Honda’s sexy sports car is a top-down screamer.
by Bengt Halvorson
The Honda S2000 is one of those rare cars that’s so delightful it can charm you into writing its own road test.
No question about it, the S2000 - Honda’s effort at a “traditional” (as in front engine, rear-wheel-drive) sports car - is world-class. Not only does it offer brilliant engine design as we’ve come to expect from Honda, but it also has a well-tuned range of athletic abilities and a sexy, ageless sports-car shape.
Start with the view from behind the small but chunky three-spoke steering wheel. Like Formula 1 racing cars, the orange-hued electroluminescent gauges include a simple digital speedometer in the center with a long, arc-shaped bar-graph tachometer above and temp and fuel gauges on the side. And you don’t start the engine with a turn of the key, rather with a press of the red “start” button - admittedly a gimmick, albeit F1-inspired.
The S2000’s seats are unlike any other seats in the Honda car family. They’re thinly but firmly padded and nicely contoured. Despite the expected lack of an abundance of legroom, my six-foot-six frame somehow fits well. Headroom is also adequate when the top isn’t down.
The top is power operated, via a simple toggle up/down switch on the center console. You just pull back two latches at the top of the A-pillars, tilt the switch, and about five seconds later it’s finished. Although a manual top would probably be quite heavy, it might have kept better with the car’s lean, race-inspired image to go with a simple pullover manual top like the Miata and British roadsters of the past, but nevertheless the electric motors are probably what the market demanded.
Everything in the S2000 is oriented to the driver - again, just like a race car, with an absolute minimum of peripheral distractions. A control cluster surrounds the driver, holding the mere essentials, while the stereo is beneath a flip-down cover in the center console.
In brief, the S2000’s vital stats include a very high-revving VTEC engine, a close-ratio six-speed manual transmission, a perfect 50/50 weight distribution, and a forgiving but race-ready double-wishbone suspension.
Stable, safe handling; phenomenal brakes
With its even weight distribution, we expected the S2000 to be a bit more tail-happy, but for the most part, the rear tires just wanted to stay planted. The only time the rear wheels even chirped was near the top of first gear on a patched road surface. Part of this steadfastness is due to the engine’s pronounced lack of torque, but it could also be due to the very well designed independent (wishbone/unequal-length control arm) rear suspension and torque-sensing rear differential, or just that the little car puts a lot of rubber to the road, with sticky 225/50VR-16 performance rubber in the rear and slightly narrower 205/55 tires in the front. On dry, smooth hairpins, the S2000 always kept its poise, and the electric-assist power steering worked unobtrusively.
The S2000’s brakes are phenomenal, and they shave off excess speed without drama. The pedal feel is very firm and easy to modulate, and during hard braking the suspension keeps all four wheels pressed to the pavement - when it really counts. The near-total lack of body motion really aids control while braking hard or maneuvering suddenly.
Honda’s typical levels of refinement aren’t all here in the S2000, but hey, it’s a low-volume sports car of only 5000 or so units per year. Like Naomi Campbell’s notoriously bad manners, its other seductive attributes make that quite forgivable. The driveline ratchets and rattles a bit on gentle takeoffs in first and second gear (reminds me of the sound made by GM’s Camaro/Firebird), and at low revs engine vibrations sometimes rattle what sounds like either accessory brackets or heat shields underhood, interrupting what would otherwise be a quiet boulevard cruise.
8900 rpm on the street
Although the S2000 as a whole is an engineering marvel, the technological showpiece of the S2000 is its engine. The little longitudinally mounted 2.0-liter four has a familial VTEC system that enables its 2.0-liter engine to rev all the way to 8900 rpm, a feat unrivalled by other cars. Doing the math, at 240 horsepower, the S2000 engine makes an incredible 120 hp per liter.
Because it’s such a revver, low-rpm torque isn’t the little engine’s forte (peak torque is only 153 lb-ft and not reached until 7500). On the other hand, full throttle bursts of acceleration, when you really get into the meaty area of the rev band, are the stuff of dreams. Just past 5500, the engine begins to sound noticeably more urgent, but as you pass the 7000-rpm mark it undergoes a complete personality transplant. A raucous but velvety, brassy, pulsing wail sounds like it should be coming from a bullet bike and not that cute roadster. Blasting through some nearby mountain-road tunnels brought spine-tingling reverb matched by only a handful of more expensive sport machines.
Even though there isn’t much low-rev torque, the S2000’s light 2809-pound curb weight forgives that. As long as you’re not climbing steep hills, the VTEC engine is perfectly happy to “lug” around town in the 2000-to-4000-rpm range.
The S2000’s close-ratio six-speed stick has extremely short throws, allowing expeditious shifts that keep the engine in its sweet spot. When you’re not down to the business of going fast, though, the shift action can feel a bit notchy. Our test car’s gearbox was sometimes obstinate about shifting into reverse. It requires a firm downward push on the shift knob, but it sometimes still resisted and required a detour back to neutral first.
Ideal playmate ill-equipped for daily chores
For several reasons, the S2000 isn’t well suited as a year-round daily driver. Storage space is scarce. Inside, there’s only a small glovebox between the seatbacks, a cubbyhole, and a rather shallow cupholder. The trunk is small, but a deep area in the middle allows enough space to neatly stand about three large paper grocery bags without squishing the contents.
What’s the other big reason for not driving the S2000 every day of the year? A short drive in pouring rain demonstrated that its performance tires, choppy ride, and light weight aren’t a good combination on wet roads. Hydroplaning and tramlining was an issue on Interstate truck ruts, too.
German automakers have each come up with their own interpretations of the roadster, though they each end up feeling decidedly more heavy and grown-up. I kept feeling that the S2000 is exactly what Mazda should have had in mind with the second-generation Miata - or at least with a special high-power model of the Miata. Here is a car that keeps it simple and lean, in much the same way: unassuming; just a bit flashy; loud only when you want it to be; and blisteringly fast. None of the gimmicky electronics, GPS systems, telematics devices, or gaudy trim cues are here. Nearly everything about the S2000 is simple, uncluttered, and racing-inspired. Ahhh, simplicity.
While Mercedes-Benz SLKs, BMW Z3s and even Porsche Boxsters are now becoming rather commonplace and a way of declaring, "I’ve arrived and I’m not arthritic yet," it seems as if the S2000 hasn’t yet struck a chord with that crowd. Any snob appeal of the S2000 goes under the radar, replaced, quite simply, with "WOW."
We’ve heard that demand for S2000s is exceeding supply, and some dealers (at least here in the West) are commanding premiums of up to $5000. So just to rub it in, there’s no good place to put your cellphone, your Big Gulp, or for that matter, to hang your suit. If you need any of those things, please kindly step out of line. Oh, and remember that the S2000 is noisy and has a rough ride, too - yeah, really rough [wink, wink]. The rest eagerly waiting for seat time in an S2000 would appreciate it.
Did I say I’ve been charmed?
2001 Honda S2000
Price: $32,740 base, $33,180 as tested
Engine: 2.0-liter four, 240 hp
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Wheelbase: 57.9 in
Length: 162.2 in
Width: 68.9 in
Height: 50.6 in
Curb Weight: 2809 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 20/26 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes
Major standard features: Air conditioning, keyless entry, power-operated top/windows/mirrors, leather, cruise control, limited-slip differential, AM/FM/CD sound system
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
© 2001 The Car Connection