It was similar to having Elvis show up at your local Starbucks and order an iced cappuccino and a bran muffin. Not quite as existential, perhaps, but certainly close in terms of uniqueness.
The event was the reaction to a New Formula Red Honda S2000 test car being dropped off at the Edmunds.com office. Everybody wanted to meet it. Everybody wanted seat time. Everybody wanted to be its best friend. Here's an excerpt from a conversation between managing editor Karl Brauer and road test coordinator Dan Gardner (to the best of my recollection, anyway):
Dan: I want to drive it!
Karl: No you can't! It's mine!
Dan: No it's not! I saw it first!
Karl: Nuh-uh! I called it before you saw it!
Dan: You did not!
Karl: Yes I did!
Karl: No I'm not!
Dan Yes you are!
Karl: (placing Dan in the vice-like grip of reason) Liar, liar pants on fire!
Dan: Yeah? Yeah, well...you're a doody head!
You can just sense the high level of professionalism around here, can't you? Edward Murrow would be so proud. But can you blame us? Here was a car that promised stupefying performance, squeaky-clean emissions, and Honda engineering and reliability. All for a promised price tag that was thousands less than the closest competitors.
But did it -- or can it -- deliver? That's why you're here, right? You want the bottom line, the good stuff, the whole enchilada, the 151st Pokemon card. Yeah, well, you'll have to wait a bit. We've been waiting five years, after all.
Way back when at the 1995 Tokyo Motor Show, Honda displayed a concept roadster called the SSM. With rear-wheel drive and two seats, it harked back to the classic roadster, as well as Honda's own '60s-era roadsters (the S500, S600 and S800). It was cool. And it wasn't even remotely like an Accord, which made it even cooler. We wanted one.
So now it's the year 2000, and we have a car named the S2000. Staying true to the SSM concept roadster, it is a rear-drive two-seater. Yes, it's a Honda, but it's a different kind of Honda. The fluffy inoffensive stuff that makes you say "Umm, it's nice," in response to a friend's question about what you think of his leased Civic DX has been whittled off and swept away. It's Cuervo straight up instead of Diet Pepsi out of a can. It's a Honda sports car, actually.
The shape is interesting, though perhaps not in the way you would initially expect. The Porsche Boxster, BMW Z3 and Mercedes-Benz SLK all have distinctive character traits. But the S2000 doesn't have a single standout trademark like a kidney grille or distinctive headlights. Nor does it share any visual traits with any other car in Honda's current lineup. If anything, it kind of looks like a '92-'95 Honda Civic Hatchback. But give it more than a cursory glance, and you'll find unique lines conveying a sense of purpose. A main character line rises from the high-intensity discharge headlights, along the top of the fender and door, finishing off at the high rear deck. In back, dual chromed exhaust tips dominate. The wheels are only 16 inches in diameter, but they look bigger because of the minimal gap between the tire sidewalls and the outer edges of the fenderwells. The hood is surprisingly long, and the front fenders drape alluringly over the front wheels.
That long hood adds to the character of the S2000, but it also serves the functional purpose of covering up a longitudinally mounted four-cylinder engine. It's mounted low and back in the chassis to improve weight distribution and lower the center of gravity. Actually, the engine is far enough back that it is behind the front axles, technically making the S2000 a mid-engine vehicle. The valve cover is red, just like the high-performance engine in the Acura Integra Type R. But this engine goes beyond high-performance. In a stunning achievement, the S2000 produces 240 horsepower. From just 2.0-liters of displacement. Normally aspirated. No turbo, no supercharger, no hidden Mafia connections. With 120 horsepower per liter, this engine has the highest specific output of any normally aspirated production engine in the world. Oh, and it just happens to meet California's low-emission-vehicle standards, as well. Clever, those Honda engineers
Tastes Great, Less Filling
Honda has also done an excellent job with the roadster's top. Operating it takes about three brain cells to use. Set the parking brake, pop the two latches that secure the top, hit the button. Yawn, where's my coffee? The top closes or lowers in about 6 seconds, and the whole operation can be performed in about 10. This should be the end of the story, but then Honda has gone off and given the S2000 a chintzy plastic rear window and fussy tonneau cover. Even after a mere 1,600 miles, the plastic window on our test car was already distorting the rear view.
