Honda’s S2000 sports car looks tame enough, but twist its 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine to a mind-boggling 9,000 rpm and its 240 horsepower screams like a caged cat. This may be a small package but it packs a good-sized punch.

If it surprises you to find Honda and sports car in the same sentence, consider this: Honda racing engines have repeatedly been champions in CART and Formula One and the Acura NSX (Acura is Honda’s American luxury division) is a sports car whose performance and handling rivals some of the world’s best. Further, the Honda Civic Si, Prelude and Acura Integra Type R are basically sports cars locked inside hatchback bodies.

This $32,000 roadster was built to celebrate Honda’s 50th anniversary, and the candles on its cake burn white-hot. But there’s sweetness, as well. The engine revs more like a motorcycle than a car, and some drivers may find that unsettling because they aren’t used to such high rpm. On the other hand, the handful of enthusiast drivers lucky enough to get their hands on one of the 6,000 to 7,000 that will be sold in this country most likely know about high-revving power, and they will revel in its banshee wail and the way it yowls its way to 60 mph in less than six seconds.

It’s only fitting that Honda would produce such an exotic powerplant for its anniversary celebration. This all-aluminum powerplant is a 16-valve, twin-cam unit that relies on an new, compact version of Honda’s VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Left Electronic Control) for much of its flexibility and power. Under 6,000 rpm, power and torque are certainly more than adequate for regular driving. Over 6,000 rpm the engine fairly bursts with power as it is transformed into a racing machine. Almost more surprising than its output is the fact that it still meets California’s Low Emission Vehicle standard.

In terms of raw performance, the front-engine, rear-drive S2000 feels like a pint-sized NSX. Competitors include two-seaters from BMW, Porsche, Mazda and Mercedes-Benz. Based on my seat-of-the-pants impression, it takes the measure of most.

As you might expect, wringing maximum performance from this engine is done by a close-ratio, six-speed transmission. The fist-tall gear lever has a small aluminum knob on top, and it can be shifted just by rocking your wrist while your elbow rests on the transmission tunnel. A 4.10 rear axle ratio means that this engine turns close to 4,000 rpm at freeway speeds.

The S2000’s long-hood, short-trunk design places the cockpit well back in the vehicle and creates a 50/50 front/rear weight distribution, which contributes to its excellent handling. The double-wishbone suspension and 16-inch wheels grip tenaciously but the ride is definitely firm. On rough streets it was downright jiggly, but that is a small price to pay for telepathic reflexes and its ability to scribe arcs through turns with the precision of a drafting compass.

In terms of size, the S2000 most resembles BMW’s Z3. Its long-hood, short-trunk profile is even more pronounced, while its 94.5-inch wheelbase is a couple inches shorter. Other dimensions are pretty much equal.

The Honda’s cockpit is tight, to be sure. Seats are wraparound snug, with extra lateral support built in near the driver’s shoulders. The tall transmission tunnel is the vehicle’s backbone and it contributes to chassis stiffness, as does additional bracing under the floor. A small box-section frame member runs in front of each seat and seemed to interfere with the passenger’s foot space more than it did the driver.

Considering that true sports cars usually have analog gauges, the S2000’s all-digital instrument panel is a bit of a surprise. I suspect, however, that this layout was inspired by the instruments used in racing cars, plus space on the instrument panel is at a premium and analog gauges would not have fit very well.

A clever touch comes in the use of separate start button on the left side of the dash. The key location, down on the right side of the column, is awkward to reach, especially in the dark. The radio is hidden behind a flip-down cover, and a clock is nowhere to be found. Toggle-type switches for the radio are situated on the dash and can be operated without moving one’s hands from the steering wheel.

Dropping the power-operated top is simple and can be done in a matter of seconds. Roll bars behind the seats offer rollover protection, and our test car was equipped with a small, flip-up wind blocker between the headrests. This is a dealer-installed option.

Unless you’re on good terms with your Honda dealer and already have a deposit down, you’re probably not going to find one. If you do, the law of supply and demand is likely to push the price beyond the sticker.

The base price is $32,000. Floor mats are $62, and the dealer-installed windblocker is $279. The sticker price of our test car was $32,341.

Three years or 36,000 miles.

Point: The S2000 is like a grown-up’s go-kart. Handling is no-nonsense firm, steering is direct and the howl of its 2.0-liter engine reaching for 9,000 rpm is intoxicating to gearheads.

Counterpoint: The cockpit is a bit small and the key is in an awkward place, but the most disappointing thing is that getting your hands on one will take perseverance and serious detective work.

ENGINE: 2.0-liter, 4-cyl.
CONFIGURATION: Rear-wheel drive
WHEELBASE: 94.5 inches
CURB WEIGHT: 2,809 lbs.
BASE PRICE: $32,000
MPG RATING: 20 city, 26 hwy.

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