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FIRST DRIVE

Sight for youthful eyes

Little on room but big on fun, Honda's S2000 for 2003 is an adrenaline toy meant to be driven hard to enjoy its performance.

August 27, 2003|Barry Stavro | Times Staff Writer

It was early Sunday morning, fog still covering the peaks of the Santa Monica Mountains, as my son, Jann, and I were out rock hunting when we heard the buzz of approaching sports cars.

At least a dozen Honda S2000s zoomed out of the fog in tight formation on an S-curve, all driven by young Asian men. Most of the two-seaters were factory models, but as they shot past, I noticed a few had been modified with beefier mufflers and more aerodynamic side panels.

Since that moment I had wanted to drive one, and I recently spent a week behind the wheel of a 2003 Honda S2000. It was the most fun I'd had on the road in years.

The S2000 is a raw, bare-bones, adrenaline toy of a sports car, one meant to be driven hard and at high RPMs to enjoy its top engine performance.

Forget about ample luggage space, amenities or a fancy sound system -- the S2000 doesn't have them. And for a Honda, the S2000 has a surprising number of ergonomic flaws.

Still, I couldn't get enough time in this car.

The Honda S2000 handled turns as well as the Porsche Boxster S I had driven this year, and it was so sure-footed that I felt as if the car was mounted on a rail as I sped around corners. An S2000 lacks the luxury and refinements of its German counterparts, and it's noticeably cramped, yet the car has a well-deserved reputation as a poor man's Porsche.

The S2000 I drove cost $33,060, versus about $43,000 for a base Boxster or a minimum of $52,000 for a Boxster S.

Honda has magically crafted the look and feel of a classic postwar British sports car and brought it into the current century with a modern, more reliable version.

I know because in the early '70s I owned a Triumph TR-6 two-seater convertible. In many ways it was the worst car I ever had -- it would have flunked the current J.D. Power quality reviews. The carburetor never stayed tuned, the electrical system was a disaster, and when it rained, water leaked through the clutch housing -- I had to wear long boots in the winter to stay dry. The radio, heater and defroster were essentially nonfunctioning, and the seats were as smooth as bare box springs.

But the TR-6 was a blast to drive, and the S2000 is exponentially better designed. One example: The retro foot pedals on the S2000 are metal but with rubber nubs to improve footing. In the TR-6, my foot slipped off the wafer-thin metal accelerator whenever my shoe was wet.

There is a youthful, let's-have-some-fun attitude in the S2000's design, as with the big red button on the left side of the dash that reads: "Engine Start." Put a key in the ignition, turn it, then with your other hand push the red button, and the engine roars into action with a loud growl coming out of the dual exhausts.

The car's tachometer has a pinball machine look: There's a half-moon-shaped band at the top of the instrument panel with a yellow bar inside that moves to the right as you push up the rpm. The four-cylinder engine with its six-speed manual transmission needs to be pushed hard. That's because the S2000's torque is very modest till about 6,500 rpm, when the true zip of acceleration kicks in; it redlines at 9,000.

Honda's engine isn't turbocharged, but with 240 horsepower the car covers zero to 60 mph in six seconds flat -- two-tenths of a second faster than the Boxster (with its six-cylinder, 228-horsepower engine) and within six-tenths of a second of matching the 258-horse Boxster S.

This kind of lead-footed driving means you're likely to glance up and find yourself doing 85 mph in the S2000 while still in third gear. At any speed you'll appreciate the spectacular handling on corners, thanks in part to a near-perfect weight distribution of 49% in the front and 51% in the rear, versus the 46%-54% split in the two Boxster models.

Now, about those very un-Honda-like ergonomic gaffes: The fuel flap lever is hard to see and is oddly located inside the driver's door well, about waist high, so a driver must open the door and either reach across with the right hand or climb out of the car to push the lever. Then there's the principal cabin storage space device: a glove box mounted behind the seats against the back wall, about shoulder height, that is very awkward to reach into.

Clearly, the S2000 is an acquired taste, and some people won't like it. One morning when I drove my wife, Vani, to work in the car, she looked around and said sharply: "There's no place to store any hand cream!" My motorcycle buddy Catharine, who prefers the wide-bodied seats of her Honda Shadow 600, took the S2000 for a short spin and quickly complained about feeling as if she was stuck in the middle of coach seating on a crowded airliner.

Both critics are right.

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