Honda's Sleeper Hit : Honda S2000

Car Specifications
1997cc, 16-valves
Cylinder Layout: 
In-line 4
Top Speed: 
6-speed Manual
6.2 seconds
240bhp at 8300rpm
208Nm at 7500rpm

Is this yet another review singing praises of the Honda S2000? There can only be one unequivocal answer to that: Yes. If you are already convinced, then read no further but if you want to glean some little known details them read on.

When Honda displayed the SSM prototype at the 1995 Tokyo Motor Show, we sat bolt upright in surprise but there was confusion when Pininfarina showed their Honda based Vivo Argento Roadster at the Geneva Auto Salon the next Spring.

Secretly we were hoping to see Pininfarina involved with Honda like they did for the NSX project but it was not to be and Honda kept and refined their in-house effort to achieve production standards.

When many of the other automakers have moved toward front wheel drive designs, why would Honda buck the trend by investing in a rear wheel drive design when they are already tooled up for front wheel drive production?

It is only illogical if you are a bean counter, but thankfully, Honda recognised that the RWD design is one that is cherished by all enthusiasts. Much as Honda has become the premier FWD handling specialist with its current crop of Type R or S machines, its engineers wanted the challenge of RWD design with an interest of using this technology in a select range of its cars namely the supposed Prelude-Integra coupe which will replace both these lines. It might also end up in the future Legend which then makes some economic sense as having to invest in a different drive train is an expensive exercise all by itself.

But just how well can Honda make a RWD car, something it had not done since the 1963 S600/800? We are referring to the handling peculiarities native to RWD machines. Worrisome because some big names that have recently switched to FWD hadn't really sorted out all the gremlins even after a couple of generations.

With trepidation we start Honda’s S2000 roadster via a neat press of the red 'engine start' button that is reminiscent to those found in race-prepared cars. This car has 240bhp so it had better be sorted out but as it turns out we worry for nothing. Within the first km, the S2000’s engine has seen 9000rpm several times.

The F20C is not as manic as the Type R’s engine but it goes almost 1000 rpm further before the rev-limiter cuts off the fun supply. The torque curves of both cam lobes are each spread out over a wider power range. The VTEC change over point is 5800rpm where the torque curve rises again to 208Nm at 7500rpm topping the 100Nm and 100bhp per liter benchmarks.

The export version that we have here has a 11.0:1 compression ratio but Japanese spec versions will have 11.7:1 compression for 250bhp and 218Nm. Surprisingly both versions pass future LEV standards despite the prodigious high-rpm power.

For reader’s information, the new F20C1 2L unit is all new and not related to either the Prelude’s or Integra’s engines. This project is a true, clean-sheet design all round. The engine is an oversquare design in contrast to Honda’s usual undersquare designs.

This was done for two reasons, first to ensure lower piston speeds and smaller crank throws, enabling the incredible 9000 revs to be reached, a point unheard of in a 2L unit though fairly common with K-Car engines but pales compared to the 11000rpm of the Honda S800.

The second reason has to do with breathing. With a larger bore, larger valves can be used to increase curtain area without resorting to huge valve lifts that demand expensive oval cross-section valve springs as in the Type R to prevent spring binding at full lift. While high rev power is great, low rpm lugging ability can be compromised.

Honda deals with this compromise by using a six-ratio manual gearbox that probably has the most accurate and satisfying shifter known this century. The Miata’s is great but this is better. Only the reverse engagement takes a little getting used to as it needs to be depressed before it doglegs down in a rather un-Honda fashion. The reason for the direct shift quality is that the gear lever is actually entirely integral with the gearbox housing, explaining its constant jiggling about.

It is a close ratio collection of six gears with 1st and 2nd stacking up neatly so that it passes the 100 km/h using up the full quota of 9000 revs twice, stopping the clock at 6.2 seconds for the 0-100 km/h sprint. There is a clever two-stage drive reduction, a primary ratio of 1.160:1 and a final drive ratio of 4.100 at the rear.

The primary reduction is to reduce the internal gearbox speeds and the final drive is mated with the Torsen limited slip differential at the rear to effectively distribute the torque. While cruising, the engine is less frenetic than the Type R with just 3000 revs for 90 km/h but with another 6000 more to go!

