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Drop the top and mash the gas and Honda's S2000 delivers an exhilarating driving ex-perience. This two-seat roadster is a technological statement from a company that has no peer in the realm of extracting big horsepower from small-displacement engines.
The Honda S2000 is similar in size and basic concept to the Mazda Miata. Both are pure sports cars: front-engine, rear-drive, drop-top, few frills. The difference is that Honda's roadster costs about a third again as much the Miata, and offers performance that makes the Mazda seem tame. In fact, the S2000's performance rivals that of much more expensive sports cars, including the BMW Z3 3.0, Mercedes-Benz SLK, and the Porsche Boxster.
The big news for 2002 is a new glass rear window with defroster, which replaces last year's plastic rear window that could be creased and distorted. Also new for 2002: Honda has improved the transmission for smoother and quieter shifts, upgraded the stereo, added chrome rings around the tail lights, and introduced minor refinements to make the interior more convenient.
Honda's S2000 delivers exhilarating performance: 0 to 60 mph in just 5.8 seconds and the standing quarter-mile in just 14.4 seconds, according to Car and Driver magazine. 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.
Its quick acceleration numbers are all the more impressive given that the engine's unique powerband makes it difficult to generate really quick getaways. The engine doesn't really come to life until the tachometer soars beyond the point where most en-gines 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.
The S2000's 2.0-liter engine operates in a realm we ordinarily associate with racing engines. Honda's VTEC system employs a second, more radical set of camshaft lobes that don't go to work until the tachometer has reached 6000 rpm. Peak torque, a mod-est 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 be-yond 17,500 rpm -- but it's unique among street cars. The S2000 engine generates 240 horsepower. That's 120 horsepower per liter, more horsepower per liter than any other production-car engine on the planet.
At the same time, we were impressed with the S2000's tractability when cruising se-dately. 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. Unlike the Mazda Miata, the Honda en-gine does not emit a particularly pleasing exhaust note under these sedate driving con-ditions. But tromp down on the throttle and the engine makes up for that with its terrific growl at higher rpm.
The key to enjoying the S2000 is to drive it hard: Take off, wind the engine to 9000 rpm in first gear, shift into second, stand on it, and don't shift until you hit nine grand again. This is what the Honda S2000 has to offer over the less-expensive Miata.
That gearbox is a six-speed manual transmission with very short throws and wonder-fully precise engagements that enhance the driving experience. It reminds us of a for-mula car. For 2002, Honda has improved the transmission for smoother and quieter shifts. (An automatic transmission is not available.)
The S2000 is built on an extremely rigid chassis, among the most rigid of all the road-sters. A stiff chassis is the fundamental prerequisite for precise handling, because it allows suspension engineers to tune spring rates, shock absorber damping, and bush-ing durometers to achieve exactly what they want in terms of ride and response; sus-pension components can do a better job when they aren't called upon to compensate for chassis flex.
Like all current Honda automobiles, the S2000's suspension is independent, with con-trol 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 devel-oped specifically for this limited-edition roadster.
But that's only part of the fun. Though the S2000's 16-inch Bridgestone tires aren't par-ticularly wide, the car can handle impressively high cornering speeds, and its re-sponses 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
Honda's S2000 delivers lightning quick acceleration performance and razor sharp han-dling and steering response. Retailing for more than $32,000 and offering little in the way of cargo capacity, it isn't for everyone. It is, after all, a limited-production sports car. It's great for someone who wants a superbike with the increased safety of four wheels.