Honda's S2000 sports car is like a four-wheeled jack-in-the-box: It looks like a docile and demure two-seater, but mash the throttle and out jumps a racetrack-tuned sports car that pins back your ears.

This two-seat competitor to roadsters like the BMW Z3 and Porsche Boxster is priced at $32,300.

The S2000's diminutive 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine is the size found in many an economy sedan, but this one is loaded with high-tech trickery that serves up 240 horsepower at 8,300 rpm. Honda's success in motorcycle, Formula One and CART racing is the background from which this engine was developed, and its racing heritage shows. This all-aluminum, 16-valve, twin-cam engine relies on a 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, but over 6,000 rpm the engine is transformed and it fairly bursts with power. Almost more surprising than its output is the fact that it meets California's Low Emission Vehicle standard.

The engine revs more like a motorcycle than a car, and that's one reason it has a six-speed gearbox. Although some drivers may find it unsettling to wring the engine so tightly because they aren't used to such high rpm, those who are lucky enough to get their hands on one of the few S2000s available will revel in the high-decibel scream that pushes it to 60 miles per hour in less than six seconds. The fist-tall gear lever, topped by a small aluminum knob, has a tight linkage and is shifted 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 3,500 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 weight distribution that contributes to its excellent handling. It noses into sharp turns like a grown-up go-kart and is easy to balance with the throttle. The double-wishbone suspension and 16-inch wheels have tenacious grip, but the ride is so firm that it can be uncomfortable on any pavement that is less than perfectly smooth. Its race car reflexes, however, will delight enthusiast drivers who are willing to sacrifice ride comfort for slot-car cornering.

The Honda's cockpit is tight, to be sure. Seats are wraparound snug, with extra lateral support for the driver's shoulders. The tall transmission tunnel is part of the vehicle's backbone frame and it contributes to chassis stiffness. Additional body strengthening comes from the small, box-section frame members that run across the cockpit in front of each seat. These seemed to interfere more with the passenger's feet than the driver.

A minimalist philosophy of including only necessary gauges results in a small, all-digital instrument panel that was inspired by those in many modern racing cars. A central, digital speedometer readout is flanked by a swe eping tachometer representation. A separate start button is located on the left side of the dash. The key is low on the right side of the steering column and somewhat awkward to reach.

Further simplicity is evident throughout the cabin. The radio is hidden behind a flip-down cover, and it is operated by toggle switches that are on the dash next to the steering wheel.

Lowering the power top is simple and can be done in a matter of seconds. Unfortunately, the S2000 has a plastic rear window that scars easily. Roll bars behind the seats offer rollover protection. The test car was equipped with a small, flip-up wind blocker between the headrests and it helps keep wind blast out of the cockpit at highway speeds.

While Honda's S2000 is certainly not for everyone, diehard performance drivers will relish its cat-quick reflexes and giant-killer engine.

Price
The base price was $32,300. Destination charges brought the sticker price to $32,740.

War ty
Three years or 36,000 miles.

Point: The S2000 is small, light and agile. It has race car reflexes and a small engine that revs like a motorcycle and puts out 240 horsepower. It is priced at $32,300, but only a limited number are available.

Counterpoint: This is a driver's car first and foremost. The ride is firm, to the point of being harsh, the cabin is pretty small and creature comforts are secondary to performance.

SPECIFICATIONS:
Engine: 2.0-liter, 240-hp 4-cyl.
Transmission: Six-speed Rear-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 94.5 inches
Curb weight: 2,809 lbs.
Base price: $32,300
As driven: $32,740
Mpg rating: 20 city, 26 hwy.
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