What happens when you let a few of Honda’s racing engineers loose on a sports car concept? Stacks of power, incredible rev range, and the handling you need to match in a front-engine, rear-drive sports car – that’s the Honda S2000.
Yup, this is the real thing – a front-engined sports car that steers and handles superbly, and has the power of a much larger engine. Ride is fairly supple too.
If you don’t know anything about the miracles Honda has been working with motor bike engines for 30 years – they think that 140 bhp per liter and a red line at over 11,000 rpm is pretty normal for a hot bike – you might be surprised to find that the Honda S2000 turns out more power than any non-turbocharged production car. It may be a two-liter car, but the performance is more like that of a three-liter.
This marvel of a four-cylinder engine develops 240 bhp at 8,300 rpm, and the red line is at 9,000 rpm – that’s 120 bhp per liter, just ahead of the Ferrari Challenge Stradale. Which means it’s way ahead of most other supercars. But it doesn’t have much power low down, as the maximum torque of 153 lb ft doesn’t kick in till 7,500 rpm – the sort of speed most engines in sports cars are developing maximum power!
There’s quite a lot of new technology in the engine. To save weight, the aluminum cylinders are impregnated with carbon and alumina which provides a very hard surface. Then, to cut friction, the valves are operated by roller type rockers. They also did a lot of work to reduce noise at such high engine speeds.
But the engine is just part of it. The fact is that everything on this car works well. It all starts with the layout: the engine is set as far back as they could get it, behind the front axle, so the weight is concentrated around the middle of the car, giving near 50:50 weight distribution. You can see this in the picture – the front of the red cylinder head cover is just behind the conical cover in the suspension tower.
With the engine that far back, they managed to get a 50:50 weight distribution with everything near the middle. That makes the car more controllable.
Although the S2000 has a steel body, it is designed around an X-frame which includes the transmission tunnel, giving a very stiff underbody despite the fact that there is no roof to give stiffness. The standard car s a convertible with fast electric roof operation. There is also the GT version which gets a hardtop.
The S2000 is a great looking sports two-seater, too, with a smooth wedge line and arrow-shape nose that tapers back from the grille. Jump in, and the first refreshing thing about it is the light blue trim, which is such a change from the funereal black used by so many car companies these days.
You sit low down, with our legs straight out, and the little gear lever sticking out of the high tunnel. First impressions are good. The instrument panel is easy to see, the wheel comes to hand. It isn’t adjustable, but seemed pretty near right to me.
To start the engine you press a red button beside the wheel, and the engine springs to life. You need a few revs to get started, but the engine is willing, and feels ready to rev, even at 1,500 rpm. It isn’t at all lumpy, but very smooth and refined.
As you push the accelerator down for the first time, you sigh with relief; you can see the rev counter and speedo so easily, and you know you’ll be able to do so whatever happens.
How come I was so confident? Because this is an electronic display with the rev counter forming an arc just a bit smaller than the steering wheel rim. As the revs build, so the arc is illuminated progressively. It’s dead easy to see what’s happening. There’s a digital speedo reading in the middle, and the other instruments are all in the arc – all clearly visible.
I haven’t found any good digital instruments before – except the back-up digital display on Porsches – but this one is really brilliant. The best around – and you need it when you re revving an engine to 9,000 rpm.
Both the steering and gearshift impress early on, too. The gear shift lever for the six-speed box has a short movement, and there’s no danger of slipping into the reverse gate by mistake when going across to the fifth-sixth gate because you have to push the lever down to get into reverse.
The shift is short and positive, and it is just as easy to go from fifth to second as from third to fourth – of course, you need to heel and toe for this sort of maneuvre, and you can do that easily in the S2000.
Once you’ve got used to the car – and there isn’t much to get used to except that astonishing wide rev range – and set off into the country, the car is a joy. When I found the clear open road, I just put my foot down and watched the rev counter zoom up to 9,000 rpm, snatched another gear, and went off again. Oops! A corner coming; better put the brakes on. She slowed down quickly, straight and effortlessly.
Turn the wheel and feel the car turning in. The way rear drive cars turn in is just great. Then, as you progress round fast corners, she just goes around, the steering geometry designed so that you set the car up once and the car just keeps going around, tracking beautifully.
On roads with sweeping bends this is a fast car; you’ve always got power to spare, and it goes around on rails, without any roll worth talking about. You can use the power to accelerate smoothly through the bends, or if the corner tightens up when you don’t expect it just keep cruising round at a steady speed. No dramas.
