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The Honda S2000 is a two-seat roadster with the size of the small Mazda Miata and speed of the Porsche Boxster. It's a technological statement from Honda, which has no equal when it comes to pumping big horsepower out of small engines. Witness Honda's domination in the Indy Racing League, including its victory in the Indy 500 with a 3.0-liter engine producing 650 horsepower at 10,300 rpm.
The S2000 has earned a reputation as the sports car with an engine like a superbike motorcycle. Big horsepower from small displacement, with a narrow powerband and extremely high RPM. Nothing could match the original S2000 for exhilaration.
With the 2005 S2000 that still might be true, although it's been tamed a bit. The '05 remains basically unchanged from the '04, which brought refinements to the engine and suspension. Those refinements make it quicker and easier to drive, although the unique and exceptional rush that comes from seeing the tachometer needle reach 9000 rpm has been tempered to seeing a mere 8200. Which is still more than any other car we can think of, except the Mazda RX-8 with its rotary engine.
Other recent changes to the S2000 include 17-inch wheels, up from 16s; changed transmission gear ratios to improve acceleration; more shoulder and elbow room; and some body tweaks, most notably new headlights with a triple-beam design.
One model is available, which retails for $32,950 (plus $515 freight). The S2000 is equipped with a six-speed manual gearbox; an automatic is not available. There are a few dealer-installed options available, including a removable hardtop, trunk spoiler, XM Satellite Radio and headrest speakers.
The way to be noticed in your S2000 is to rev to eight grand, of course; but people will still check the car out when it's standing still. For its basically small dimensions, it has the look of a bigger classic roadster. That's because of the long hood, which is a result of the engine being located behind the centerline of the front axle for better balance and handling. This design also leads to a striking short rear deck.
Speaking of striking, Spa Yellow is the color to choose if you want your S2000 to be noticed. Our test model was Suzuka Blue, a fairly ordinary steel blue, and it didn't do justice to the identity of the car.
The nose has been tweaked in the 2005 model with a softer bumper, and the new triple-beam HID headlights freshen it and make it look more contemporary. But the S2000's visual appeal still doesn't match its mechanical credentials. It looks a little slab-sided and plain compared to some other sports cars, in particular the radical BMW Z4, but the upside to that is more protection for the driver. The new 17-inch wheels are 10-spoke alloys, and they are gorgeous, framed nicely in the front by the flared fenders.
Air conditioning, power windows, power mirrors, cruise control, keyless remote entry, and tilt steering are all standard. There's a big red button for an ignition switch, and that's pretty cool. The digital tach is an attempt to be cool, with orange lines arcing across the top of the instrument panel, but it's hard to see and comes across as excessively gimmicky anyhow. The S2000 is all about revving, even if to a diminished 8200 rpm now, and everything should point there. Such as a needle on an analog gauge. Maybe the S2000 should have a big tach on the steering column, like the Mini Cooper.
There's also a digital speedometer reading mph in fairly big numbers, flanked by small fuel and coolant temperature gauges. The AM/FM/CD stereo is located behind a flap-like rectangular door on the dash; we found ourselves leaving it open for convenience, which defeated its purpose of hiding the system, of course. The buttons are small, but there are redundant controls just to the left of the steering wheel.
The power top moves up and down easily and latches over the windshield. There's a glass rear window with defroster, and also an aero windscreen behind the seats to reduce buffeting when the top is down.
The leather bucket seats are beautifully comfortable, with one inch more shoulder room than before. The three-spoke leather steering wheel is perfect. There are mesh storage pockets in the doors but no glove box. There's a new small storage compartment between the seats, giving the cabin minimal storage, a slight improvement from virtually nonexistent.
The last time we wrote about the S2000 we couldn't get over its 9000 rpm redline. There isn't a road car on the planet that revs like that. And what a thrill it was. But in the '05, a rev limiter cuts the fuel off at 8200 rpm. That 800 rpm difference is all about the sound, and what it does to your insides. Now it's like listening to Jimi Hendrix riffing his electric guitar toward a climax and then cutting it short.
True, the engine is improved now. It's been stroked to 2.2 liters from 2.0, and makes the same 240 horsepower but delivers more torque, 162 foot-pounds versus 153, at a lower rpm: 6500 rpm instead of an impossibly peaky 7500. So it's got a broader power band and is more friendly to drive, thus easier to drive fast. It's a better car. But, like the Viper SRT/10, it may be better but it's a lot less visceral.
There have been a number of other careful refinements to the S2000, in particular to the handling, starting with the easy things: the 17-inch wheels. Less visible, the frame is stiffer and the suspension is firmer in the front and softer in the rear. On our favorite driving loop that offers a broad variety of corners and road surfaces, the S2000 handled the patchy bits with grace. It's smoother in the rough stuff than the Nissan 350Z, which isn't bad itself. No rattles or thumps, and it followed the contour of the road without softening or neutralizing it. It still has its kart-like quickness; in fact it's better now, with its wider tires.
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 rear-wheel-drive layout, a platform developed specifically for this limited-edition roadster. (All other Hondas are based on a front-wheel-drive layout.)
The six-speed gearbox has also been improved, with better synchronizers making smoother shifts; its short-throw linkage and aluminum-tipped lever feel like a racecar's. The gear ratios have been lowered by 4 percent, in pursuit of easier takeoffs. There's an electric motor quality to its power, like a Japanese super-bike: no punch in the back, just a sense that with enough forward gears, one might keep accelerating indefinitely.
The brakes are big (11.8 inches front, 11.1 inches rear) and fantastic, vented in front, with standard ABS and improved brake pad material for '05. 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 key to enjoying the S2000 is to drive it hard: Take off, wind the engine to 8200 rpm in first gear, shift into second, stand on it, and don't shift until you hit 8200 again. This is what the Honda S2000 has to offer over the less-expensive Miata.
Honda's S2000 delivers quick acceleration and razor-sharp cornering that's truly kart-like. It isn't for everyone. It is, after all, a unique limited-production sports car. It's great for someone who wants a superbike with the safety of four wheels and air bags.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Sam Moses reports from the Columbia River Gorge.