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Honda S2000 Gets Milder... But Only Slightly

Honda S2000 Gets Milder... But Only Slightly

Source: David Bellm for | Published: August 5, 2004

Picture what youíd get if Ferrari or some other supercar manufacturer decided to enter into the sub $50,000 market Ė with all the delightful hardcore snap and sometimes-tiresome din such a scenario would bring in a car. Thatís the S2000. It was that way from the beginning, and remains so today, despite getting significant changes for 2004 aimed at making the carís uncompromising personality more palatable to milder drivers.

Honda first introduced the S2000 in the year 2000, drawing inspiration from the companyís S500, S600, and S800 sports cars of the 1960s. Built with an eye toward lightweight, race-car-style performance, the S2000 came with few luxury features and was powered by an energetic four-cylinder engine that made a remarkable 240 horsepower from just 2.0 liters -- without a turbocharger or supercharger.

As could be expected for such an uncompromising car, the S2000 immediately drew raves from enthusiasts and the typically performance-crazed automotive press. But it also drew criticism from some potential buyers, who found the carís intense performance difficult to live with compared to more civilized contemporaries such as Mazda Miata and BMW Z3.

Indeed, S2000 has always felt like a car on a pace lap Ė impatient, desperate to be cut loose and urged faster. Even when you intend to lope along slow neighborhood streets just to get someplace, you find yourself stretching out the gears, goosing the throttle, playing slalom with manhole covers.

That flavor continues largely unabated for í04, despite the carís latest revisions. Foremost among those changes is a boost in engine displacement, from 2.0 to 2.2 liters. Its horsepower rating remains the same 240, but the new engine makes that power at a more reasonable 7800 rpm, 500-rpm lower than the previous peak. Low-speed torque is similarly increased, going from 153 lb-ft at 7500 rpm, to a handier 162 lb-ft at 6500 rpm. As can be expected, these changes pay off in low-rpm manners that are now more adequately suited to everyday driving.

The most obvious cue indicating this engineís changed personality is its lower redline (8200-rpm, compared to the 2003 modelís 9000 limit), necessitated by increased stroke. But fans of the S2000ís famed, fast-winding shriek need not worry. Although low-speed performance gets additional emphasis, the S2000 nonetheless remains a high-strung machine. Power builds in three distinct phases: from idle to 3000 rpm, the car feels pokey but acceptable. From 3000 to 6000 rpm, acceleration is not particularly inspiring but satisfying and enjoyable nonetheless. Then, at 6000 rpm, the little engine kicks in abruptly as if it has a turbocharger coming into boost, and the car goes like mad right to the point where the rev limiter introduces its telltale stutter.

Described this way, it may seem as though the S2000 would be annoying or difficult to drive even in this newer, more tractable form. But in practice, the power curve works fine; clutch takeup is smooth and easily modulated, so to get going from a stop, you simply rev the engine a little higher than you might a more ordinary car. Once rolling, the short gearing and close-ratio six-speed transmission allow one to keep the tach where needed for whatever performance is demanded. Aiding that process is the precise, pleasingly mechanical shift action, which for 2004 is further enhanced by redesigned transmission synchros that smooth gear engagement just the right amount.

Further complementing S2000ís racy powerplant is the carís excellent handling, a mix of good grip, impressive balance, and minimal body lean. For 2004 the suspension gets a host of modifications, including revised spring and damper rates along with wider tires on 17- instead of 16-inch wheels. Together, these various changes quell some of the carís previous oversteering tendencies without dulling its competence.

The only complaint regarding S2000ís handling is in the carís steering, which has been changed for 2004 to provide increased feedback, according to Honda. Although still blessed with meaty weighting, a quick ratio, and excellent turn-in response, the system nonetheless remains a tad numb, hampering efforts to precisely gauge corner-entry speeds and thereby reducing driver confidence at the limits. Although not terribly obvious in street driving, this issue becomes more evident on a racetrack. In our brief test laps at Road America, we found the car getting greasier than we expected in a few corners, the result of being fooled into carrying a bit more speed than we should have.

Such quibbles aside, S2000 is a joy to drive quickly, thrilling drivers with overall handling that rivals or tops sports cars costing considerably more.

Unfortunately, your posterior pays the price for those inspired road manners; the S2000 is a hard-riding, busy machine over small pavement imperfections, and pounds occupants on big bumps. Adding to the discomfort is the back endís tendency to hop slightly from side to side over minor road irregularities.

A plush cruiser this isnít. Again, think thinly-veiled race car, or ďjuniorĒ exotic, an impression furthered by the engineís relentless wail and the prodigious drone from the carís high-performance tires.

The carís interior, however, strives to make this wild little machine as palatable as possible for normal use. Although snug inside, the cabin is well thought out and comfortable. Redesigned door panels and center console further embellish what was already a surprisingly rich interior for the carís low-$30k starting price. The seats are comfortable and well suited to performance driving, with good back support and generous side bolstering. Although theyíre manually adjusted and the steering column neither tilts nor telescopes, itís easy to set up an effective driving position.

With its numerous improvements for 2004, Hondaís racy little sports car is easier to live with in day-to-day driving chores, yet retains most of its wild, track-ready personality. Whether one views that exotic flavor as a good thing or a bad thing is largely a matter of needs and expectations. Those who seek a sports car that can double as a relaxed long-distance cruiser should look elsewhere first Ė Nissan 350Z, and Porsche Boxster come to mind.

But for those who relish the delight of blazing down public roads in a car that feels so untamed, so race-prepared that it almost seems as though it should be illegal, S2000 is about the only game in town for less-than-Ferrari prices.

2007 Honda S2000
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