With its first year of S2000 production now 24 years ago, parts are getting more difficult to come by. Plans for a heritage program were largely scrapped by the pandemic, and the propensity for amateurs and eager teenagers to stuff these cars into ditches has made owning and racing an S2000 a potentially costly endeavor.
Still, people are willing to pay premiums and run the risks because of the car’s unadulterated driving experience. Few production cars get as close to a true racing car’s dynamics as the S2000, which enables so much minor mid-corner manipulation that you sometimes feel you’re driving the car telekinetically.
2023 TT4 Champion David Farrar has owned both generations of the car, and he has a few things to say for those looking at an S2000 for themselves.
The first generation (AP1) is seen by some as the true S2000. Edgier, more raw, and definitely cheaper, it has a specific appeal to the purists, and that is reflected in its lower price. It boasts the 2.0-liter F20 motor, which revs to 9,000 rpm.
The faster and friendlier AP2 built from 2004 to 2009 is the more popular choice. With a larger F22 engine, a gearbox with shorter ratios, a revised rear end, and updated body work, it’s not hard to see why.
In either case, the F-series engine is a revvy thing that is ready for several seasons provided its owner stays on top of oiling. Oil consumption can be a problem, particularly with the F20. Keep the modification list short and the time between rebuilds can be as long as four years of regular competition.
The F20’s head is flawed in one easily repairable way. The F20’s OEM valve retainers need to be replaced with those from the F22, which withstand over revving and regular abuse far better. Some cost-conscious fans will suggest the intake retainers are the only ones in need of replacement, but you may as well get the exhaust retainers swapped while you’re at it. Some swear by aftermarket items.
“When upgrading, it is better to just swap to aftermarket springs and retainers for more safety and reliability. We have had good luck with BC dual springs and retainers as a cost-effective option. We have put together valvetrains with BC products that have lasted five years with two-hundred-plus hours of track abuse with zero issues. All with regular maintenance, of course,” reports Daniel Madamba, owner of Total-D Racing and a Honda Challenge and Super Touring 4 racer.
Both the F20 and F22’s head don’t return oil as desired without some minor modification, but seeing as the design was built around the tire technology of the late 1990s, it’s hard to fault Honda. Keep an eye out for blue-gray clouds in your mirrors after leaving a long left and transitioning into a right — that’s poor oil circulation at play.
Instead of draining down into the motor, oil gets stuck in one corner of the head and eventually drains out the PCV valve into the intake manifold with dramatic results. It’s an easy fix. Any number of capable tinkerers can drill out the baffle in the valve cover to encourage drainage back into the engine.
“It’s made a huge difference in my racing. I remember I used to fill up my catch can after a couple laps at Roebling Road,” Farrar said. “After getting the valve cover modified, I can run an entire day and not see anything more than an ounce in the can.”
The F20’s shortcomings in construction and peakier delivery make it the less appealing engine choice. It’s the F22 and its fatter powerband that piques most people’s interest. Because of its improved mid-range and the shorter ratios with its accompanying gearbox, most find it to be faster from point A to B.
The F22 had most of its predecessor’s issues ironed out, but it’s not perfect. Valve lash is an issue for both motors, but the F22 seems to get the worst of it. Over time, its valves tend to tighten up—especially on the exhaust side.
With both versions of the powerplant, the mounts are liable to break. Some drill the factory mounts and fill them with silicone for a nice mix of civility and resilience. Solid mounts are too harsh and may rattle the ancillaries loose.
The drive-by-wire-equipped (’06-’09) version of the AP2 introduced a slew of electronic items that are loved and hated.
Later years of the F22 (2006-2009) were equipped with a drive-by-wire system, which simplifies the engine tuning process somewhat. Whereas an F20 requires a wideband and a whole host of other bits to get a few meager ponies from an already highly-strung powerplant, the F22 can be made much more tractable with just a Hondata piggyback.
Hondata makes it easy to lower the VTEC engagement point to somewhere relatively low in the rev range. This simple tweak transforms the driving experience. You can rest assured knowing that you’re far less likely to fall off the pipe. Those familiar with the unforgiving nature of the F-series’ two-strokish powerband know how easy it is to fall out of the usable rev range.
