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Behind the Wheel

Honda's New S2000 Roadster: The Heart Races

July 29, 1999|PAUL DEAN

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.

*

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.

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