Examining the interior, it's clear where Honda's intentions lie. Purposefully minimalist, there is little here in terms of upscale materials or design. Our test car had the black interior, though the other three exterior colors (Grand Prix White, Silverstone Metallic, Berlina Black) all get an optional red interior. No matter what color you pick, you don't get a glove box. Or door bins, for that matter. All there is for storage is a center box located on the rear bulkhead, a trunk that holds 5 cubic feet of cargo, and two virtually inaccessible storage units behind the driver's and passenger's seats. The firm seats are well-padded, but they lack height adjustment. The steering wheel does not tilt or telescope. The mediocre radio is hidden behind a flimsy plastic flip-down door.
The Silver Bullet
Firing this wee beastie requires some memorization. It's no simple matter of twisting the key; all that nets is a few electronic beeps and powered-up accessories. For liftoff, stab the red race car-like engine start button to the left of the steering wheel. The button is kind of a gimmick, and the first few times it's annoying because you feel like a doofus for twisting the key all the way and wondering why nothing happened. But once your brain reprograms itself, the starter button becomes second nature.
At idle, the S2000's engine doesn't sound supernatural. It just sounds like, well, a Honda. Blip the throttle a couple times. Nothing. Not even remotely threatening. So pull out and putter about in traffic. Still nothing. Only two things hint about potential kinetic energy: the short-throw six-speed gearbox and a tachometer redline that is set at not 6, not 7, not 8, but 9,000 rpm. It's a digital gauge cluster, in fact, with a large, semicircular bar-type tachometer above a digital speedometer. It's easy to read, but you might find yourself still wanting analog gauges and more information than just coolant temperature and fuel level.
Traffic finally opens up. Step on the gas. The S2000 is quick. It moves smartly. But smartly isn't Honda's desired goal here. The tachometer reaches 6,000 rpm -- show time. VTEC kicks in, activating a different set of camshaft profiles. The S2000 magically transforms from vanilla roadster to kamikaze attack plane. Scenery in the windshield whizzes by like somebody suddenly hit the VCR fast-forward button.
By the noise, you swear you're going to blow it up. Time to shift. Oops. You were listening to the engine note and shifted at a mere 7,500 rpm. There's still 1,500 more rpm to go! So slow down and gun it again. Watch the tach this time. By 8,000 rpm, there's the realization that you have entered uncharted territory. As the engine continues to wrap upwards towards 9,000, the snarling engine and exhaust plumb into your gut and buzz up to your brain. Take the sound of an Integra GS-R engine, add some Honda CBR 900RR motorcycle and a dash of Jordan/Mugen Formula One race car, and you have something close to the sound the S2000. It's a feeling that you're getting away with something truly special.
Yet once the initial high wears off, it slowly becomes apparent that the S2000 doesn't have an abundance of torque. It has 153 foot-pounds at heady 7,500 rpm, which is only 1 foot pound more than a four-cylinder Accord LX. Two liters of displacement, no matter how much technology one throws at it, is still two liters. Honda is about the only auto company in the world that can write 50 pages of press material about a new sports car and conveniently forget to mention torque until the last page.
This isn't to say the S2000 is a slowpoke. In normal driving, VTEC plumps out the torque curve sufficiently. It's just when you're stuck well below 6,000 rpm and you ask the S2000 to leap forward immediately that there's a big lag between command and actual execution. So either you keep the engine on boil at all times (not really realistic), or you take the S2000 out of the city where it can truly run.
Coke Bottle Curves
As a bonus, this just so happens to be the place to explore the car's handling. With such a cracker of an engine, one sometimes forgets that the S2000 has more than one trick up its sleeve. Those who drive Mazda Miatas will recognize the feeling immediately. No matter where you want the S2000 to go, it's spot on. Feed input to the thick steering wheel and the Honda responds unerringly. The ride is quite firm and bumpy, but the S2000 never degrades into an unsettling nature. Nor does it crash harshly over bumps. Body roll and inertia are virtually nonexistent upon turn-in. Credit goes to a perfect 50/50 weight distribution, a new suspension design, and a very stiff chassis.
