Driven: 2002 Honda S2000

May 30, 2018

When I was 17, a friend tossed me the keys to his AP1 Honda S2000. I only drove the car for about 30 minutes—just a short cruise on the highway to a nearby car meet—but the S2000 was a revelation. The steering, the engine, the transmission, the digital tach—it felt unforgettably like a pure sports car. Since then, it’s been cemented on my dream car list, a frequent subject of late-night internet window shopping.


Now 25 and with a bit of cash to my name, high mileage S2000s are within affordability’s outer reaches. To be clear, buying one would be a dumb-at-best financial move. But a recent search yielded the perfect car just 10 miles away: ’02, reasonable price, and most importantly, Suzuka Blue over a blue interior. The S2000 is pretty in every color, but something about that blue/blue combination is just special. I called the dealership right away and scheduled a Saturday morning test drive.


On AP1 (first generation) S2000s, Suzuka Blue was only offered in '02 and '03. Gorgeous color for a timeless design.


Saturday morning arrived, and so I arrived at the dealership, giddy for another S2000 experience after 8 years of waiting. Once I’d suffered the sales guy’s finance lecture, we walked out to the car, Suzuka Blue paint gleaming in the sun. And then, a most welcome surprise: “Hey man, I know you can drive. Take the car out by yourself and we’ll talk once you’ve had some fun.”


There is no greater anticipation than walking up to a dream car with the key in your hand—especially when you’re taking it out alone. I ensconced myself in that wonderfully blue interior and performed the S2000’s peculiar start-up routine: key in the ignition, twist to the final lock, then fire up via the starter button. Ferraris have a similar procedure. It’s goofy, but endearing. I promptly dropped the top (how could you not?) and off I went.


 Blue seats, blue carpet, blue dash, blue dreams. Note the bright red starter button left of the wheel.


The lovely qualities I remembered from my first S2000 drive came back immediately. The steering is crisp and well-weighted, complimented by a solid chassis feel and what is probably the sweetest gearbox I’ve shifted. It’s so precise and tactile, each throw a fast snick-snick from gear to gear. Then you’re back on the power, watching the revs build on that oh-so-cool digital tach. 16 years haven’t done anything to dampen its appeal.


Speaking of power, though . . . at first, the engine underwhelmed me. Merging on to the freeway, the power band offered little thrust between 3000 - 6000 RPM. I ran up through the gears and cruised, slightly disappointed with the straight-line speed, but reveling in the car’s planted feel through a fast, sweeping off-ramp. Just before bringing it back to to the dealership, I found myself with one stop light left and an open feeder road in front of me. Time to engage VTEC.


I eased away from the light, accelerating gently in first before shifting into second. Using partial throttle, I waited for the revs to build. 4000. 5000. Right as I crested 6000 RPM, I heard the engine shift subtly on to the cam, fate’s call to introduce gas pedal to floor. I went for it.


Suddenly, the world’s color palette became two shades more vivid. Worries and concerns ceased to exist. Every nerve ending was focused on one thing only: driving the car that had become viscerally alive. The engine screamed towards its 9000 RPM redline, a complete sensory overload of acceleration and glorious noise.


Onboard VTEC demonstration from YouTuber Anto Moto. 9000 RPM in a street car . . . madness.


I think my jaw quite literally dropped, but no time for that; grab third and hang on! . . . wait, where’s third?


I’d missed the shift. I must have hit the gate in between first and third. Embarrassed, I pushed in the clutch and went for third again—only to be met with more resistance. It just wouldn’t engage the gear. I took my foot off the clutch pedal, baffled. This time, I noticed the pedal didn’t snap back up. It stayed on the floor, slack and unresponsive. Clutch gone. Test drive over.


Fortunately, I’d been in a similar situation when my Miata’s clutch cylinders failed. Flashers on, I held the gear lever gently against fourth and breathed on the throttle. When the engine revs matched up with the gear, the lever was promptly accepted. I limped the stricken S2000 back to the dealer using that technique, 3 gears, and copious hand-waving to the traffic behind me. Whoever designed synchromesh deserves a medal, or at least a cookie.


The sales guy was perfectly understanding, claiming they’d installed a new clutch and they’d need to call up the dealership that did the (apparently shoddy) work and so on. Obviously, I left without the car. But just 10 minutes in the S2000—and one brief hit of VTEC—was enough. I’ll be on the hunt for something in Suzuka Blue.


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