New Age Roadster
Honda's first car was a roadster, but the concept was quickly abandoned. Now they've tried it again, and in usual Honda fashion, have hit the mark square on.
During the postwar era, Japanese industry became known for taking a good idea and making it better. In 1963, Honda (which had been building motorcycles since 1948) embraced this philosophy by introducing their first car. The S500 was a front-engined, rear-wheel-drive open roadster. Its aluminum 500 cc engine, designed through years of grand prix motorcycle racing experience, had four cylinders, four carburetors, double overhead cams and wound up to 8000 rpm. An independent rear suspension was fitted onto a truck chassis and featured aluminum cases which housed chain drives that acted as motorcycle style suspension swing arms. Though perhaps not the highest technology of the day, it was certainly innovative. The S500 followed the styling cues of the MG and Austin-Healy, which resulted in a cute little roadster of the same genre, though it still fell short of a timeless design. The result of the S500 and its subsequent replacements, the S600 and the S800, was not dramatic sales, or better, faster sports cars - Honda began producing front wheel drive sedans after the S800. Instead, the S-series roadsters allowed Honda to realize that the sensation of speed, the sound of the engine winding out high rpms, and the wind whistling through the open cockpit all intensified driving pleasure.
Flash forward 30-plus years and, thanks to the Miata's success, manufacturers like BMW and Porsche have remembered what enthusiasts want in a great sports car. Having never forgotten the speed, sound, wind, sun, and air of the S500 days, Honda knew that they could improve on the existing formulas of other manufacturers with a sports car for the new millennium - the S2000.
The S2000 (its designation does not allude to the next century, but rather follows the classic Japanese tradition of naming a sports cars after its engine displacement) employs the philosophy of cleaner, faster and safer motoring that Honda is working to fulfill. It utilizes a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder motor that achieves an amazing 120 horsepower per liter, yet produces low emissions. The chassis has been designed with insight gained from CART racing, while the styling is sharp, sleek, and modern.
The front end of the S2000 is exciting and aggressive, yet maintains the classic Honda presence while incorporating high intensity discharge headlights and air ducts to cool the brakes. But the modernists must have designed the rear. It's simple and aerodynamic, with a third brake light that doubles as a spoiler, but Honda missed a golden opportunity to take a few chances and create a jaw dropper by giving the car a little more personality. Apparently they wanted a car that was "harmoniously balanced with the environment"-odd considering enthusiasts usually want a car that causes a visual shock wave beyond outstanding performance.
The S2000 does deliver performance as promised, however. Starting with a compact and lightweight aluminum block, Honda developed a new DOHC VTEC cylinder head featuring a metal injection molded rocker arm with roller followers and high strength valve springs. This sits on top of forged aluminum pistons and heat treated connecting rods. A direct ignition coil makes for more efficient combustion from a straight port intake manifold, while multi-port secondary air injection aided by an electric air pump system creates even more power. A two-stage camshaft drive contributes to the classic VTEC second stage ummph under full throttle, and a low back pressure exhaust system aided by a metal honeycomb catalytic converter easily expels exhaust gases. The setup results in 151 lb/ft of torque at 7500 rpm - enough to spit the rear end out while exiting slower corners. And when feeling may macho, it's easy to stay in the throttle while keeping the car in a twitchy, yet controllable oversteer slide all the way to redline at 9000 rpm. That's where the real fun begins.
Under full throttle, the beauty of the VTEC system comes into full gonzo mode at about 6000 rpm. From there, the engine picks up intensity and loudness, revving faster until redline 3000 rpm later. The experience is similar in the NSX - but now with wind in the hair and bugs in the teeth. The sound of the engine is enthralling: You want to keep it spinning beyond its redline just to hear it sing.
The back straight at Honda's Tochigi road course test track is about a mile long and has a left hand arch throughout the entire length that was by far the most exciting point of the track. The turn leading onto the straight could be taken flat out in 3rd gear. As the engine noise screams louder than the wind noise, one begins to imagine what Alex Zanardi might feel as he goes through the gears at the banked Fontana speedway.
The acceleration is surprisingly fast for a car that weighs around 2800 Ibs (Honda wouldn't say exactly how much) and has a horsepower rating of 240. With a power to weight ratio superior to the Boxster or the M roadster, this little scream bomb revs very quickly and has the power to keep the tech climbing through the taller gears. Somewhere towards the end of Tochigi's back straight, I was doing a solid 120+ mph in 5th gear, with the revs angrily buzzing higher, when we crossed an underground tunnel that had abrupt expansion joints. Normally, crossing a speed bump at that rate would cause a life-threatening deviation, but the S2000 soaked up the imbalance with only a minor twitch, due mainly to its 50/50 weight distribution.
