8500 RPM Around The Bay

I love cars, and I love driving. I make it a point (especially when the weather leans warmer) to explore and find good driving roads.

Usually, I do this when I’m near home – most of my vacations are a little too busy or too organized around seeing sights for me to be able to dedicate meaningful time or effort to go and explore. The other element is the car – budget-priced rentals are not exactly known for being exciting.

With my last trip to San Francisco, I decided to do things a little differently. Having been to the bay area before, I had checked off most of the tourist hotspots from my list already. I cut out more time, including two weekdays, with five goals in mind:

  • Rent a fun car
  • Explore the city and the area
  • Find some good driving roads
  • Take some pictures
  • Catch up with friends

The short of it is that it was a successful trip. The driving roads and the photography are the subject matter of a follow up post (now here), but the car is where I’m going to start.

The Rental Experience

I’d heard of Turo prior to this through any of a number of their sponsorships and supported videos online, as well as one coworker that listed his own car for some time. Most of their communication centers around the cool. unusual, and trending cars you can rent through them (Teslas adorn their Instagram among others).

Having had status at one point with traditional rental brands, I did price out a few sports cars with them, but it was simply too expensive.

Turo, on the other hand, had a number of sports cars, and with good availability of manual transmissions across their lineup. A lot looked reasonably priced, and I ended up pulling the trigger on a Honda S2000 soft top for the duration of the trip.

Dropping the car off at Turo’s SFO lot

I don’t think I can be positive enough about my experience – the overall process looked very similar to a traditional rental, although since this was somebody’s own car, I was in touch with him ahead of time to make sure we were on the same page for details like pick up times, needing a toll pass, and questions on how features on the car worked.

Overall, I would have no qualms about using their service again, and would recommend it to anyone looking for a rental – especially if they’re looking for something that’s a little bit harder to find (a stick-shift sporty car would cost at least 3x as much on any traditional service).

There are other things to think about – since the cars available on the platform are privately owned, there’s less uniformity – they are less likely to be low-mileage and pristine, and they may have small issues elsewhere. But if you’re like me, and actively seeking something outside the bland sea of boring fleet vehicles otherwise available, it’s a no brainer.

The Car

Pretty, even if it wasn’t perfect

I picked it up late in the evening. It was dark, but I took a moment to walk around and note any scratches. Again, since this was a higher mileage car that had been daily driven for some time, there were a few.

The short drive into town from the airport was a learning process – the clutch and shifter were shorter than in my 370Z. The car was loud – I knew that it had an aftermarket exhaust, but it was at this point that I heard the implications. The engine needs to be wound out to get moving, and that amplified the noise involved at every red light. The ride was low, and rigid – Route 101 heading into San Francisco isn’t the roughest road, but every bump made itself known to me – a repeating them throughout the trip. The car is also tiny – I’m not going to comment on the degree to which I fit in the seat because I suspect that it was configured to the exact specs of the owner. Suffice it to say: space is tight.

My perspective on every single negative evolved over the next few days once I got a chance to drive for a bit. On open roads, the exhaust echoed and burbled like a raptor on the prowl, getting angrier and angrier as the revs rose (and rise they did, all the way to the aforementioned 8500 RPM). The harsh ride was deeply communicative through corners, transmitting data about every pebble  and paint strip I drove over.

As stiff as the suspension was, I could see reason to go further – the cage offered such rigidity and the tires gripped so well, a stiffer set up would go a way towards cutting tire rub, while eliminating any hesitation on turn in.  The short shifter and higher clutch engagement point made rev-matching and blipping the throttle trivial, so it was easy to keep the revs going through changes in direction and incline. The combined effect was remarkable. and made the already tiny car feel like a tiny go-kart through curvy roads.

Sitting with the top down, as God intended

That’s THE thing about driving a manual transmission, hard-edged sports car like this: it’s the carrot and stick, embodied in one good looking package. For example, if you fail to match the revs to your shift exactly right, the vibrations and sounds will make it very clear that you’ve goofed (the stick). So you keep driving, and promise to do better going into the next corner. You probably do get a little bit better that next corner, and the car gives a proportional amount of feedback. At each corner, you get a little better, and in response, the car’s own feedback smoothens out (the carrot). As your own hesitation around shifting, accelerating and cornering lessens, you find you can get on the gas just a little bit sooner, turn in just an extra degree, or brake just a bit further, and soon you’re driving the car as if you had been born with a steering wheel in your hands.

This cycle continues until you run out of gas, road, or time. In the case of me and the S2000, I ran out of road a handful of times, and went through two tanks of gas, but time was what did me in. I enjoyed the car so much that I’m even now debating an after-market exhaust for the 370Z.

All the electronics worked – it’s a Honda, so of course they did. The owner kept a phone mount in the car, and had an AUX cable poking out from behind some trim (they were likely not common when the car was first out, so the installation was probably aftermarket). The retractable top was quick and smooth, although a segment of driver’s side window trim didn’t want to stay put (the easiest fix to which is just to keep the top down). There were no minor annoyances to deal with.

Minimal design means the car has aged extremely well

The driving still holds up, and the rest of the car doesn’t get in the way. It’s that kind of brilliance that makes the S2000 such a great car. Between Honda’s nigh bulletproof electronics, and the S2000’s totally unique engine, they provide an experience that is wholly unique, and the prices in the used market reflect just that. But there’s even more at play here.

The S2000 is known for its naturally aspirated engine that revs to the moon and back – it’s a critical element in sports car design and engineering. Turbos might be effective at drawing out more power as well as fuel economy, but the progressive, direct response to driver input and the simplicity therein make naturally aspirated engines a favorite in the car community.

Automakers are turning away from naturally aspirated engines in droves, as they find it difficult to meet emissions standards without including turbos. More importantly, fewer and fewer people are placed in a position where they have to buy cars (thanks to wider availability of services like Uber, a big population shift to urban centers, and just general environmental concerns). Without sales of fuel-efficient econoboxes, car makers are going to continue to be challenged in meeting strengthening emissions standards (driving the next big jump to hybrid electric powertrains).

The sum total of that means that the S2000 is not just a modern classic, but that it could be the last great internal combustion sports car that Honda makes. That alone means you should buy one – or at least, rent one.

 

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