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Those who own a Honda S2000 and don’t take it regularly to a racetrack have wasted their money.
While the automotive press has heaped praise on this car ever since its introduction for the 2000 model year, it’s never been an easy car with which to live. The S2000’s crystal-meth redline wears thin during a commute and isn’t much help finding a parking space at Target. The instantaneous reflexes and barnacle-class adhesion bring with them a ride stiff enough. And while airy, top-down motoring may sound romantic, when the top’s up it’s tough to get in and out of this car without scraping off your toupee. But on a racetrack, it’s always been magic.
For 2004 Honda has significantly updated the S2000 for the first time and every one of the evolutionary changes made to the car is intended to civilize it a bit for road use. But will such compromises diminish the car’s track prowess? Does anyone want an S2000 that’s less than a hard-edged sports car? Has Honda ritually sacrificed the S2000’s soul on the heathen altar of comfort?
So this is really a religious story. Okay, maybe not religious, but at least existential.
Bigger engine, smaller revs
Most of what makes the S2000 the S2000 carries over. It and the mid-engine, borderline exotic Acura NSX are still the only cars Honda makes with rear-wheel drive. The driver can only bring one friend along for the ride. The normally aspirated four still whacks out a huge 240 horsepower despite its modest displacement. That engine is still bolted in the chassis just behind the front wheels to produce a balanced front mid-engine weight distribution. The car’s structure is still amazingly stiff — even though there’s no solid roof. The all-independent suspension still consists of double wishbones at each corner. And the brakes are still four big discs controlled by an ABS system.
Externally the changes are just enough to let anyone driving an older S2000 know their car is now outdated and must be traded in immediately. The nose’s air intake below the bumper has been widened and new projector headlights take up residence above the bumper. Out back the bumper cover has been freshly sculpted, the dual exhaust tips are now oval shaped instead of round, and the taillights are packed with new LED elements. Fresh footwear comes in the form of new ten-spoke, 17-inch wheels wrapped in wider tires.
But all that’s just surface detail. Underneath that lies a whole host of more significant revisions.
The biggest change comes under the new engine cover in the form of a bump in crank stroke from 84.0 to 90.7 millimeters. The 87.0-millimeter bores in the aluminum block are untouched so total displacement grows from the previous 1997 cubic centimeters to 2157 cubic centimeters. In gross terms that’s a thunk from 2.0 to 2.2 liters. Beyond that the compression ratio has inched up from 11.0:1 to 11.1:1 and the VTEC variable valve-timing system now switches over to the more aggressive cam profiles at a lower engine speed.
Because the longer stroke results in increased piston speeds, it was necessary to lop 800 rpm off the towering 9000-rpm red line, bringing it down to 8200 rpm. For rev junkies, this is hideous news and they’ll be inconsolable, slide into depression and buy two-stroke motorcycles. But for the rest of us, compensation comes in the form of more peak torque (161 pound-feet, up from 153) at a nearly reasonable 6500 rpm instead of the 2.0-liter’s hyperactive 7500 rpm. While horsepower still tops out at 240 horsepower, it now does so at 7800 instead of 8300 rpm.
This is a much friendlier engine. Output is up across the engine’s operating range with torque and horsepower up between four and ten percent from just off idle until the rev limiter cuts in. There’s actually some low-end torque down as far as 3000 rpm. In regular city driving the 2.2-liter engine is a substantial improvement over the 2.0-liter and yet it still has a big appetite at the upper end and growls ferociously as the VTEC system opens up the fat part of the powerband at around 6000 rpm.
Sitting behind the revised engine and a newly reinforced clutch case is Honda’s outstanding six-speed manual transmission. The gearbox’s ratios have been jumbled from before with marginally lower ratios in the bottom four gears, a bit higher ratio in fifth and sixth returning unchanged. Honda claims new carbon-fiber synchronizers to every gear except reverse improves shift quality, but there’s no perceptible difference — this is still one of the world’s great transmissions with short throws, perfect detents, and a new leather wrapping around the shifter’s aluminum knob.
Calmer — not calm
The 2.2-liter version of this engine is calmer and more flexible than the 2.0-liter, but it’s still not calm or flexible. At the low-end the torque production is now Accord-like instead of Civic-ish, but the real power is still concentrated up at the top and it takes the driver’s constant attention to stay in the lush part of the powerband. On a race track it’s easier to sustain high speeds because the engine is more forgiving of gear selection screw ups, but you still have spin it mercilessly to get the most out of it. In day-to-day duty it’s a better companion than before, but it still underwhelming down low and needs a bunch of spur even when doing something as ordinary as merging onto a freeway.
Tweaking the engine was one thing, but screwing with the S2000’s already well-tuned chassis was even riskier. The big tweak is the exchange of last year’s P205/55R-16 front and P225/50R-16 rear tires for a set of P215/45R-17 front and 245/40R-17 rear Bridgestone Potenza RE 050s. Also the structure has been fortified with gusseting at the front crossmember joints, additional fixing points for the rear stiffening rod, and reinforcement of the rear wheel arch bulkheads. The front suspension gets new brackets for the upper control arms and the electric power steering has been reprogrammed and its ratio lowered from 13.8:1 to 14.9:1. Front spring rates are up 6.7 percent while the rates in back drop ten percent and a 1.8-millimeter thinner rear anti-sway bar is bolted. Of course the shock tuning is revised and the four disc brakes get new pad material, a new master cylinder, and the ABS system now features “yaw control logic” which is, well, controlled and logical.
Dive into a corner on a race track and the bigger tires and more effective braking let the 2004 S2000 get in deeper while the bigger engine pulls harder coming out. The sharp transition to oversteer at the limit of previous S2000s has been tamed in the new one, and for non-expert drivers this is a much easier and safer car to go fast in. Having said that, an expert who can skitter along the edge effectively and stay in the old engine’s narrower powerband could conceivably be quicker around some racetracks… But most of us aren’t experts.
Slightly better cockpit, too
More deeply dished door panels add a few millimeters of hip room to the revised S2000’s cockpit and its been redecorated with faux aluminum (a new radio cover in particular), but it’s still a close-coupled place. The seats are well bolstered and narrow and the sills are high, so getting in can be a chore for the wide and non-athletic. But once inside, it’s comfortable with the power-operated top down. With the top up, outward visibility drops dramatically (though the glass rear window is always clear) and the top’s black fabric can feel claustrophobic — so don’t drive the car with the top up. The all-digital instrumentation has been revised and is more readable behind the small-diameter steering wheel, and it does seem more readable. A second cupholder in the center console has been added should the driving environment be mistaken for a breakfast nook.
2004 Honda S2000Enlarge Photo
Honda says the 2004 S2000’s price won’t be much more than the 2003’s model’s $32,600 chit. That’s — quite literally — a VTEC-screaming bargain with the closest performance equivalent (both cars should reach 60 mph in just under 5.5 seconds and run neck and neck on a road course), the easier going Porsche Boxster S, starting at over $52,000. You could spend less and get a Miata, but that car is just too gentle to be a compelling substitute for the hardcore Honda.
Existentially speaking, Honda has made the S2000 a better car in almost every conceivable way with its 2004 revisions. It’s still the most clearly focused, not-very-compromised sports car available in America.
2004 Honda S2000
Base Price: $32,900 (est.)
Engine: 2.2-liter in-line four, 240 hp
Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 162.2 x 68.9 x 50.0 in
Wheelbase: 94.5 in
Curb weight: 2835 lb
EPA City/Hwy: NA
Safety equipment: Front airbags, anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes
Major standard equipment: Cruise control, power windows and door locks, remote keyless entry
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles basic and drivetrain