Getting the S2000 to leap to 100 km/h requires a severe lashing. Lots of revs and gritting of teeth are mandatory. Reassuringly, the supplied brakes are some of the biggest Honda has and stops the car with eye-bulging tenacity.

The low 1st gear gets the car off quickly so the engine is spared the first 2000-rpm where it has less torque. With the given ratios, one hardly ever falls into that range but once pass 2000 rpm, it is so eager and free revving it positively encourages spirited driving. The throttle response is superb and so linear which makes up for the lack of outright oomph in terms of torque.

The seemingly linear build up of torque almost appears to go on forever, peaking at 7500 rpm and continuing usefully to 8300 rpm where peak power is produced. Rev it you must but the superb gearbox is always at hand to assist the shift and the grunt is never less than satisfying.

Where one is used to downshift one gear you can and should drop two instead. This not only puts the engine on-cam, the lower gear ratio effectively multiplies torque far more than just dropping one ratio.

Incidentally six seconds is also the time the S2000 gets from zero to infinity because it has the fastest hood opening sequence there is today beating the already fast Boxter mechanism. For one to really enjoy this car, it has to be done top down which means evenings only unless you are looking for a sunburn.

It has a spartan albeit intelligent interior with little in the way of esthetics but is obviously functional and very ergonomic at least for the driver as every major control falls within easy reach of one’s fingertips while still holding onto the steering wheel. It was the instrument cluster that caused some consternation.

We are the first to admit that we are never fans of LCD displays replacing the traditional instrument cluster especially that of the speedo and tachometer. Honda claims theirs was inspired by those found in Formula One cars.

Well, much as we would have liked a set of analogue dials, we quickly got used to the very legible graphics. Yes, they work and perhaps too well. We found that the prominent and presumably accurate digital speed readout really pricked our conscience whenever we exceeded the speed limit.

The tacho cuts a brave swath across the screen and stops at 9000 rpm after which the ignition cuts-off at about 9500 rpm. Overall it is very much in keeping with the modern roadster theme. What we did like were the Recaro-like seats, decked in a gleaming red leather outfit. They did not pinch you in like the Type R’s but still fastened its occupants almost like Velcro.

The first impression once ensconced in the cockpit is that you are seated lower in the car than any other Honda. Perhaps this was done to accommodate the tall US customer or perhaps it was just the height of the transmission tunnel. Having said that, the outward view is still unimpeded except for the rear three-quarter vision which is obscured by the canvas top where the C-pillar should be.

From Honda’s literature, the bending and torsional rigidity exceeds that of the Integra Type R. Now that is a feat and it also explains the rather large but unobtrusive transmission tunnel which is part of what Honda calls a high “X-Bone frame”. If viewed from the side, this cross-bone frame runs as a straight structural member from front to rear without a kink in the middle for the cabin.

This is further linked to a more conventional monocoque frame with large box section sidesills. Over the course of our arduous testing, we can attest that this is one of the stiffest open top cars today, matching the Boxter. Curiously their weights are also identical at 1260 kg.

No this is no featherweight like the 700-kg Elise but then the S2000 is not a vociferous, one trick pony like the Elise either. The S2000 is designed with a very wide range of performance and utility, not just for track use. It runs the gamut of being able to ferry you along with your clubs to a game of golf, to making long distance trips, yet tackle the inner urban crawl with consummate ease.

And though we did not track test the S2000, it certainly feels that it could, having been tuned at the famed Nurburgring circuit just like the NSX and Skyline GTR.

Honda achieves the front-midship design by placing the entire engine and gearbox aft of the front axle and this along with some judicious placement of the heavy bits within the confines of both axles help weight distribution to a perfect 50:50 split.

Lest you think this is exclusive to Honda, Mazda did this with their current RX-7 except it isn’t a roadster. For the uninitiated, a roadster is a purpose designed 2-door open top sports car and a convertible or cabriolet is one derived from an existing coupe or hatchback. Most open top cars are for poseur value but there are a few serious machines, among them you can include this Honda.

