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If sports cars are the athletes of the automotive world, then the easiest way to characterize Honda's new S2000 roadster goes something like this: Imagine a Mazda Miata that's gone through an intense Olympic training regimen, emerging quicker, faster, and altogether more capable than anything in its class.
It's not much of a stretch, because the Miata and the new Honda are similar in size and basic concept: pure sports cars, front engine, rear-drive, drop-top, few frills. The difference is that Honda's new two-seater costs about a third again as much the Miata, and offers performance that makes its Mazda counterpart seem pretty tame -- the difference between a good high school athlete and an Olympian. In fact, the S2000's performance eclipses that of much more expensive rivals, including the BMW Z3 2.8 (from about $37,000), Mercedes-Benz SLK (from about $41,000), and the Porsche Boxster (from about $42,000).
From the purist's point of view, this new Honda represents one of the best sports car buys going, as well as an awe-inspiring technological statement by a company that has absolutely no peer in the realm of extracting big horsepower from small displacement engines.
When it goes on sale September 15, one model will be available for about $30,000.
Roughly the same size as its roadster rivals, the S2000 has perhaps the highest chassis rigidity of the whole lot, up to and including Chevy's formidable Corvette Convertible. A stiff chassis is the fundamental prerequisite for precise handling, because it al-lows suspension engineers to tune spring rates, shock absorber damping, and bushing durometers to achieve exactly what they want in terms of ride and response -- the components aren't required to compensate for chassis flex.
Like all current Honda automobiles, the S2000's suspension is independent, with control arms (as distinct from struts) at all four corners. It is distinguished from any other current Honda cars, however, by its front-engine, rear-drive layout, a platform developed specifically for this limited-edition roadster.
The same can be said for the engine, one of the most audacious pieces of engineering offered in any production automobile today. Although it shares some of its architecture with the Prelude's 2.2-liter four, as well as the latest iteration of Honda's versatile VTEC variable valve timing and lift system, the S2000's 2.0-liter version operates in a realm we ordinarily associate with racing engines. For example, the second, more radical set of camshaft lobes that distinguish the VTEC system don't go to work until the tachometer has reached 6000 rpm. Peak torque, a modest 153 pound-feet, comes on at 7500 rpm. Horsepower doesn't peak until 8300 rpm, and the electronic rev limiter doesn't assert itself until 9000 rpm. All of this is common enough in competition engines -- current Formula One engines, for example, rev beyond 17,500 rpm -- but unique in street cars.
Here's the capper: The S2000 engine generates 240 horsepower -- 120 horsepower per liter; that's more horsepower per liter than any other production-car engine on the planet.
Honda's 2.0-liter tiger is mated to a six-speed manual transmission with very short throws and wonderfully precise engagements that enhance the driving experience -- again, race car reminiscent -- and the only transmission choice. No automatic will be offered.
The S2000's visual appeal, in our opinion, doesn't quite measure up to its extraordinary mechanical credentials. The car has classic roadster proportions -- a long hood, which permits the entire mass of the engine to sit behind the centerline of the front axle, and short rear deck. But it looks a little slab-sided and plain compared to its rivals. Fortunately, that impression is likely to be overpowered by the sensations that occur once you're behind the wheel.
Like the other members of the small roadster flock, the S2000 affords room for two -- in a pair of highly supportive bucket seats -- and not much more. In fact, we think Honda, a company that's usually very good at making the most of interior space, could have done a better job of providing small-object storage in the S2000. Aside from a couple of small bins sequestered between the upper portion of the seatbacks, there's just no place to put odds and ends. No map pockets in the doors. And, worse, no glovebox.
We're not too keen on the instrument package, either. The modest layout is dominated by a digital tachometer that arcs across the top of the array like an electronic rainbow, with a digital speedometer in the middle, flanked by small fuel and coolant temperature gauges. A big tachometer is standard competition practice -- most race cars don't even have speedometers -- but as racy as it is, we'd still prefer an analog speedometer in this car because analog instruments provide rate-of-change information and digital readouts don't.
We're also a little mystified by some of the choices Honda made concerning the S2000's soft top. Mystifying choice number one: the rear window is plastic, rather than glass. Plastic doesn't wear well in a folding top. Honda opted for plastic as a weight-saving measure, according to company officials, but we note that the rear window in the much less expensive Miata is glass. Mystifying choice number two: the top is power-operated. If weight savings is such an issue -- and less is always better when it comes to weight -- then what's the point in the complex machinery, including hefty little electric motors, associated with a power top? The Miata's manual top can be operated with one hand, from the driver's seat.
As you'd expect of a car in this price range, the S2000 comes with the usual luxury features-leather seats, air conditioning, an AM/FM/CD sound system, power windows, power mirrors, cruise control, keyless remote entry, and tilt steering. It also has some-thing you wouldn't expect-a big red starter button to the left of the steering wheel, an-other reminder that you're driving a thinly disguised race car.
We expected the S2000 to deliver exhilarating performance, and we weren't disappointed, even during a session at Road Atlanta, a northern Georgia racing circuit. We expected performance, but we were surprised and impressed with how tractable the S2000 can be when the driver wants to cruise at a sedate pace. With an engine that doesn't really wake up until the tachometer ticks up to 7000 rpm and suspension tuning designed to eliminate body roll in cornering, we expected sluggish performance and harsh ride quality. Not so. It takes a little rowing through the gearbox to generate passing speeds, but the S2000 is otherwise as composed and comfortable as any other topless boulevardier.
But make no mistake, the tiger burns just below the surface, waiting to be unleashed.
As we suggested earlier, the S2000 doesn't really come to life until the tachometer soars beyond the point where most engines run out of breath. There's an electric motor quality to its power, like a Japanese superbike -- no punch in the back, just a sense that with enough forward gears, one might keep accelerating beyond the speed of light.
Although the engine's unique powerband makes it difficult to generate really quick getaways, the S2000 is nevertheless capable of hustling to 60 mph in less than 6 seconds. That's quick. The S2000 is capable of 150 mph at the top end. Most important, it emits a delightful, high-tech tenor snarl while it's doing all this.
But that's only part of the fun. Though the S2000's 16-inch Bridgestone tires aren't particularly wide, the car can handle impressively high cornering speeds, and its responses are as decisive and precise as a cheetah closing in on an antelope. Not a misstep or false move, regardless of the pace.
A set of world-class brakes complements the S2000's speed and agility, augmented by ABS (a standard feature). These are the best brakes we've ever encountered on any Honda vehicle, and they round out a set of sports car credentials that's tough to top.
The S2000 is a limited-edition car that is likely to command prices higher than the expected $30,000 retail price owing to its scarcity. At most, just 6000 of them will be imported into the U.S. each year, and only for two years. While we hate to see dealer gouging, we nevertheless regard this car as an exceptional treat for sports car purists, providing the kind of driver/machine partnership that's usually found only in high performance motorcycles.
If that kind of partnership appeals to you-the car as a surgically precise extension of the driver's will-the S2000 may very well be worth a price premium. At the very least, you owe yourself a test drive.