When having a conversation about the purest sports cars, the Honda S2000 is bound to come up. Built from 1999 to 2009, the S2000 was a lightweight roadster built around one thing: the driving experience. Its focus was on how much the car engaged the driver rather than record setting speed, but don’t misunderstand this to mean that the car was slow.
What makes a pure, driver focused car anyway? A lot of factors come into play. Much of it boils down to personal taste, but some requirements are generally agreed upon.
You need a car that’s very light, with suspension tuned to handle corners. It has to have an engine with personality that’s eager to deliver its power. Finally, you’ll want it to have a manual transmission.
A manual transmission? Yes, that’s right … remember that weird old system of changing gears yourself?
Once upon a time, it was the “go to” option for enthusiast cars like the Honda S2000.
But are all S2000s manual?
The short answer is “Yes”.
However, read on to find out more about the S2K and its transmission.
Row, Row, Row Your Gears!
All S2000s came equipped with a close ratio six-speed manual gearbox. What this means is that the transmission had 6 forward speeds (plus reverse), and the gearing was such that it kept your RPMs high after each shift. This was important in the S2K, as it made most of its power at the top end (237hp at 8300 RPM!) On the flip side, due to the high revving nature of the engine, the torque output was modest. Low RPM grunt was not its forte.
Like the rest of the car, the intent of the transmission was to be as lightweight and rigid as possible. This was done, all without sacrificing Honda’s well known reliability. It included an internal oil pump to keep all moving parts lubricated during high speeds and lateral G forces. This may sound like a no-brainer, but consider the fact that most manual gearboxes rely on the gears themselves to circulate the oil. The S2K also used a triple cone synchro for second gear, and double cones for first, third and fourth. The attention to details like this led to the well known smooth shifting nature of the transmission.
The transmission itself didn’t change too much during the 10 year run of the S2000. In 2004 there were some changes made to the whole car. This was the chassis code AP2 variant. There was actually an additional overall gear reduction that both the AP1 and AP2 had inside the transmission before being sent to the differential. For the AP2 version, this reduction was slightly shorter than the AP1. Gears 5 and 6 were themselves slightly longer on the AP2 to compensate for this and keep cruising RPMs reasonable.
There’s a bit of mystery surrounding who designed the S2000’s transmission. After lots of digging, it seems the general consensus is it was designed entirely by Honda themselves. This is evidenced even by Honda’s press material about the car from 2001, although some forum communities still argue it was an Aisin model that was tweaked to Honda’s specs.
To whoever did design it: well done! It’s known to auto enthusiasts everywhere as one of the best shifting manuals you can get your hands on. This brings me back to what I mentioned earlier about the purity of a good sports car like this. Driver engagement, feeling the car respond to what you’re doing, these are all qualities highly sought after in a sports car. To many, a manual transmission is an essential part of that.
Love Isn’t Always Automatic
Still, Honda… What gives? Lots of sports cars have had an automatic option for decades, and not just any sports cars. Corvettes, Miatas, and curiously, even Honda’s own NSX all could be equipped with an automatic gearbox. These are all big names in the auto enthusiast world, so why didn’t the S2000 have the same treatment?
Let’s look at some facts. Automatic transmissions from 20 years ago were awful. Rarely could you find one that had more than four speeds. As a result the gearing had to be long, and this would make a low torque-high revving four-cylinder feel very sluggish. Even worse, many of them were still mechanically controlled. Even the computer controlled automatics were very primitive in their shift logic, and most didn’t have the gear up and down functions found on many shifters in modern cars.
Paddle shifters? Yeah right, not unless you could afford a Ferrari.
Any ONE of these limitations can put a serious damper on the joys of driving. Imagine having all of them combined.
We also need to consider that not all sports cars are created equal. I brought up three different cars just now that can all be had with an automatic. In fact, two of them now only come in automatic (albeit, the fast shifting, dual clutch type). Any one of them with a manual is a fantastic driver’s car, but with an automatic they become something else: accessible. They also target an audience that is… shall we say, not exactly concerned with the driving experience. What we find is that the personality and meaning behind each car changes, too. The midlife Corvette-crisis. The cute, gas saving Miata convertible. The executive sports car that is the Honda NSX.
We have to conclude then, that the coolest part about the S2000 is the exclusivity. When you see an S2K, you know the owner bought it simply to enjoy driving to the fullest. It seems that Honda weren’t interested in sales numbers or accessibility. It would appear quite the opposite is true. They wanted to create a special car for driving enthusiasts, and only for driving enthusiasts.
So, are all Honda S2000s manual? Yes. That’s clearly how Honda wanted it, and to lots of us, that’s how it should be.
Make sure you read our Honda S2000 history and buyer’s guide here for more information on this legendary car.