I learned to love cars by sitting in the back of the bus. That was in New Orleans in the era of Jim Crow. Some things you never forget. Like what it felt like to be a 12-year-old longing for the freedom of unimpeded mobility, the kind that even blacks back then seemed to enjoy behind the wheel of an automobile.

Cars. No bowing, scraping or sitting behind a "Colored Only" sign. No loss of dignity. You'd just hop in, key the ignition and go.

The romance and freedom of that simple act overwhelmed me, left me hopelessly, passionately smitten with the notion of motorized autonomy. I remain so afflicted today. Honda Motor Co. has done nothing to provide a remedy.

Instead, Honda shipped its new S2000 two-seat convertible, a 240-horsepower version of the Emancipation Proclamation. I cranked the motor, dropped the top and drove toward Interstate 66, the nearest available highway. I headed west toward the Civil War battlefields and the Shenandoah Valley, and shouted into the rushing wind: "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last!"

I think Martin Luther King Jr. would have approved, though I'm sure he never drove a car as sporty as the S2000. This car is special--though not especially in terms of looks.

The little S2000 is attractive in an edgy sort of way, with its sharp, angular front end and cat-eye headlamps. Cute. But not nearly as distinctive as, say, the BMW Z3 roadster or the Porsche Boxster.

Where the S2000 excels is on the road, where it counts. The car has a 50-50 front-rear weight distribution, achieved by placing its 2-liter, in-line four-cylinder engine entirely behind the front axle and locating its passenger compartment a tad forward of the rear-drive differential. That perfect balance is enhanced by a rigid body resting atop a double-wishbone, in-wheel suspension system with coil springs front and rear.

It all means superb handling in curves and in close-encounter, combative urban traffic. And on the open road, ooohhh! This is what freedom is all about--moving at speed, within the realm of a 65-mph limit, with the wind kissing your face and the sound of a harmonically tuned dual exhaust supplying background music.

There's additional psychic balm. Growing up with restrictions born of bias increased my desire to exercise control over my own destiny and environment. This control-freakism often is out of place in home life, where it is expertly resisted, and it plays just as poorly in a workplace filled with fragile yet aggressive egos.

But in the cockpit of the S2000, the lust for control is welcome, even encouraged. The car is equipped with a six-speed manual transmission, operated by quick, precise, short throws of the gearshift lever. The car's response is obedient, instantaneous, deliciously predictable. What control freak wouldn't like that?

There were some glitches in the test car, such as an errantly fitting door seal on the passenger side, clearly indicating that the model in possession was a pre-production job, not up to factory specifications in terms of fit and finish. But I didn't mind such cosmetic goofs in a car that provided so many pleasures and liberties, not the least of which was the freedom to dream.

2000 Honda S2000

Complaint: The S2000, with its short wheelbase and tight suspension, is built for smooth, even roads. The beauty of the car's ride on well-maintained highways turns into an ugly series of jolts on potholed, bumpy city streets.

Praise: The S2000 is everything a sports car ought to be--fun, powerful, nimble, and magical in its ability to transport both soul and body to a better place.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Aces for ride and handling on good roads. Acceleration is boffo--zero to 60 in six seconds. Zing!

Brakes: Power front/rear discs. Ventilated front. Anti-locks standard. Stops with authority.

Head-turning quotient: Cute, perhaps even possessing an evergreen kind of beauty. But no visual heartthrob.

Capacities: Seats two people. Limited trunk space; holds about two soft-sided overnight bags.

Mileage: About 25 miles per gallon in city/highway driving. Estimated 320 miles from its 13.2-gallon tank; premium unleaded required.

Safety: The usual safety equipment, along with beefed-up side-impact crash protection. But this is a small car. The laws of physics in big vs. small still apply.

Price: The S2000 goes on sale in the fall of this year. Prices are not firm at this writing. But Honda is expected to price the car below the rival BMW Z3, Porsche Boxster and Mercedes-Benz SLK coupe. Expect the S2000 to come in at about $30,000.

Purse-strings note: It's a toy. But what is the world without toys? You got the money? You got the desire? Buy it. Enjoy.