The Cult of Cars, Racing and Everything That Moves You.
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The Honda S2000 Is Still Worth Worshiping

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I was so overwhelmed by the presence of this Montana sky blue 2009 Honda S2000 CR that I first fixated on an oddly trivial aspect—“Is that a yellow trimmed interior?” Yes, and there are a few other details that make this special version of Honda’s roadster pop. But when you’re driving it, it’s still all about the transmission.

(Full disclosure: Honda let me drive this and a couple other cars at a media event celebrating the manual transmission and the company’s heritage. Out of respect for these irreplaceable artifacts, I only drove each for a short period.)

Pretty much everyone knows the S2000 as the ridiculously high revving canyon carving “better Miata” that Honda treated us to for one glorious decade.

Toward the end of the model’s run, a CR (“Club Racer”) variant—arguably the best S2000—was thrown into the mix with some aggressive aero including a huge wing, a claimed 90-pound weight reduction over the standard car and that funky yellow trim I got so excited about.

The 2.2-liter 16-valve DOHC VTEC inline four-cylinder engine under the long hood was supposed to make 237 horsepower at a hell-raising 7,800 RPM and 162 lb-ft of torque at 6,800 RPM, all without a turbo or supercharger. The only transmission option was a six-speed manual, putting power to the rear wheels through a limited-slip differential.

The S2000 was never available with an automatic. That should tell you a lot.

That ideal sounding drivetrain was wrapped with a compact low slung body which, according to Honda’s now decade-old press release, spread the car’s 2,855 pound curb weight with a perfect 50/50 weight distribution front to back. (The slightly-less-hardcore CR, with air conditioning and a radio, had a 49/51 distribution according to the spec sheet though.)

Regardless, the numbers in the marketing material pretty much make the S2000 CR sound like the ultimate driver’s car. In fact, I’ll never forget taking home one of those brochures with a big red “START” button on it from a Honda dealer while I was visiting the parts desk to pick something up for my mom’s ’95 Odyssey.

I still have that pamphlet, or at least, I know exactly which books it’s tucked between on a shelf in the house I grew up in. But I still did manage to space on the very obvious fact that this thing had a start button at all after I’d lowered myself into the cockpit. One of Honda’s car wranglers cocked his head while I fumbled with the key, cranking it silently over and over again. “It’s–it’s the button on this one” he said emphatically. Right. The big red button.

Have I mentioned yet that this car made me flustered?

My colleague Stef Schrader articulated that “you can’t hardly fart without it wafting into someone with a CR” at autocross events, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen one in person. Beyond the rarity factor alone, the wing, the cowl behind the rear seats, the tiny, retro-futuristic gauge pod, the cover over the stereo (standard S2000 fare) had my eyes bulging like a cartoon coyote scoping out food.

I drove it too, and was immensely impressed with the steering’s responsiveness (the wheel is hilariously tiny!), the insectile rasp of the engine and the endless grip the car seemed to have on a fresh set of tires.

I have to confess, though–my time with the car was too short to do a complete shakedown real justice. When this car was new, test pilots talked about balance and lightness and being stuck to the pavement and I’d basically agree with those sentiments.

But even on a short drive, one piece of the S2000 CR experience seemed so exceptional that I’m confident I’ll be thinking about it forever: changing gears.

Sharp? Crisp? These are just words that feel as worthless as a wet noodle in a sword fight here. I’d almost rather write the S2000 CR’s transmission a song or a sonnet, but I don’t think my colleagues would publish it.

Instead I’ll do my best to break it down: the clutch is substantial, but lighter than you might expect in a car as hardcore looking as the CR. Put it down, put the car in first and–oh, whoa. The shifter moves as lightly as a light switch, barely seems to travel an inch from neutral to first, and makes the sound of a tiny mechanical insect dropping into squatting power stance.

It doesn’t matter if you’re in a hard charge or just plodding out of a parking lot–the clutch-working and gear-working motions are so perfectly weighted between “definitive” and “really easy” that each shift makes you feel like an F1 hero and the minuscule steering wheel completes the sell.

Shifting is fun no matter what manual car you’re in. At least, that’s what I used to tell myself when I was creeping a five-speed Isuzu NPR diesel box truck through rush hour traffic a few jobs ago. But shifting a well-kept S2000 CR, and probably the regular S2000 too, is pretty much the perfect manual transmission experience.

It’s easy and gratifying, and I’ll never forget it. This thing is still one of a kind, and that’s why it deserves to be so loved today.