2004 Honda S2000 First Drive

2004 Honda S2000 First Drive

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2004 Honda S2000 Convertible

(2.2L 4-cyl. 6-speed Manual)

Better Sports Car Through Compromise

The moment Honda's S2000 hit the market as a 2000 model it was clearly one of the most uncompromised sports cars made available to U.S. buyers in decades. It only sat two and those two could only be so wide. Unlike every other Honda — except the motorcycles, the Acura NSX and some lawnmowers — it had rear-wheel drive. The chassis was stiff (so was the ride) and it handled with the immediacy and precision of a raw nerve sliced open by an expert surgeon. The six-speed transmission's throws could be measured in single-digit microns and the normally aspirated, DOHC, 16-valve, 2.0-liter four made an unfathomable 240-horsepower thanks to Honda's famed VTEC variable valve timing technology, a super-lightweight reciprocating assembly, a dizzying 9,000-rpm redline and the sacrifice of virtually all usable low-end torque. It was an easy car to love, and a tough car with which to live.

For 2004, Honda has significantly updated the S2000, with most of the changes aimed toward civilizing the car a bit for everyday driving. The engine has grown, the redline has dropped, the transmission's gear ratios have been jumbled, the shifter action has improved, the cockpit is slightly roomier and the chassis subtly revised. Can an S2000 with built-in concessions to comfort and practicality — compromises — be as fully satisfying as a sports car? There will be an answer.

The modifications to the 2004 S2000's external appearance are slight but worthwhile. Up front the nose has been reshaped with a wider air intake below the bumper and new clear lens, projector headlights above it. Out back the rear bumper cover has been tweaked to appear closer to the ground, dual exhaust tips are now an oval shape instead of round, and the taillights incorporate three LED elements in place of the two conventionally illuminated lamps used previously. Throw in the new 10-spoke, 17-inch wheels wrapped by wider Bridgestone Potenza RE 050 tires and the latest S2000 is effectively updated — in terms of appearance.

The real substance of the S2000's evolution lives most profoundly under the hood where, though it's still basically the same all-aluminum engine design (under a new cover plate), an increase in crank stroke has swollen displacement from 2.0 to 2.2 liters. Beyond that the compression ratio has been raised from 11.0 to 1 to 11.1 to 1 and the VTEC system has been tweaked so that the point of transition to the high-speed cam profiles has been lowered. The longer stroke knocks 800 rpm off the redline to keep piston speeds reasonable, but in exchange there's a bit more peak torque (161 pound-feet up from 153) and that peak occurs at a friendlier 6,500 instead of 7,500 rpm. There's no more horsepower — the engine still maxes out at 240 ponies — but that now happens at 7,800 instead of 8,300 rpm.

It's not just that the engine's power and torque peaks have moved downward, but supplies of both across the rev range have increased. Between 1,000 rpm (just off idle) to 8,000 rpm (200 rpm short of the redline) available torque and horsepower are consistently up between 4 and 10 percent, and there's even some real heft as low as 3,000 rpm. Puttering from mall to work to home, the 2.2-liter engine is far friendlier than the 2.0-liter and yet retains most of its eagerness to leap for the redline. The VTEC system's operation seems a bit less abrupt in the revised 2.2, but the engine still snarls as it reaches the juicy center of its power band at around 6,000 rpm. Honda claims that 0-to-60-mph times slip down to "less than 6.0 seconds" with the new engine, and since Edmunds has had previous S2000s scooting to 60 in as quick as 5.8 seconds the carmaker is probably being conservative. The new S2000 feels quicker and likely hits 60 in about 5.5 seconds.

To get the most from the engine, the six-speed transmission's ratios have been juggled, with the gearing now slightly lower in the bottom four gears, a tad higher in fifth and unchanged in sixth. New carbon-fiber synchronizers have been added to every gear except reverse and while they may improve shift quality, that improvement must be very slight. After all, the S2000 transmission already sported one of the world's quickest and most precise shifters. The final drive ratio remains entrenched at 4.10 to 1.

