Honda's New S2000 Roadster: The Heart Races

To abridge and adapt Ralph Waldo Emerson: Make a better Miata, and the world will beat a path to your showroom.

So brace for thunder in September as an eager population of motorists who prefer their pleasures alfresco and con brio beats an advance toward any Honda dealership unpacking its ration of the vital, highly anticipated and hugely performing S2000 roadsters.

Ration? The dreaded divvying that could lead to premiums demanded by some greedy dealers? Absolutely.

The world, you see, buys Hondas as fast as the company can glue badges on them. Only a crusty cynic would see putting a cork in production and setting allocations as a maneuver to orchestrate public suspense and sales. Whatever the truth, no matter the threat of bidding wars on dealer doorsteps, Honda's plant in Tochigi, Japan, new birthplace of the Acura NSX and the Honda Insight hybrid, will dispatch only 6,000 of the 2000 S2000s to the United States.

(Apropos of total nonsense: Be glad the car wasn't given a 2,800-cubic-centimeter engine and designated a 1999 model, because a 1999 S2800 doesn't have quite the same Dr. Seuss ring of a 2000 S2000.)

The trickle of deliveries, of course, translates to about 500 cars every four weeks. Ten cars per state per month certainly won't silence the frantic panting of more than three dozen Honda dealers in the Los Angeles area alone. Go figure your chances of walking into your nearest dealer and beating the elbow-shoving to get dibs on an S2000, probably the spunkiest, most satisfying mainstream sports car since the 1962 Porsche 356B.

But more fun than the Miata? Is the S2000 really a curse on Mazda's little car that could, the inspiration for the recent roadster renaissance? Bet your pink slip on it. Also your BMW Z3, Porsche Boxster, Mercedes-Benz SLK, Ford Mustang convertible, Plymouth Prowler and any other car that offers freedom with the breezes and carries lust, fun and sportiness as its subtitles.

At an estimated $30,000 when it enters showrooms in late September--presumably just for an hour or so--the S2000 will be $10,000 more expensive than Mazda's Mighty Mite. But that will also be $5,000 less than the Z3 2.8 and $10,000 cheaper than the Boxster and SLK--although barren of the heritage and snob appeal of the European Big Three, a voodoo still blighting Acura's NSX two-seater because formidable missiles should only be built by Ferrari.

The S2000 is larger, quicker to speed and faster at the top end than most of the competition. It brings engine and chassis and transmission technology straight to you from race circuits in Europe, which effectively exorcises the light, twitchy handling of lesser-endowed mass-production sports cars.

And with its 2.0-liter, 240-horsepower engine, Honda's thoughtful and forceful entry in the two-seater stakes is almost 70% more powerful than the Miata. It's also punchier than the Z3 2.8, the Boxster and the SLK--which displaces more cylinder space and is puffed up by a supercharger.

So much for comparisons. Yet so little for comparisons, because the S2000 stands alone by several dimensions and dynamics.

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Many manufacturers brag of race-inspired engineering. Most of it is race-inspired hype and hyperbole involving old mechanicals barely brushed by racing. Not Honda. When its engineers, even its advertising department, talk of the race-bred technology of the S2000, the reference is to direct borrowings from Honda-powered cars and victories on American ovals and the global road courses of Formula 1.

Such as a VTEC engine that optimizes valve performance throughout the power band, weighs 330 pounds less than comparable four-bangers and turns at an amazing 9,000 revolutions per minute. The exhaust is tuned to produce a 42% reduction in back pressure, and fiber-reinforced cylinders reduce friction and heat surrounding the car's forged, fast-moving alloy pistons.

The fuselage is a hybrid monocoque body with an X-bone frame for torsional and bending rigidity--critical to a car that delivers 120 horsepower per liter, more than with any other mass-production engine.

There's a six-speed manual transmission to bring new flexibility to naughty wrigglings around exuberant roads. Sixteen-inch wheels shod with Michelin Pilots stick to the road like burrs on Velcro and show a neat V tread that promises to deliver better grip in the wet. And the car transmits all its horsepower and 154 pound-feet of torque to the rear wheels, where God and Dan Gurney decreed it should go.

"No other company transfers as much technology from its racing program to its street cars as does Honda," says company spokesman Kurt Antonius.

Honda has also transferred much of the Formula 1 look, touch and feel to the styling and appointments of the car.

