ATLANTA, Ga. Why has Honda spent millions of dollars on racing over the past 35 years?
In the short term, to win races and earn marketing brownie points.
In the medium term, to give its engineers baptism by fire experience.
In the long term, Honda wants its brand to carry the same cachet as Porsche, Mercedes Benz, BMW and Jaguar. The great names of the car business all have long and glorious motor sport histories.
Honda will try to capitalize directly on its racing successes this September, with the launch of the S2000 sports car. Derived from the SST concept car shown at the 1995 Tokyo motor show, the two-seat roadster fits size-wise in the middle of Miata, BMW Z3,
Mercedes Benz SLK and Porsche Boxster.
To me, the nicest visual aspect of the S2000 is the broad shouldered front fenders sweeping into the grille, housing big, crystalline HID (high intensity gas discharge) headlamps.
Otherwise, I find the looks uninspired.
The inside is bland also, with vast expanses of black plastic.
Given what Audi has done with the TT, for example, this is most disappointing.
Here, the nicest visual aspect is the least visible the delightful drilled aluminum pedals. Too bad that metal, or some racing-inspired carbon fibre couldn't have been carried into the rest of the interior to brighten it up.
The controls, as the cliche goes, fall readily to hand, because there is no other place for them to fall. This is a narrow car, encroached upon further by the wide centre console,
needed to house the steel backbone frame that helps give the car its extraordinary rigidity.
A tiny flip forward "glove compartment" on the rear face of the cabin between the seats, a couple of cubbies behind the seats, a net on the passenger's side of the tunnel, a small tray and shallow cup holder on the console supply the only oddment space.
There's a CD player, but where are you going to put the jewel cases?
The switches and controls form an almost symmetrical arrangement around the driver two rotary knobs (air distribution; temperature), two push-buttons (A/C, recirculation)
and a rocker toggle (fan speed) on the right, a radio mode knob, two push-buttons (radio mute, band selector) a rocker toggle (volume) and a big red push-button for the engine starter (cute, but a bit precious) on the left.
I thought we'd beaten digital dashboards back, but Honda claims, quite rightly, that race cars use them, so they must be okay. A bar graph tachometer forms a gentle arc over a big digital speed readout, with pseudo-analogue fuel and temperature gauges executed with electronic elements.
The radio head unit is hidden behind a hinged cover.
The leather trimmed seats are manually adjustable for reach and rake.
Following the release of two windshield header clips and the touch of a button, the top disappears in about six seconds, which Honda says is twice as fast as a Porsche Boxster.
Yeah, but just try to fit the semi-rigid top cover onto the S2000 in six minutes, let alone six seconds the Boxster's lid folds into place automatically as part of the top disappearing
trick. If you want to stash the S2000's tonneau cover, it'll take up most of the tiny trunk; I suspect most S2000 owners will leave the cover in their garages until they sell the car.
Hanging from that backbone frame at each corner is a double wishbone suspension that disappears into the wheel hubs so that all the forces acting on the suspension are directed right through the centre of the tires' contact patches.
Honda calls this "inwheel" suspension, similar to that used on the NSX.
The ultra quick (13.9:1 ratio) steering is, again like NSX, assisted by an electric motor. Honda claims better control over the degree of power assist under different road conditions and reduced power drain on the engine.
Big brakes, 300 mm ventilated rotors in front and 282 mm solids at the rear, have four-sensor, three-channel ABS as standard.
Tires are 205/55R16 front and 225/50R16s rear. You practically have to disassemble the trunk to get at the compact spare. If you don't have much else in there at the time, you can stow the dead tire in there, too.
The heart of any car is its engine nowhere more so than in the S2000. Yutaka Otobe, chief power train engineer, worked on Honda's all-conquering Formula One engines of the 1980s and '90s.
While a twin cam 16-valve 2.0 L four cylinder with variable valve timing isn't novel, its 240 hp at 8300 r.p.m. make this the highest output per litre non-turbo, non-supercharged engine in the world.