Befittingly it gets a suitably tuned suspension. Honda engineers used a more traditional “in-wheel” double wishbone suspension which means all the control arms fit into the area circumscribed by the wheel itself. This was done to lower the height of the suspension system and the roll centre.

You’ll also find some pretty stiff anti-roll bars to further resist body roll which the S2000 does remarkably well. Yet for all that stiffness, the S2000 has a surprisingly supple ride, the springing firmness aside, the damping is actually more comfortable than the Type R or WRX. This is due in part to the extra-pressurized chamber of the rear gas damper that helps take the sting out of harsh bumps.

Although grip with the 205/55 WR 16 Bridgestone S-02s in front and a pair of 225/50 WR 16s in the back was very good, it was not as high as the NSX nor was it the primary goal. The S-02s European nature means it confers the S2000 with progressive handling characteristics especially in the wet which can be tricky for powerful RWD machines.

The S2000 corners with mild understeer but its attitude is very throttle adjustable. In the dry there is always a surfeit of grip at the back to hold back power oversteer so is difficult to provoke unless in 1st gear. But when the road conditions deteriorate, oversteer becomes a distinct possibility especially in the wet as the tail side-steps quite readily.

There is no traction control device to speak of, only the judicious use of your right foot, so apply wisely. The use of trailing throttle is far more entertaining if less dramatic. Entering a corner with trailing throttle transfers weight to the front and adds a braking component to the already lightly loaded rear tyres which are forced to operate at larger slip angles, effectively becoming nearer neutral or even oversteer depending on speed and engine braking.

All very entertaining and there is no struggle thanks to a perfectly weighted electronically assisted steering.

We said the Integra Type R was adjustable in almost all manner of approach except power oversteer, well the S2000 has just the fix. We wonder what the Type R or S version of this will be like but don’t hold your breathe, because right now Honda can barely keep up with the current backlog of orders.

Of course, being the last kid on the block also means that the current players have already established their turf and Honda’s effort has really got to be better than the incumbents. The Miata is the one that started this resurgence of roadsters and has over 400,000 sales so it would be madness to dive in at this end of the market.

The top end of the market is effectively capped by the Boxter and the in between we find the SLK and Z3. Honda picked the Boxter as the obvious target which would explain the recent introduction of the 252 bhp Boxter S which would ensure it remains king of the hill but at a price. Some might even suggest the M-Roadster to which I can only say, wow! That is some serious excess there and is really wild and intimidating.

However, Honda has always championed efficiency so it makes more with less. Less capacity, less pollution, less consumption, more performance and more fun but sadly $212,888 it isn’t exactly loose change. What you’ll get for SLK 200 money is a Honda roadster with the capabilities of a Boxter and then some. Is this the greatest roadster of all? Probably not but it is damn close.

FAST FACTS : Honda S2000 (AP1)
Capacity : 1997cc
Cylinder layout : In-line 4
Valves : 16 valves
Redline : 9000 rpm
Maximum power : 240 bhp at 8300 rpm
Maximum torque : 208 Nm at 7500 rpm

Type : Six-speed manual
Driven wheels : Rear, with Torsen differential

Top speed : 240 km/h
0-100km/h : 6.2 seconds

Front : Double wishbones
Rear : Double wishbones

Type : Electronically Assisted Power Steering
Turns lock-to-lock : 2.4
Turning circle : 5.4m

Front : 300mm Ventilated Discs
Rear : 282mm Solid Discs

Type : Bridgestone S-02
Size : f/r: 205/55 WR 16 and 225/50 WR 16

ABS : Yes
Airbags : Yes, x 2
Traction control : No

Length : 4145mm
Width : 1750mm
Height : 1285mm(with soft-top)
Wheelbase : 2400mm
Kerb weight : 1260mm
Price in 1999   : $212,888 with COE
Warranty : 3-year/60,000 km

This Honda S2000 like the NSX were the two longest-most running models in Honda's history. The styling after all these years still draws admiration, looking as current as it was back then. Matter of fact right after Honda's announcement that produuuction was stopping, the S2000 drew renewed interest by Honda faithful. A cult car if there was ever one. - AL
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