Go a little faster, and you start to feel the back end wanting to move out a bit. It doesn’t until you try very hard. The technique is to go into the corner quite sharply, taking the apex late. The S2000 still goes round in a neutral curve unless you’re on a wet surface or you really slam the power on, which means being in the right gear, with 5,000 rpm or more on the clock.
In that case, the back end will slide out obligingly, but won’t go too far. It is generally easy to catch, and the steering seems to have just the right gearing to do this. You just feel that those double wishbones are controlling the wheel movement just as you want it –keeping the wheels at a near constant angle to the road, with little change in track or wheelbase.
The result is a car that’s fun to drive round twisty roads – go fast and you have an exciting time; go just a little slower and it’s completely relaxed fast cornering.
It isn’t all oversteer, though. If you go into a long slow corner, and have to wind the lock on gradually, car understeers its way around. Nothing excessive but understeer that increases.
To kill the understeer you’d need to be in a low gear and give it some power –a lot of power. Alternatively, you can just ease off for a moment so that the weight gets onto the front wheels, and then turn in. Whatever I did, I found this S2000 inspired confidence and behaved predictably.
On wet roads, it is fairly easy to unstick the Bridgestone Potenzas, despite their size – they are 215/45 R17s at the front and 245/40 R17s at the rear – both are larger than when the car was launched.
With 240 bhp on tap, it is easy to get wheel spin when you start off from rest, partly controlled by the limited slip diff. Change up to second and floor the throttle, and you can get another little sideways flick, but no more than that. Keeps you on your toes.
With this superb handling, you’ve got a seat that gives plenty of grip – and a foot rest to push against. The seat is comfortable even after being in the car all day. I give the cockpit top marks for convenience and comfort, and good vision.
Despite good seats the ride itself is not as supple as on some competitors. On ripply surfaces you feel every bump, especially at low speed, but at high speeds the car is just fine – well controlled over humpbacks, too.
Allied with this handling you have this amazing engine, and a slick six-speed gearbox. The high power and docility come from the use of Honda’s VTEC system, in which one set of cams are used at low speed and another at high speed.
This amazing engine will pull from 2,000 rpm, and trundle along at slightly less. From 2,000 to 5,000 rpm you’ve got a docile engine, able to pull the car along quite well. Get to 5,000, and she takes off. Now, if you’re feeling lazy, and bored with the splendid noise of an engine singing at over 8,000 rpm, you can shift up at about 7,000 rpm, by which time the engine is starting to howl, and you’ll make progress at a rate that will leave most others behind.
Now, if you really want to motor, hang on and hear that fantastic banshee howl as the engine rips up to 9,000 rpm. Just uproarious! Quickly grab a gear and repeat the process, and you’ll just zoom about the place.
The S2000 doesn’t have the sort of engine pushes you back into the seat – it’s more a sensation of being amazed at how quickly the scenery is going by as the revs build up and you need to grab another gear. We’re talking 0 to 60 in just over 6 seconds, which is quick.
But….you do need to use the gears. There are cars with a similar performance out there that do it at lower speeds – say from 3,500-6,000 rpm. You pays yer money and takes yer choice.
Buy the Honda S2000 and you’ll realise that this is a real sports car. You sit in the right place, the engine is in the right place (for a front-engine car), the suspension is great, and you’ve a car you’ll really enjoy – so long as you’re happy to rev that engine. You’ll even have quite a decent trunk.
Any downside? Well, the gearing is rather short for long-distance cruising – you’re doing 4,000 rpm at 75 mph in sixth. Overall, though, a great car – not just a great engine.
|Car type:||Two-seater convertible|
|Main dimensions (L x Wx H):||163 x 69 x 50.6 in (4,135 x 1,750 x 1,85 mm)|
|Wheelbase and track:||94.5 x 57.8/59.5 in (2,400 x 1,470/1,510 mm)|
|Kerb (curb) Weight:||2,775 lb (1,260 kg)|
|Engine and transmission|
|Type:||Four-cylinder inline, four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing|
|Displacement:||1,997 cc [2,157 cc]|
|Power output:||240 bhp @ 8,300 rpm (240 @ 7,800 rpm]|
|Torque:||153 lb ft (208 Nm) @ 7,500 rpm [162 lb ft (220 Nm) @ 6,800 rpm]|
|Redline:||9,000 rpm [8,000 rpm]|
|Transmission:||Six-speed manual gearbox|
|0-60 mph:||6.2 seconds|
|Top Speed:||150 mph|