C’. Aside from the fact that it produced an impressive 237bhp, which allowed the S2000 to sprint from 0-62mph in just 6.2 seconds, it initially redlined at a heady 9,000rpm. It also produced almost 119bhp per litre, which was claimed to be greater than any other naturally aspirated engine on the market – including those from Ferrari.
HERE FOR A DECADE, GONE FOR A DECADE
The highlights of the engine were myriad; Honda’s VTEC system, hollow camshafts, lightweight rocker arms and springs, forged aluminium pistons, direct ignition, a ladder-frame brace to stiffen the block, forged and case-hardened steel connecting rods, a compression ratio of 11:1 – and more – all played their part in delivering such prodigious capabilities. The F20C proved so impressive, in fact, that it was ultimately awarded five class wins at the Engine of the Year Awards.
It wasn’t just the powerplant that impressed, mind; the S2000 benefitted from 50:50 weight distribution, a low centre of gravity, a strong ‘high X-bone frame’ chassis and compact dimensions. These traits, in conjunction with its carefully judged driving position and a kerb weight of 1,260kg, meant that the S2000 measured up in the corners as well as on the straights.
Much like the Mazda MX-5, the S2000 also fared comparatively well on the practicality front. It had a decent range, a boot with room for two large bags, supportive seats and good interior room. The roof was even powered, so S2000 owners could enjoy top-down driving at the press of a button.
The compelling overall package offered by the S2000 would subsequently lead it to win countless other awards, while its sales figures would continue to climb. Numerous revisions would follow, too, including a comprehensive update in 2004 that aimed to tame some of the earlier car’s snappy on-the-limit handling characteristics.
Remarkably, almost ten years after it was launched, the Honda was still soldiering on – but the launch of the ‘Ultimate Edition’, in January 2009, heralded the beginning of the end; in June, after ten successful years and countless miles of high-rpm fun, the S2000 production lines fell silent.
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