However, it’s worth recognizing the early arrangement with a mechanical accelerator cable enjoys a 0.3 points bonus as per the NASA TT4 rulebook. This makes it easier to find the necessary ~240 horsepower to compete in TT4. In TT5, the drive-by-wire arrangement and its broader powerband suit the rules better.
Though it’s regarded as a smaller sprint special, the S2000’s economy made it a contender in endurance racing. In the mid 2010s, Andrie Hartanto won several WERC events in the Prima Racing AP1 S2000, then running in E1 and E2.
Sadly, the recent trend toward detuning engines in the name of reduced running costs has rendered the S2000 obsolete for most WERC competition. Prior to the shift, the Honda’s fuel burn — roughly 75 minutes per every 11 gallons — saved it from making as many stops as the thirstier BMW competition had to.
Nowadays, the BMW’s bigger motor and broader powerband renders a neutered F-series fit for competing with Miatas.
The scarcity of the F-series has pushed some to try a larger, widely-produced motor from the Honda family: the 2.4-liter K24.
However, the mounting orientation and the additional modifications needed to get one running in an S2000 leaves some feeling they’re not worth the effort. “It just doesn’t last as long. I think these failures are due to longitudinally mounting an engine which has been designed to be mounted transversely,” Farrar suggests.
“They seem to work well on cars running 200-treadwear tires, but whenever people introduce Hoosiers to a K-swapped car, I see a lot of oil starvation under braking,” Farrar continued. “To make one reliable takes some work, so it’s not hard to see how a decent K-swap can approach F-series money.”
“Funnily enough, even with i-VTEC and the broader aftermarket, a highly tuned K24 doesn’t make any more than a built F22,” says Ian Stewart, 2009 TTC Champion. A built F-series with some extra displacement makes a comparable power curve to a well-tuned K24, so why swap?
Over its 10-year production run, Honda made few changes to the car. For road usage, it was refined and made into a semi-civilized roadster approachable enough for a few grandmothers looking to relive their glory years.
Though light and relatively easy on consumables, the construction wasn’t what you’d call motorsport-grade. All suspension arms are made from cast iron, and these will break at some point. If regular competition is on the menu, it’s wise to keep a backup set of lower control arms for both axles.
The earlier generations were criticized by some as being too edgy and prone to rotation, but a lack of talent must be acknowledged as a contributing factor in this criticism. The S2000, particularly the AP1, is not a car for a slow-handed initiate, but experienced drivers with some karting background likely have the coordination to master one. The issue at hand is a dramatic toe curve under compression.
As the video below suggests, David likes it. “You can use it to your advantage. That characteristic is noticeable on stock tires and suspension, but once you’ve installed coilovers and wider tires, it’s fairly easy to tune some of that out. It’s not a big issue,” he says. The remarkable turn-in through Roebling Road’s long corners showcases how a car that’s slightly nervous at the rear can be used effectively.
Those who aren’t so fond of a dancing rear can run more toe-in to stabilize the car under throttle, or they can go and retrofit an AP2’s rear subframe to their car, which promises a linear toe curve. However, this isn’t necessary.
“A set of adjustable rear toe arms can do the trick,” says Madamba. The knuckle at the AP2’s rear is mounted such that the toe arm sits at a more desirable angle under compression. Additionally, the AP2’s RUCA are mounted to the subframe instead of the frame, and the AP2 has larger RUCA bushings.
At the other end, the upper control arms pose a problem for AP1 drivers. The gussets aren’t properly welded in all cases, and even modest lateral loads have torn them from the frame. “I’ve seen failures in autocrossing on 200-treadwear tires, so rewelding is a must for anyone tracking this car in any form. The solution is to grind down the undercoating and reweld the gussets,” Farrar warns.
The AP2 solved this issue with stronger welds. Additionally, the mounting location is slightly nearer to the driver, thus increasing caster and stability.
The S2000’s standard brakes are not up to track work. Single-piece rotors at the end of both rear axles are liable to crack under heavy braking, and to make matters worse, that single-piece design heats the rear hubs to the point of failure. The rear hubs, like an AP1s FUCA gussets, are non-negotiables.
