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posted on March 1st, 2018

The little roadster that could, did, and will

People share a lot of unique cars on Turo. Some are modified and are unique as machines, but all have their own experiences and stories to tell.

To experience such a car, I borrowed a 2007 Honda S2000 with a handful of modifications and a unique history. My buddy and I drove it up to Lick Observatory, an astronomy observation and research complex in the Bay Area. But the real destination was the road — Mount Hamilton Road. Twenty miles of ascending hillside twisties lead to the top of Mount Hamilton, and the S2000 was the perfect car for the job.

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The S2000 is a two-seat roadster produced by Honda between 1999 and 2009. The acclaimed sports car is becoming increasingly sought-after as a future classic, if it isn’t one already. Laypeople may not immediately understand the excitement — it’s just a Honda — but the S2000 can stir near-obsession levels of passion among the enthusiast crowd.

For those people, this car ticks all the boxes. The S2000 is rear-wheel drive and comes exclusively with a six-speed manual transmission. It has an engine with famously distinct character. A legendary chassis. 50-50 weight distribution. And at a featherweight 2,800 pounds, all this balance makes for an incredibly nimble driving experience. The Honda badge means it was affordable as a new car and requires minimal maintenance as an aging one. It’s exactly the type of car that enthusiasts are supposed to like.

I borrowed this example from a very generous Turo host named Brandon A. in San Jose, CA, eager to get behind the wheel of a machine so universally beloved by gearheads. This 2007 S2000 was Brandon’s first car. He learned stick on it, drove it throughout high school, and has turned it into a tasteful and purposeful build that he drives on weekends and tracks when he can. I am jealous.

Brandon’s build

Though not a particularly flashy sports car, the S2000 is handsomely styled with clean lines and has what I think are perfect proportions. Brandon’s car certainly looks the business. He’s blacked out the badges and added a slight tint to the headlights. He’s also fitted it with lightweight wheels wearing sticky Nexen N’Fera SUR4 tires — wide 255 sections at all four corners.

The most noticeable addition is the roll bar. Brandon has removed a storage compartment and all the interior panels behind the seats to bolt on a four-point roll bar, further stripping down the already-sparse cabin. All the modifications together make Brandon’s S2000 look like a real athlete — the square stance, muted accents, and metal pipes lurking in the rear view mirror betray the car’s devious intentions.

It was a tight squeeze. Brandon has installed a Recaro bucket seat on the driver’s side, which slides forward and back but not up or down. At 6’2, I am a significantly longer human than Brandon and the seat’s custom placement did me no favors in a car that already felt fun-sized. I had to be in a constant hunch to even see the road. What’s more, the S2000’s steering wheel doesn’t adjust, so every time I pressed the clutch (often), my left knee became part of the wheel.

There is a keyed ignition where you expect it, but then there’s also a red start button to the left of the wheel that starts the engine. The engine. It’s a 2.2L inline-4 that makes 240 horsepower and 160 lb-ft of torque. So it’s not a monster, but the power is supremely manageable around town and enough to play with on your favorite driving road.

The party piece is the exhaust. Brandon has installed an Invidia exhaust system that grumbles hungrily behind your head at idle and positively howls with the accelerator matted, I soon found. It’s a wake-the-neighbors kind of noise when you’re up in the gas, complete with delicious coughs and burbles.

Mount Hamilton Road

California State Route 130 is a beautiful hill climb through oak-dotted pastures with increasingly grand views on the way to the 4,360-foot peak of Mount Hamilton. It has banked s-bends, countless tight corners, and at least four legit hairpin turns. The car handled it all with enthusiasm and endless grip. With every turn the little Honda fed my confidence with successful apexes and heaping scoops of whey protein powder.

This car is of the S2000’s second generation, known as the AP2 (see Brandon’s plates?). The AP2 received a subtle facelift, slight torque boost, and a more manageable redline (8,200 RPM). The general consensus is that the AP2 is a little softer and more refined than the preceding AP1.

However this car does not feel soft. The Ohlins DFV coilovers relayed the slightest bumps straight though my skeleton. You can feel the paint on the road while crossing lanes, so any real topography in the asphalt is impossible to ignore. No crack or pebble goes unnoticed.

VTEC, yo

The S2000’s engine has a fun little trick called VTEC. Honda’s VTEC technology stands for ‘Variable Valve Timing & Lift Electronic Control,’ which is a technical and/or pedantic way to say you get gobs of power high in the rev range. And I mean high — the VTEC comes on at 6,000 RPM in each gear. You have to ruthlessly nail the accelerator to set free the magical speed pixies that lurk in the VTEC zone.

On the windy rollercoaster of Route 130 (and in most situations, for that matter), there are few opportunities to wring the engine all the way out. When the VTEC does kick in, it’s nothing short of exhilarating. The Invidia exhaust shrieks like a cat getting its paw stepped on (in a good way) and the awesome Star Wars-esque digital tachometer fills with bright orange. It’s fantastic.

And shifting the S2000 is delicious. Oh, that shifter. Its direct mechanical feedback coddles you with precise crispy clicks. Even my clumsy feet were able to match revs on the S2000’s glorious downshifts.

When you take two steps back, a stock S2000 is not actually that fast. Some even have the nerve to call it slow. Zero to 60 happens in 6.4 seconds with the AP2, so for a celebrated sports car, sure, it’s a bit unhurried. Brandon has left the engine alone, but the aftermarket suspension, immense grip, and howling exhaust note attack the senses and demand focus in a way that makes the car feel as quick as I need.

Drive a Honda

After chatting up some heroic bikers taking a rest at the observatory, halfway through casual 50-mile bike rides, we tore back down the mountain and headed over to Skyline Boulevard, a Bay Area favorite. There we happened upon a first-generation Honda NSX — Honda’s flagship sports car during the time the S2000 was conceived and launched.

The design philosophy behind this 1995 NSX was the same Honda applied to Brandon’s S2000. Both cars are light and analog. Both have lively VTEC engines that redline in the eights. And in both Hondas, balance, precision, and driving satisfaction are valued above raw power.

It’s this Honda philosophy that has created so many S2000 believers. Plenty of cars are faster, or shinier, or louder, or more sophisticated. In Brandon’s car, I don’t care. I don’t care that I don’t fit and I don’t care that the VTEC is hard to find. Few cars are as playful as the Honda S2000, which is sadly discontinued. It’s an eager driver that works hard and loves every second of it. If you try Brandon’s S2000 for yourself, I guarantee you’ll experience this love.

Steven is an avid car guy and content specialist at Turo. Between Golden State Warriors games he can be found getting lost somewhere in California.

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