ATLANTA — We've come roaring through the dense pine forests north of Atlanta at what one might euphemistically call extralegal speeds. All right, to be more precise, the speedometer is nudging 120 as we crest a small hill and dip towards a lush green pasture. The digital tachometer "needle" climbs fast, and as we nudge the car's inspiring 9000-rev redline, the little engine under the hood is letting out a scream that would impress a Formula One fan — and frighten any nearby wildlife.
Taking Honda's new S2000 up to the limits isn't for the faint of heart. And, indeed, there aren't many places you really can put this eagerly awaited roadster through its paces. But The Car Connection got the chance during a recent daylong test drive, snaking along a thinly populated stretch of backwoods roadway that defines roadster terrain.
This sexy little two-seater is Honda's first true sports car in three decades, so it's generated plenty of interest since making its debut at the North American International Auto Show last January. But could it live up to expectations? As we began the day's journey, that was the critical question we had in mind.
Hot and heavy competition
Clearly, S2000 will go up against some serious competition. There's the Miata, Mazda's lovable little retro machine. And, at the other end of the spectrum, there are the German entries — BMW's Z3, Porsche's Boxster and the SLK from Mercedes-Benz.
For the S2000 to play in this segment, the roadster will have to live up to a very different standard than the traditional price/value winners from Honda, such as the Accord and Civic. Right off the bat, it looks like it will do quite well in the pocketbook equation. While final numbers haven't been set yet, expect a price tag of "about $30,000," says Honda's top U.S. product planner, Don Bonawitz. It's a bit more than Miata, but offers Honda's new entry a significant advantage over the Teutonic two-seaters. Still, it takes real style and performance to counter the Germans.
2000 Honda S2000
We turned the ignition key, then hit the bright red "Start Engine" button, firing up the seemingly undersized 2.0-liter four-banger. But that's not the number most folks are likely to pay attention to. More notable is the S2000's 240-horsepower rating. At 120 hp per liter, it boasts the highest output ratio of any normally aspirated, volume production car on the road. And in keeping with Honda's frequently touted commitment to environmental design, the S2000 meets tough Low-Emission Vehicle (LEV) standards while delivering highway mileage of about 25 mpg.
Shifting into gear, we launched ourselves onto a backcountry two-laner. It didn't take long to hit 60, 80, 100. There's plenty of power here, though we did find the engine doesn't pump out serious torque until you've get it revving at close to 6000 rpm (barely two-thirds of the way to redline). Slip down to 4000 and you'll bog a bit when it comes time to pass. So get used to frequent shifting, which isn't as much hassle as that might seem, thanks to the seamless, six-speed, short-throw transmission.
Honda engineers spent plenty of time tuning the car' exhaust note, even incorporating an exhaust return pipe in the muffler. At lower speeds, the effect is truly inspiring, rich and resonant. At higher speeds, the sound takes on a less sonorous tenor, one that generates mixed opinions among those who've driven the S2000. To fans, it resonates with the tone of a Formula One racer. To others, it has the cutting rasp of a performance motorcycle. Either way, it does say "speed."
Handling and speed in balance
And at just about any speed, the S2000 sails through tight corners as if glued to the pavement. The car's perfect 50-50 weight balance — enhanced by placing the engine behind the front axle and the passenger compartment just forward of the rear — definitely pays off here. It's only when you reach the car's upper limits that you begin to get some push in tight turns — not a huge amount, so it's here the Boxster might have an edge. But overall, on handling terms, the S2000 holds its own, as we discovered over the course of the day, switching on and off with the three competing European roadsters. Give credit also to the S2000's unusual "X-bone" frame. Basically a modified double wishbone, it results in an incredible stiff vehicle that won't flex and jounce, even under less than optimum driving conditions.
2000 Honda S2000
Honda is a company that understands its heritage. And values its racing efforts. Its Formula One program paid off in the design of the Acura NSX, which is certainly the S2000's big brother. Indeed, both cars were developed under the firm hand of Shigeru Uehara, executive chief engineer at Honda R&D. There are a number of shared components between NSX and S2000, though obviously, to hold down costs, Honda had to make some compromises. The suspension is largely cast steel rather than NSX's aluminum, for one notable example. But thanks to efforts made to hold down unsprung mass, you'd barely notice.
As for exterior styling, the new Honda is nowhere near as distinctive as the NSX, nor the Boxster or Z3, for that matter, and it's not nearly as cute as Miata. But it's nonetheless a handsome car, with an edgy sculpture to its sheet metal and a look not likely to go out of style anytime soon. Special credits for the power top, which pops into place (minus the hand-fitted tonneau cover) in a matter of seconds. It is without question the fastest ragtop system we've ever seen.
The interior is pure to the overall intent of the roadster, with a look that would seem at home on the track. The distinctive Start Engine button, embedded on the left side of the steering wheel, is just one of several quirky features. Right next to it are redundant controls for the sophisticated sound system. It's a nice touch, especially considering that an odd and seemingly unneeded cover makes it difficult to reach the main audio controls. There's plenty of room, even for this 6-foot-2-inch driver, and the seats are impressively comfortable, with enough lateral support to keep driver and passenger in place even on the nastiest maneuvers down those Georgian hills.
Bottom line, for those who want more than just Miata's retro charm but who can't break the bank on one of the European roadsters, S2000 is going to grab a lot of attention. The new Honda roadster doesn't top every category, and doesn't blow away the German roadsters, but it's without question a credible contender that overcomes its shortfalls, even before you factor in its price.