The open-top roadster from the ’60s is back with a vengeance in the all-new Honda S2000.
Sure, first came the Mazda Miata in 1990, then the BMW Z3 a few years later. Those vehicles also re-created the experience of the roadster that dates to the days of the MG, Triumph, Sprite, Sunbeam and other open-top two-seaters — mostly from Britain. They were quite the rage.
The Miata and Z3 have their fans, and they are decent roadsters that deserve credit for reviving this fun-yet-impractical specialty-vehicle class.
But I believe Honda has done the most credible job so far in bringing out a (nearly) affordable roadster — with a list price of $32,000 — that stays true to the original theme. The S2000 provides exciting performance, including power and road-hugging abilities, and an exhaust note that is sweet to the ears.
This high-performance sports car is close in appearance to the Honda SSM concept car that was first shown at the 1995 Tokyo Motor Show. It has a race-car feel to it, reflecting Honda’s success in both CART and Formula One racing.
Perhaps what I like best about the S2000, though, is that it doesn’t pander to our spoiled side, the one that enjoys cushy cars that ride so smoothly you can imagine you’re still at home in your favorite recliner.
Anyone who ever drove one of the ’60s roadsters knows the ride is supposed to be a little rugged, the passenger compartment a bit cramped and the noise a bit on the wild side. That’s the way it is in the S2000, as evidenced by one of my co-workers’ comment after she went for a ride in this beauty.
“Kinda rough, isn’t it?” she said. “And there’s not much room inside.”
Yeah. Right on!
Maybe it is a macho thing, but I don’t think so. I know lots of men and women who owned and thoroughly enjoyed the Spitfires and Tigers and such, even if those vehicles did ride a bit like trucks. There is a reason for such a stiff suspension: it goes hand-in-hand with the road-hugging capabilities of cars of this genre.
The S2000, like Honda’s much-more expensive Acura NSX sports car, is mostly hand-built, and it shows in the detail. This car is well put-together, and the unique Honda X-bone frame is largely responsible for the structural rigidity that is one of the S2000’s most remarkable attributes.
Most convertibles shake and shimmy over every little bump. The S2000 holds together and takes a bump in one big lump the way a performance car should. Cross beams and a reinforced center tunnel help create this rigidity at the bottom to compensate for the lack of continuity in the structure at the top. (The soft top comes down, remember?)
These reinforcements intrude a bit on the passenger space, but I can live with that. I took this baby around some tight turns and hilly curves that would challenge most decent sporty coupes, and the S2000 showed me what I had traded that interior comfort for.
The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine turn s out a whopping 240 horsepower — the most power for this much displacement of any non-turbocharged vehicle on the street. There is no automatic transmission available, and I hope none is ever offered — it would spoil the effect.
This is a car that is meant to be driven by someone who likes to drive, and for that, it takes a manual gearbox. The S2000’s is a six-speed with a tight, short throw that allows for up- and downshifting quickly and precisely.
Yes, this is a rear-wheel-drive vehicle, too — something that was necessary to re-create the roadster. Honda’s last rear-drive car was the S500 roadster in 1973.
Despite the 153 foot-pounds of torque that this car gives at 7,500 rpm, I was never able to break the tires free from the pavement on start-up, which means that all the traction is there to move this car along quickly.
With a very high redline of 9,000 rpm, this car gets rather noisy when wound up, but that’s just part of the thrill. It is hard o get it up to 9,000 rpm on urban streets — at least without getting a ticket or raising too much attention. That kind of driving is best left to country roads.
I really like the S2000’s muscular looks. It’s not as pretty as the Miata and Boxster, and not as weird as the BMW (not that there’s anything wrong with that … ). Our test car came in the only color that truly makes sense: arrest-me red.
There are some concessions to our latter-20th century wants, including an electrically operated convertible top, power windows and door locks and a racing-style digital instrument panel. I’ll allow the power accessories, but I’d prefer an analog speedometer, tachometer and other gauges. Digital just isn’t true to the roadster heritage and certainly isn’t necessary.
Braking ability is among the best I’ve tested in any vehicle, thanks to large power-assisted disc brakes with an antilock system (standard). The rack-and-pinion steering is power-assisted, too, but with a variable-ratio setup that keeps the wheel rigid at highway speeds for better road feel and control.
Starting the S2000 is a bit different. You turn the key to the “on” position, then push a red starter button on the dash to the left of the steering wheel. This arrangement isn’t new to me; my Piper Tri-Pacer has a red start-button under the pilot’s seat. I can pretend I’m about to take off in my airplane when I fire up the S2000 — it will almost fly, anyway.
Curb weight is 2,800 pounds, heavy enough to hold the S2000 to the ground, but light enough to give the engine a chance to move the car along.
There are a few other creature comforts included in the price: leather seats, cruise control, air-conditioning, remote keyless entry, high-intensity-discharge headlights, and an AM/FM/compact-disc stereo (which can stay hidden behind a pull-down dash panel while you control it with remote buttons on the left side of the dash above the starter button). Dual air bags are standard.
Lowering and raising the top are easy. To lower it, you just pop loose the two catches at the top of the windshield, then pull back on the center-console-mounted switch (which operates only with the hand brake applied). The top folds back within a few seconds, and there is a tonneau cover in the trunk to make everything look neat and tidy.
There is a bit more luggage space once the cover is removed from the trunk, but still the total is just 5 cubic feet — slightly smaller than the Miata’s trunk.
With a $415 transportation charge, total price of our test car was $32,415. No options are offered — a Honda tradition that continues with this vehicle.
EPA fuel-economy ratings are 20 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway. But only if you behave yourself. The tank holds 13.2 gallons of fuel.
At a glance: 2000 Honda S2000 Roadster
The PACKAGE: Subcompact, two-door, four-cylinder, high-performance, open-top roadster.
HI GHLIGHTS: All new for 2000, this Honda roadster brings back the best of the open-top sports cars of the ’60s but with some ’90s comforts that don’t spoil the package. Power and road-handling are superb, styling is eye-catching, and driving the S2000 is a dream.
NEGATIVES: Tight passenger compartment; unnecessary digital instrumentation that takes away from the retro roadster theme.
MAJOR COMPETITORS: BMW Z3, Porsche Boxster, Mazda Miata, Mercedes-Benz SL230, Toyota MR Spyder, Audi TT.
EPA FUEL ECONOMY: 20 miles per gallon city/26 highway.
BASE PRICE: $32,000 plus $415 transportation.
PRICE AS TESTED: $32,415, including transportation.
ON THE ROAD RATING: A-plus.