Saturday, December 13, 2003

Honda S2000 like motorcycle

Smooth engineering, minimalist approach attract niche driver

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor

Honda S2000
Honda S2000


Wheels rating: (out of 5)
4 wheels

Vital Statistics

What I drove: 2004 Honda S2000, two-seat convertible with manual transmission

Base price: $32,800

Price as tested: $33,290 (includes destination charge)

Options on test vehicle: None

Summary: High-revving roadster for sports car purists

Drivetrain layout: Front engine, rear-wheel drive

Engine: 2.2-liter in-line 4-cylinder producing 240 hp @ 7,800 rpm and 162 lb-ft torque @ 6,500

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Wheelbase: 94.5 in.

Length: 162.2 in.

Width: 68.9 in.

Height: 50.0 in.

Weight: 2,835 lb.

EPA mileage, city/hwy: 20/25

Warranty: Basic: 3 year/36,000 miles; drivetrain: 3 year/36,000 miles

Assembled in: Tochigi, Japan

Safety: Antilock brakes, dual front airbags, integrated roll bars, seatbelt pretensioners.

Cool: Sleek exterior, super-efficient engine, sharp responsive handling, rigid body structure, easy-to-operate power roof, broad headlight beams

Uncool: Teeth-chattering ride, ear-splitting engine, shift-happy gearbox, teensy trunk, no adjustments for steering wheel or seat height, no turn-off switch for passenger airbag, shift-obstructing cupholders

Accolades: Named "Most Wanted Convertible for Less Than $35,000" by editors of; earned "Best Buy" status in Consumer Reports.

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Car Talk
When Honda comes to mind these days, we think of thrifty Civics and Accords for happy commuters.

But Honda's heritage really lies in motorcycles.

When you jump into a Honda S2000, that motorcycle heritage comes blasting back. This rear-wheel-drive two-seater is more like a four-wheel motorcycle than a car.

Just like a motorcycle, the S2000's personality is dominated by its small but mighty engine. The 2.2-liter, four-cylinder powerplant delivers a big 240 horsepower, although it has to spin all the way to an ear-splitting 7,800 rpm to do it. This is one of the highest revving engines found in a production car today.

Drive an S2000 for several hours straight and you'll feel like you just rode a motorcycle home from a Metallica concert. The engine screams, the taut suspension rattles your teeth and the six-speed gearbox requires constant handwork to keep the power on the boil.

That's what's so funny about the S2000. It looks so tame and civilized. But when you press its red "start" button and the engine crackles to life, you quickly discover there's nothing soft or cuddly about it.

For 2004, Honda has fine-tuned the S2000 to make it more user-friendly on the street. A bit more displacement helps the engine deliver power over a slightly broader band than before, and a retuned suspension makes handling a bit more predictable. Even so, the second-generation S2000 isn't suited for quiet Sunday drives or daily commutes on the interstate. It's a high-strung thing, and it commands your complete and undivided attention, just like a motorcycle. You have to get pumped up before you wriggle behind the wheel. If you drive this car politely and shift below 6000 rpm, you'll quickly tire of the high noise-to-power ratio. Drive it like an animal, and you'll be rewarded.

The S2000 is all about lightness and efficiency, not brute strength. That's part of the Honda heritage, too. This car weighs in at a lean, mean 2,800 pounds, and it's so light and nimble compared to sports cars like the Nissan Z that you can practically steer it with your fingertips - no biceps required. After you've grown accustomed to the rev-happy engine, you'll admire the S2000's quick-shifting gearbox, powerful brakes and sharp, swift cornering dynamics. For all the sports car-character this car shows in its performance (and in its engine note), it actually feels easy and natural to drive, just like the happy Honda commuter cars you're used to. This is the Honda Way, making a car feel as balanced and predictable as possible.

Minimalist interior

If you're looking for a car with a high ratio of luxury to performance, head to your nearest showroom of European cars. The Honda S2000 is an enthusiast's car, pure and simple, and it's devoid of frivolous doodads like heated power seats, satellite navigation, and even a place to keep your cell phone. The cup holder count has been increased for 2004 to a total of two, and only grande-size at that.

The cabin is minimalist not only in theme but also in spaciousness. You don't sit in this car; you wear it. The dash is clean and modern, and all the controls are skewed to the driver's side, with some fussy little buttons hidden inconveniently behind the steering wheel.

The leather-wrapped steering wheel looks like something from a racing car and it feels just right, with a comfortably thick rim that fills your palm and a shape that encourages you to hook your thumbs over the spokes for added control. Unfortunately, the steering wheel doesn't feature any adjustment, and neither does the height of the seat cushion, so you have to adapt to the required driving position and that made it a challenge for me to steer with my knees while drinking a coffee. (Oh, you're not supposed to do that?) The seats are snugly supportive and very firm.

The S2000's minimalist theme extends to its storage capacity. There isn't any, basically. OK, there's a little, but don't be inviting a bunch of packages, backpacks or even a CD case to ride along with you, because they'll end up sliding around in the passenger-side footwell. The door pockets are too small to hold even a slim notepad, and there's no glovebox at all. The teensy trunk offers enough room for a few grocery bags or a beach duffel and towels, but don't think of embarking on a weekend to the country where you might be expected to dress for dinner.

The roadster-style convertible top isn't lined or insulated, so it'll be cold in the cabin during the winter; but the glass rear window features a defroster, and that's a good thing. The power-operated top is a cinch to use, although over-the-shoulder visibility is terrible when the top is up, because of the expanse of fabric, just as with all convertibles. If you want serious cold-weather protection (and security, too), there's an optional aluminum hardtop that weighs only 44 pounds.

The Honda S2000 stickers at $32,800, so it's priced between the Mazda Miata and the Nissan 350Z Roadster, and offers the same thrills of European sports cars costing several thousands (even tens of thousands) more.

The purist niche

The S2000 is a serious sports car bred for adrenaline-enhanced driving enthusiasts who can muster superhuman intensity every time they slip behind the wheel. If you are among that small target group (hint: everyone says you have eyes like Marty Feldman), you'll be indubitably pleased with the S2000.

But if the thought of riding a motorcycle every day doesn't get your blood boiling, then you will find the S2000 a little too hardcore as a daily driver. After two weeks, you'd find yourself checking into a rehab unit complaining of "exhaustion."


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