Seats that seem to squeeze in a high-sided cockpit that is fractionally cramped are part of this virtual reality, because nobody wants to rattle around in a high-performance vehicle when things get amusing. The steering wheel has been downsized to service the Mika Hakkinen in all of us. Instruments are a single cluster beneath one hood, with digital readouts for speed, fuel, revs and temperature, that will give buyers a sniff of their very own CART Reynard-Honda.

And there's a red starter button the size of an Alka-Seltzer to the left of the steering wheel. It is labeled "Engine Start" as a remedial guide for non-dinosaurs who might not remember early Jeeps and Jaguars and starter buttons that came before key starts.

Unfortunately, from the side, Honda's roadster does indeed look like a corn-fed Miata. A high, squared rear suggests that the S2000 and the Mercedes SLK shared the same wind tunnel. But from the front and a little on high, the snout flattens and flares to set a shovel shape around a squarish grille gulping like a Lotus Super Seven. Very distinctive. Quite aggressive.

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The question here: Has Honda moved the bias of its S2000 too close to handling and high performance when the overwhelming majority of its buyers don't know short-shifting from swing-dancing?

Not really. Despite much dash and vigor when put to the spurs, and although Honda acknowledges that it has built the S2000 to attract enthusiast players, the car has a well-developed softer side. That means almost demure pedal pressures when doodling around town. Steering is smooth and light, thanks to an electrical power assist, and shifting through the lower gears is no clumsier than snicking through the top throws.

There's a decent trunk, leather seats are standard, and the base car comes fully equipped because there is no options list. Raising and lowering the power top takes six seconds and wouldn't deter Grandmother. And from high-intensity headlights through cruise control to anti-lock brakes to CD player, this is a roadster rich in equipment and sedan comforts.

There is, of course, a little Asian ersatz to the car in an exhaust actually tuned for growl and pitch. Like a tuba. There's also a wind-deflection system to protect occupants' hair and keep that mousse and gel working.

Which makes one ponder: The delicious sounds of a V-12 Ferrari and breezes slapping your face in the cabin of a Jaguar XK 120 weren't created. They just happened.

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To emphasize the sting of its product, Honda launched the S2000 at Road Atlanta's 10-turn, 1.8-mile road course. This is the circuit used to tease and sharpen the endurance racers of owner and car builder Don Panoz, and it offers a skein of esses, tight lefts and tighter right-handers and a bunch of seductive blind corners--including one uphill approach to an unseeing crest that immediately launches a car into a fast downhill sweeper and the start-finish straightaway.

A grand sandbox indeed.

And the S2000--never out of fourth gear but touching 120 mph, always wound tight at 8,000 rpm and beyond--ran frantically but secure, giggling and shrieking with only a hint of over-steer and enough brakes to stop a semi.

What fun. What proof of a wonderful line: that an able sports car is the effort of man to indemnify himself for the wrongs of his condition.

OK, if Ralph Waldo Emerson had been a car guy, that's probably what he would have said.

Times automotive writer Paul Dean can be reached at paul.dean@latimes.com.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

2000 Honda S2000

Cost

* Base, estimated, $30,000; includes front air bags, cruise control, power steering, six-speed manual transmission, power windows and doors, anti-lock disc brakes, tilt steering wheel, theft alarm, air conditioning, limited-slip differential, leather upholstery, power top, alloy wheels, dual exhaust, CD player, keyless entry

Engine

* 2.0-liter VTEC inline-4 developing 240 horsepower

Type

* Front-engine, rear-drive, high-performance, two-seat roadster

Performance

* 0 to 60 mph, as tested: 6.4 seconds

* Top speed, estimated: 140 mph

* Fuel consumption: 20 miles per gallon, city; 26 mpg, highway

Curb Weight

* 2,809 pounds

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The Good: Equally at home on weekend race circuits and daily surface streets. Affordable, higher-performing, equally distinguished alternative to roadsters from BMW, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz. Genuine transfer of Formula 1 and CART technology to a street car, plus the legendary durability and reliability of Honda. Love that virtual reality of a starter button, six gears, drilled aluminum pedals and instruments with digital readouts.

The Bad: Styling not as exciting as performance. Seating might be a little tight for some commuting mortals.

The Ugly: An unoriginal profile.

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Long-Term Accord

* A profile of the ad agency that has crafted Honda's image for 25 years. C1

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