The S2000 comes into its own when it's placed in situations that tax its suspension and engine to the fullest. Pick your favorite 10-15 miles of curvy road and concentrate on running hard (By the way, this is most certainly illegal, so don't say we didn't warn you). From corner to corner, the steering moves with fluidic quickness. The S2000's grip is progressive, and the limited-slip differential puts the power down smoothly when exiting corners. Use the responsive and powerful brakes, but also commit yourself to keeping the revs to the high side of six grand via vigorous use of the slot-action shifter. Put all of this together correctly, and the S2000 detonates furiously out of corners, rewarding you with one of the most memorable vehicular drives in recent memory.
S2000 Redemption Value
As a streetable race car, the Honda S2000 excels. You won't find a more polished, high-performance, back-road burner anywhere else for the price (more on that in a moment). With the top down, this is about as close to the motorcycle experience as you can get. But as a high-performance street car, the S2000 loses some luster. Camaros, Mustangs and Corvettes have nothing to fear from this car at a stoplight, and the bumpy ride and austere interior might get tiresome if the car is used for commuting. For a quick and nasty summation, think of the S2000 as a Miata that went through Special Forces training. It's sharper, quicker, and more deadly.
In terms of price, the S2000 slots between the Miata and cars like the Z3 and Boxster. It looks to be (and is) an extraordinary performance buy. But at the time of this writing, the popularity of S2000s and the limited production of 5000 units has allowed dealers to charge thousands of dollars over sticker. Take this into consideration before you run down to your local Honda dealer waving a freshly minted $32,000 check.
240-Horsepower 2.0-Liter Engine
Honda engineers designed the S2000's 240-horsepower, 16-valve four-cylinder engine to be as small and lightweight as possible. The engine's aluminum-alloy cylinder head is a highly efficient design and features a compact gear- and chain-drive system for the dual overhead camshafts. The ancillary drive system for the alternator, water pump and air-conditioning compressor is also a new space-efficient type.
The S2000's engine's highly rigid, aluminum-alloy cylinder block features Honda's long-wearing FRM (Fiber-Reinforced Metal) cylinder liners. The lightweight pistons are made of forged aluminum alloy (the first use of this material in a Honda production automobile engine), and the forged-steel connecting rods and crankshaft are heat-treated for added toughness. Numerous friction-reducing techniques, such as the roller-bearing cam followers, special pistons, and advanced materials are used in the engine.
An all-new, compact version of VTEC, Honda's variable valve timing system, is used on the S2000 engine. VTEC optimizes torque output over the engine's entire operating range, improving both driveability and performance. The S2000's VTEC system is specifically designed for high-performance operation. A large-capacity, low-restriction intake system and low back-pressure exhaust system help ensure free breathing at all engine speeds. The exhaust system also features a high-efficiency metal-honeycomb catalyst. The catalyst, combined with the engine's secondary air-injection system, direct-ignition system and fuel injection contributes to the S2000's engine achieving its LEV status.
Six-Speed Manual Transmission
The S2000 uses an all-new longitudinally mounted, six-speed manual transmission. Double- and triple-cone synchronizers reduce shift effort, and a separate lubrication pump adds to transmission durability. The drivetrain also includes a lightened flywheel, a very rigid one-piece driveshaft, and a Torsen limited-slip differential.
In-Wheel Double-Wishbone Suspension
The S2000's four-wheel double-wishbone suspension system is a new compact in-wheel design, similar to the type used on racing cars. At each wheel, rigid upper and lower A-shaped wishbone links carry suspension loads directly to the rigid subframes, which are attached directly toe the monocoque body. The suspension geometry has been carefully tuned for optimum road-holding and steering feel. Coil springs, mono-tube, gas-pressurized shock absorbers are used at each corner.
High X-Bone Frame
Body rigidity is crucial to good handing in an open-topped roadster, so Honda engineers designed a highly rigid monocoque body for the S2000. The heart of the system is a large central tunnel that runs down the center of the cockpit. This tunnel serves as the backbone and main load-bearing structure for the vehicle, as well as a housing for the transmission and driveshaft. The body's high side sills, and diagonal (X) bracing at the front and rear of the cockpit, provide additional rigidity.
Electronically Powered Steering System
In place of a conventional hydraulic system, with its hoses, fluid and power drain, the S2000 uses an electrically assisted power steering system. At low speeds, more power-steering assist is provided, which eases maneuvering and parking. As vehicle speed increases, less power assist is supplied, giving the steering a more direct feel.