Check out the 9200 r.p.m. rev limit. Wow.
Plus, it's certified as a Low Emissions Vehicle (LEV) in the U.S. Double wow.
The variable valve timing is the latest version of Honda's VTEC (Variable valve Timing with Electronic Control) with a friction reducing roller on the VTEC mechanism, rather than a simple sliding follower.
The switch from mild timing (to supplement low-end torque) to wild (to maximize top-end power) comes in at about 6100 rpm. You now have almost as many extra revs to play with as some engines have altogether.
Often, the downside of a highly strung engine is peakiness, and the peak torque of 153 lb.-ft- doesn't arrive until 7500 r.p.m., suggesting that you'll have to row this little scow along with the gearshift.
This will not be any great hardship. The S2000 has an all-new six-speed manual gearbox with double cone synchronizers on all gears except second, which gets triple cones and something called "independent output reduction" to reduce shift effort.
The S2000's short, crisp gear lever makes the Mazda Miata's feel like a Kenworth's.
Next time you're in Atlanta, get into the best handling car you can beg, borrow or rent and head north on Highway 400 (yes, just like T.O.). It becomes Highway 19; follow that into Dahlonega, then northward through the Chestatee wildlife area.
Before you hit Tennessee, wend your way eastward one way or another next time, I won't pass up a shot at Booger Hollow Road toward the ersatz German town of Helen.
These are among the finest driving roads I have encountered anywhere, the two-lane twisty blacktops of every car enthusiast's fondest dreams.
They are also perfectly designed to show off the S2000's prowess.
This thing is a blast to drive. First, there's that engine. It took us, Bob English of the National Post and I, some time to come to grips with the fact that this thing will rev over 9000 rpm. Zowie!
If you're in a hurry, it isn't easy to launch the car from rest. The engine is tractable enough at low revs; no bucking, coughing or wheezing but it isn't very fast until it gets
You can clearly hear the VTEC cutting in at just over six grand, and the exhaust note takes on a hard, metallic note that's more NASCAR than Formula One or maybe that's because we were within 30 minutes or your moonshine's free delivery distance of Dawsonville.
The orange tach segments rocket toward the right; you get ready to up-shift, snick-snick, like a Formula Ford race car. The movement from first to second is shorter than most gearboxes are from first to neutral. Then repeat above procedure.
Get it right and Honda says 96 km/h will come up in less than six seconds, faster than the current Boxster (which gets more power for 2000).
But getting it right wasn't easy. Launch at too few revs, and the engine bogs down.
The S2000 handles brilliantly. The electric steering supplies the heft the small steering wheel can't, yet road feel is outstanding. Body roll is minimal and turn in is even crisper
than in the delectable Boxster.
An American who had the chance to thrash both cars at nearby Road Atlanta, told me that, at racing speeds, the Porsche had some push, or understeer, while the S2000 stayed dead neutral.
As near as I could tell on public roads, I concur.
When it comes to nine-tenths driving, then, the S2000 is dynamically about as good as it gets.
Despite the car's handling prowess, ride quality is excellent.
The wind management in the cabin is outstanding. Even at elevated speeds with the top down, there was very little buffeting, and English and I could converse in fairly normal
The aircon is strong, the radio is topnotch, the windows and locks are power and there's even cruise control.
But daily driving reveals some drawbacks in the S2000. You need those revs, and that can get tiring in traffic.
If you're over 6 feet and 200 pounds, you probably won't fit.
There's nowhere to put stuff. It is a single purpose car and, as Mazda found out with the last generation RX7, that can be a hard sell. Still, Honda Canada expects to only get about 500 S2000s per year, and I can't see any trouble with that.
And if you think $48,000 to $50,000 is a lot to pay for a car with an H-mark on it, remember that this is about 10-grand less than a comparably equipped Boxster.
Check out your recent motorsport history. Who has earned the right to charge a premium for a performance car more than Honda?
Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on sessions arranged and paid for by Honda.
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