When the Honda S2000 was launched in 1999 with an inimitable 2.0-litre VTEC engine, a six-speed manual and rear-wheel drive, it promised much. But the reviews which followed were a mixed bag; some instantly fell in love, others proclaimed the handling snappy and the 240hp petrol motor conspicuously lacking in mid-range torque. You can't please 'em all, as the saying goes - but, throughout the model's lifecycle, Honda did try its best.
The root of several problems could be traced to the S2000's party piece: its rev-addicted four-cylinder engine. Despite developing a fairly modest 153lb ft of torque and a power output that didn't arrive until the VTEC kicked in at 8,300rpm, the handling complaints related directly to the delivery. When the 2.0-litre unit's valve timing transitioned at high rpm, it delivered a noticeable kick - and if you were, say, fully loaded up through a bend with an open throttle, it wasn't impossible for it to result in an unexpected alteration of your line as a result. Less than ideal if you're unaware it's coming - although it certainly made the car a good deal livelier than the other popular Japanese roadster of the time, the Mk2 Mazda MX-5.
Honda didn't want to drastically alter the powerplant because it was the most powerful naturally-aspirated engine per litre, and with a 9,000rpm redline it supplied a keen USP when measured against the likes of the BMW Z3 and Porsche Boxster. So it looked to the chassis, fitting stiffer springs, softer anti-roll bars and new dampers to smooth out the car's transitions. To the relief of its many fans, the core prospect remained the same; the VTEC motor still pressed to the bulkhead, in-wheel double wishbones and the X-Bone frame underneath ensuring good lateral handling and decent rigidity. It was a setup overseen by Honda's nineties-era Formula 1 engineers, and it stayed almost completely unchanged throughout the car's 10-year run.
The cabin also remained large unchanged through the car's life, which is a good thing because it weds roadster tradition to Japanese functionality rather well. Although, much to the annoyance of oddly shaped drivers, even the very last variant, the 2009 Edition 100 run out, didn't get a tilt or rake wheel adjustment or height adjustment on the sports seats, which feels even more unacceptable today than it would have done a decade ago. Adjusting to the slightly-tall-seat, oddly-low-steering-wheel takes a while. But with your legs stretched out in the tunnel-like footwell, a lengthy bonnet ahead and a wraparound dash, it feels like a sports car alright.
Kudos to the designers for placing all of the key controls for heating and the radio around the instrument cluster, as it's the digital display - we mean digital in the nineties sense - that monopolises your view. You've analogue Porsche display-like functionality when it comes to getting all the information you need at a glance, not least the mighty spin of the motor, presented in an idiosyncratically Japanese way. It suits the car and that engine down to a tee, and helps you forget the absence of other newer conveniences.
If nothing else, the conspicuous rev counter does serve to illustrate the absence of thrust at middling engine speeds. Compared with the explosive top-end, where the stacked bars light up as quickly as your eye can move left to right, the labouring through lower revs is plotted as a slow march. It's hardly sluggish, mind - but any modern turbocharged engine would show the VTEC unit a clean pair of heels. What it could not do is teach Honda anything about engine performance beyond 6,000rpm, where it really comes alive - especially when the engine's airbox top cover is removed to expose the cone filter within.
It sounds fantastic, growling as it inhales at lower revs and then becoming noticeably louder as it screams towards that distant redline. This is a four-pot that you can genuinely love for its noise alone, although that high-revving temperament and the tactile, quick-shifting six-speed 'box attached to it aren't far behind. The gear knob clicks from cog to cog and the engine is so responsive that the shifts can be rushed. And progress is very good; the claimed 6.2 second 0-62mph time tells only half the story because once rolling and kept at its peak, the car properly hammers down a road. The standing start time is no doubt hampered by the few tenths when the motor isn't spinning fast enough.
The assisted steering has decent feel, too; enough for you to accurately gauge the effect of you working the nose into a bend. Lateral body control is typical of a noughties sports car as there's a small amount of roll, but the dampers soon clench and keep things consistently supported under load. You can carry some serious speed, too, which the S2000's natural balance will cheerily respond to. Even off-throttle corner entry can be met with delicate rotation. This agility can be exploited, of course, via the car's limited-slip diff, providing its owner with a number of options at an apex. In our well-kept, 38,000-mile old Edition 100 at least, there's none of the snappiness that plagued earlier cars. You feel utterly in control of its movements and smack-bang in the centre of any rotation.
If there's a complaint, it's that it means the Honda is firm riding at lower speeds, so much so that there's audible scuttle rattle over bumps and you can be sent jiggling over broken surfaces. Also, its roof can only be lowered or raised when the car is completely stationary, so those seeking to take advantage of gaps between rain clouds may find the leather cabin gets a little damp until you can find a layby. But worst of all is the ridiculously loud wind noise on the motorway, with the ridge between the fabric roof and windscreen surround apparently generating enormous drag. Not even a loud stereo can drown the noise out. A small price to pay for a weekend toy, you might think, but for those wanting to put an S2000 into more regular use, it's a potential dream killer.
That downside has admittedly not prevented people from using S2000s extensively, with some cars listed on PH approaching six-figure mileage. There are many more options which have much lower mileages, illustrating the obvious focus of the 21-year-old model. It looks as though £12-16k is where the meat of S2000 supply lives, although one car at the time of writing is listed for £23k. It has just 8,500 miles on the clock, making it an obvious outlier.
As a throwback to the days of analogue sports cars that rev to the moon, the S2000 is a strong choice. Its engine is famously tough, making it a genuine alternative to the Porsche Boxster of the same era. And while it can't claim the same brand cache as its open-top rival, Honda retains a large enthusiast base which is unlikely to let better examples of its now dead roadster slip off the secondhand radar. It's too good for that.
SPECIFICATION | HONDA S2000
Engine: 1,998cc, inline-4
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 240@8,300rpm
Torque (lb ft): 153@7,500rpm
0-62mph: 6.2 secs
Top speed: 160mph
Price new: c. £28k
Price now: £6,500+