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Review:2003 Honda S2000

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SEE ALSO: Honda Buyer's Guide

By Carey Russ

The saying ``don't mess with success'' is not a Honda motto. Although the S2000 roadster is only in its third year of production, Honda has given it a few minor improvements that edge it even closer to perfection, without compromising its uncompromising performance and carved-from-solid-billet feel.

A glass backlight with a built-in defroster is the most noticeable new feature, and

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a very good one at that. If there was any shortcoming to the original S2000, it was the convertible top's plastic rear window of. Plastic does not allow great visibility even when new, and, in a few years it can yellow or even turn opaque, necessitating a possibly expensive replacement. Although convertibles are meant for top-down motoring, there are times when it's necessary to have protection from the elements. The shift knob now has leather trim, for looks and for heat insulation. The aluminum knob is attached to the shift lever, which is attached directly to the gearbox. When the gearbox gets warm, the shift knob gets warm. It can also get uncomfortably hot on a warm day. Happiness may be a warm gearshift, from a spirited drive, but a little insulation doesn't hurt. And the six-speed gearbox itself, one of the best in any car, has had minor tweaks for even smoother shifting.

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There are minor interior changes, highlighted by a more-powerful stereo and small net storage pockets. The S2000 is still a very serious sports car, and, as such has little in the way of extra frills or luggage capacity. Honda hasn't softened it any, and its fans will be glad of that.

The 240 horsepower 2.0-liter engine continues unchanged, and no changes are need there. It still has the highest specific power output of any street-legal naturally-aspirated engine, with more power for its size than even the engines of the Italian exotics. As always, it feels like a healthy two-liter from idle to 5000 rpm or so.

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At that point, the engine note goes from mellow traditional four-cylinder burble to something more strident, and the uninitiated driver may be tempted to back off. Don't. It gets stronger up to the VTEC cam changeover at 7000 rpm, at which point it gets joyfully insane. In the zone, from 7000 to almost 9000 rpm, the S2000 sounds like a Cosworth-powered Formula One car from the 1970s, and accelerates like one, too.

Drive an S2000anywhere near the limit, and you'll feel like you're in some sort of virtual-reality video game - things happen fast, and the sound of the engine intensifies the experience. Yet, the S2000 doesn't have to be driven near its limit to be enjoyable. Vintage F1 cars had very narrow power bands; the S2000 develops useable power from 2500 to nearly 9000 rpm, an incredible spread.

Like any Honda, the S2000 will trundle through stop-and-go traffic without complaint, or scream at redline. Think of it as a very healthy two-liter sports car with an afterburner.