That isn’t to say that a big brake kit is absolutely necessary. Fortunately, the S2000 is light and changes direction eagerly, so it doesn’t impart quite the same forces on its binders as, say, an E46 does. With a set of two-piece rotors and some modest ducting, the factory calipers, provided they’re using track-ready rotors and fluid, provide adequate stopping power for moderate speeds.
Usage will dictate what is cost-effective. Most of the worthwhile two-piece rotors are not cheap, so a Stoptech Trophy kit — at the front axle alone — could be considered a bargain when its wear rates are considered. With a semi-aggressive pad, the Trophy’s rotors can last more than two seasons.
The drive-by-wire (’06-’09) variant of the car has an ABS system integrated into a network comprising the ECU and traction control. Unfortunately, the ABS is a programmable module that requires direct involvement from Honda, and it can fetch something like two grand these days.
When running a standalone ECU in a drive-by-wire car, it’s likely the ABS will continue to work, but if it fails, it takes a Honda tech to get things working again. Obviously, there’s a limit to what the trained tech can do with a highly modified racecar.
“The earlier ABS system is considered to be better for this reason, although, unfortunately, they’ve been discontinued. Some have taken the earlier ABS and transplanted it into a drive-by-wire car, but it requires a full system overhaul — a new master cylinder, new lines, and new fittings — mainly because the thread pitches are different,” Stewart said.
Brave builders can and have installed more popular ABS systems, but a plug-and-play version of the Bosch Mk60 can cost a few thousand. Skilled solderers can try the superior Mazda/Denso RX-8 ABS, but that requires custom wiring, studying diagrams, and sifting through forum posts.
Issues Under the Hood
Engine cooling is reasonably strong from factory, but it’s not perfect. “I ran a stock radiator for years, but the engine was always on the verge of overheating,” Stewart recalled.
In addition to removing a noticeable amount of lift, venting the hood will relieve some heat—but not enough to keep certain underhood plastic pieces like injector clips and coil pack clips from getting brittle. To be safe, these items should be replaced.
A Smaller Man’s Machine
The S2000 is tight inside, though it’s not as restrictive as, say, a C5 Corvette. Still, to get a cage and a racing bucket stuffed in the S2000’s cramped cabin takes some model-specific understanding. At 6’3”, Farrar can still slip in and out with some semblance of comfort thanks to a properly-sized Momo Daytona XL seat bolted to the floor, but its halo ears contact the OEM hardtop’s window frame. “I had to notch the inside of the frame, but it took all of 10 minutes. The Mugen and ASM-style hardtops are more spacious than mine and don’t have this issue, I believe,” he added.
With real estate being limited, the cage needs to be built very carefully. “It’s better to incorporate the gussets for the front box into the frame instead of on the floor—particularly on the driver’s side. If done right, this keeps the driver from leaning their leg on the cage and gives them space for a dead pedal.
The main hoop needs to be leaned backward and the center bar needs to be bent backward to accommodate the seat, and the owner/builder should accept that the lack of real estate can make a minor task a multi-hour chore. “Getting my floor-mounted seat in and out takes about half a day,” Stewart carped.
The transmission is solid enough for several seasons — as long as one is running stock-ish power. Even so, mainly for peace of mind, it’s worth getting a proven builder to rebuild the drivetrain once every so often. The diff isn’t quite so robust. Thermal capacity is low and its maintenance intervals are pretty short. Functionally, it works well enough for factory power, but sticky tires can lead to some inside wheelspin.
“The S2000’s differential holds less than a quart of oil, so it can’t withstand sustained heat. When we were sprint racing the car, we had to replace the differential oil every weekend,” Hartanto said. “It would last the whole 25 Hours, but that was because of the lower ambient temperatures.
“We tried to add a larger cover that held two quarts, but that made it contact the ground more often. We later tried running a differential cooler, but it didn’t lower the temperatures much, so we abandoned it. In the end, we found regular fluid changes were most effective,” he continued.
Like the E46, the S2000 is a well-developed car that, if maintained correctly, provides some of the greatest thrills for the dollar. Honda reliability, kindness to its consumables, and a fiery character more than make up for its from-factory flimsiness. It’s not the toughest car around, but if the “The Torqueless Wonder” can’t stretch a smile across a driver’s face, that driver might be in need of an LMP car.