To achieve such an ideal balance, Honda gleaned racing wisdom and placed the entire engine behind the front axle, creating a lower center of gravity. This also creates a low yaw rate, making for excellent transient response or lane change capability. This was evident by how quickly and smoothly the S2000 responded to a transition from a mid-speed right hander to a left harder. The car simply went where it was pointed, without the whiplash feeling you might get in a heavier car.
The twists of Tochigi created a completely different kind of excitement. The S2000 could be placed anywhere on the glass-smooth track, diving deep into the corners for a late apex, or blasting through the chicane with pinpoint precision. The S2000 became an extension of my thoughts, with the small steering wheel as my medium. The taut chassis and body refused to flex, preferring to let the tires do the slipping, even when slammed directly into one turn from the next. The torsional rigidity of the car is outstanding, comparable to most closed coupes and about equal to that of the NSX-T. Honda attributes this excellent torsional rigidity to a high "X" bone frame body, which also gives the S2000 excellent crash characteristics. Additional chassis stiffness is accomplished by tall side sills and a high central tunnel, connected to a middle cross member.
With each lap of Tochigi becoming a bit faster, the little Honda slowly revealed its personality. Because of the car's weight distribution and excellent stiffness, I sometimes felt as if I were driving a large go-kart, which is an extremely rewarding feeling when getting a series of turns right. But if I got it wrong and apexed too early, the S2000 would instantly reward my mistake with embarrassing understeer, just like a kart. The S2000 also encouraged a bit of throttle steering, though not as significantly as in the Porsche Boxster. It was fairly easy to point the car into a tight corner by letting off the throttle.
As speeds increased further, it became apparent that driving the S2000 well required an experienced baseline of driving knowledge. The stiff chassis setup combined with 240 hp provides exciting driving, but pushing the envelope or getting sloppy could mean trouble. Around the normal braking point on the back straight, I was doing around 130 mph and decided to extend my braking point a bit further, into a left hand sweeper. The car was stable while braking in a straight line, but when trying to make the turn under braking (which is suitable with most production cars), the S2000 became very twitchy and required very delicate inputs. Keep in mind that of all three cars available for testing were prototypes: a US version, a European version and a Japanese version, each one slightly different in handling behavior. When the production version arrives in the US sometime during September of 1999, it will be softened up to be a bit more forgiving.
A newly developed double wishbone suspension does add some forgiveness to the stiff chassis. This suspension setup is essentially the same as the NSX in front, while the rear uses a wider lower arm and a smaller upper arm. The tow arm is located in front of the suspension for easier and more accurate alignment, as opposed to on the NSX, where it is located on the back.
The front suspension carries large vented disc brakes and the rear holds solid discs. Honda didn't provide sizes. Of course, ABS is standard. Front tire size is 205/SSVR16, while the rears are a bit wider at 225/SOVR16. This seems to be a good tire setup and, if production vehicles arrive with anything like Yokohama A008s or Michelin Pilots, they should complement the chassis nicely.
The Red Button
Beyond handling characteristics, the driver's environment is exciting as well. The cockpit is small and spartan, yet has a futuristic look. The tachometer forms a digital arch, with a digital speed readout just below it that is easily viewed through the center of the steering wheel. The most unique and exciting point of the cockpit is the engine start button. The ignition process does require inserting a key into the steering column, but firing the engine means a push of the red engine start button just to the left of the steering wheel. It gives the feeling of being on the grid of a major race, starting the car at the announcer's command. One of Honda's engineers put it more simply: "Pushing the red button is like starting fire."
Drilled and polished pedals nicely offset the billet shifter knob of the six-speed manual tranny. Light and compact to accept its location behind the axle, the transmission's shift action is direct and smooth. Its extremely short throws change gears by a flick of the wrist, which really exaggerates the road racing feel. Although, with six gears grouped tightly together, it was difficult, at first, not to get lost somewhere around 3rd or 4th gear. That will easily be cured by spending time in the car. The pull-type clutch and small inertia flywheel were specifically designed for this high-revving engine and send the power to a torque-sensing limited-slip differential.
With all that power at the rear tires, I just had to lap Tochigi's five-mile oval with parabolic turns. Once at speed, the most obvious aspect of the car's behavior was the absolute lack of turbulence in the cockpit. After a couple of faster laps, I noticed how stable the car felt over 100 mph. It continued to remain stable, even when maxing the S2000 for top speed. I hit 149 mph on the long straight and, without lifting, the little screamer stayed rock steady through the giant parabolic turn. It was a lot more comfortable than the Z3 brought along for comparison purposes, which seemed to want to shift its momentum to the outside.
It's understandable why Honda put Mr. Uehara, the father of the NSX, in charge of the S2000, as this will undoubtedly be Honda's next supercar. Yet pricing should remain well below the supercar realm: Honda plans to sell the car in the $30,000 to $35,000 range. With a small displacement, high output powerplant, coupled with a well balanced and safe chassis, the S2000 embodies the automotive philosophy for the new millennium. Just another case of Honda taking a good idea and making it better.
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