Further civilizing the 2004 S2000 is a revised driving environment. This is still a very close-coupled cockpit, but new deeply sculpted door panels add a few millimeters of hiproom. New aluminum-looking (it's really plastic) trim for the radio cover furnishes a performance edge and there's now a second cupholder aboard, effectively doubling the car's commuting range. The steering wheel is still tiny in diameter and rides low in the driver's lap, but the instrumentation behind it is more readable than before, with the sweeping digital tach having less space between its segments and its companion digital speedometer easier to read. Some purists argue that traditional mechanical instruments would be better, but current open wheel race cars use a display similar to the S2000's, so it's tough to fault Honda for creating an authentic performance ambience.

The S2000 cockpit isn't built for transcontinental cruising; it's built for attacking the road in bursts, thrusts and parries. And by that standard it's dang near excellent. Snugged down into the driver seat, the S2000's controls all fall readily to hand. The aluminum shift knob now has a band of leather wrapped around it for comfort and the thick rim of the steering wheel provides a perfect grip. This is still a tight fit for anyone who wears a 42 Regular or larger suit, but incrementally better than previous S2000s and at least tolerable for journeys up to about 200 miles. After that, put the S2000 on a trailer and tow it with your Suburban.

Fiddling with the S2000's finely balanced chassis must have been daunting for Honda going into the 2004 updating. The structure itself has been stiffened with new gusseting at the front crossmember joints, some additional fixing points for the stiffening rod at the rear and additional reinforcement of the rear wheel arch bulkheads. The front suspension has been more precisely located with new brackets for the upper control arms. However, the S2000 was already an admirably solid machine and discerning any fortification through the seat of the pants is probably impossible.

To accommodate the new, larger tires (the previous S2000 ran P205/55R16 front and P225/50R16 rear tires while the new edition's Bridgestones measure P215/45R17 up front and 245/40R17 out back) the steering ratio has been lowered from 13.8 to 1 to 14.9 to 1 and the electric power steering reprogrammed accordingly. The double wishbone suspension design at each corner remains but the front spring rates are up 6.7 percent and they've dropped 10 percent in the back along with a 1.8-millimeter thinner rear anti-sway bar. Of course the shock tuning is new and the brakes get new pad material, a new master cylinder and a new ABS system incorporating "yaw control logic."

On a racetrack, the revised suspension, bigger tires and slightly better brakes let a driver push the new S2000 deeper into corners while the richer torque curve is more forgiving of gear selection screwups coming out of them. The original S2000's oversteer came on pretty suddenly, but the limit transition is more manageable and smoother in the updated machine. An expert might hustle the original, less forgiving S2000 just as quickly around some tracks as the updated car, but for most of us the new car will be quicker and safer.

Track performance is something every prospective S2000 owner should consider, because there's little reason to buy one unless it's going to spend some time on a race course. Even the tamer, more civilized, 24-pound-heavier 2004 edition of this hard-edged car is not an easy machine to live with day in and day out. It's not easy to get in and out of (particularly when the quick-dropping power top is up), it doesn't coddle either the driver or passenger and, while the engine is much easier-going than before, it still needs to spin with urgency and a banshee wail to extract maximum performance. The 2004 S2000 (Shouldn't it be the S2200 now?) may be more compromised than previous S2000s and that makes it even more lovable than ever, but it's still the least compromised new sports car for sale in North America. It's easier to live with but it's still not easy to live with. If you want something even tempered and relaxed, buy a Porsche Boxster S.

Honda doesn't expect the $32,600 price of the 2003 S2000 to go up much with the change to the 2004 model, and this car remains a startling value. Its closest competitors are all much more expensive (that 2003 Boxster S, which offers similar performance, starts at $52,365) and often less satisfying in their purity of purpose, if not in creature comforts. If you really want to add a pure, unalloyed sports car to your fleet, why spend more?

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