Graham Bell tries out Honda's recently revised roadster.
Launched in 1999, the S2000 was built to commemorate Honda's 50th anniversary, and with Honda having the massive budget and resources they do, rather than simply fitting an existing engine from their range they decided to design a completely new one for it - something a bit special utilising technology derived from Honda's racing engines.
Designed by some of the engineers behind Honda's winning F1 and CART engines, the S2000's two litre DOHC straight four (a configuration chosen for compactness) boasts such race-bred features as roller rockers, forged shallow skirt pistons, ladder frame main bearing stiffener and fibre reinforced aluminium for the cylinders. It's also smaller and lighter than Honda's regular two litre engine, and at 237bhp sets a new record for highest specific output for a normally aspirated production car engine.
Of course without some form of forced induction, getting such high power outputs from just two litres requires high revs, which in turn requires cams with high lift and long duration to provide sufficient valve opening to allow the engine to draw in large amounts of air/fuel mix. Great at high revs but crap at low revs, which is a real problem for a road car - or would be without Honda's ingenious VTEC system, which works by literally having two camshafts in one, with three cams (two mild ones sandwiching a central wild one) for each pair of valves.
In normal running the mild cams do the work, operating the valves via rocker arms just like with an ordinary 16-valve engine. The clever bit happens around 5850rpm when pins lock the previously redundant central rocker arm to the two outer ones, at which point the valves are then controlled by the high lift, long duration cam, providing the improved breathing the engine needs to run at high revs. And in the S2000's case high revs means a mind-boggling 9000rpm.
Having read the S2000's power delivery described as "all or nothing" I was interested to see what it was really like, so on my first outing I ran up through the rev range waiting for a point when the power kicked in with a bang. It never happened, the S2000 accelerating with what seemed like a very linear power delivery. A subsequent look at the power curve graph in the press pack (which the post office belatedly delivered after I'd finished testing the car) confirmed that this is indeed the case.
The S2000's engine will actually pull from around 1000rpm/20mph in sixth, even though the vibrations make it obvious it isn't happy doing it, and it's sufficiently flexible that you can stay in top and still catch up with A-road traffic. But while the engine might have 237bhp and linear power delivery it lacks the low to mid-range grunt of similar power but larger capacity engines, so getting the S2000's 1260kg past that traffic on anything other than a dual carriageway requires full use of the gears and the top end of the rev range.
Scream if you want to go faster
That's because the S2000's engine only starts doing its best work after most car engines have stopped doing theirs, namely over 6000rpm, with maximum performance requiring the sort of revs that would blow most car engines to bits, peak torque (208Nm) being delivered at 7500rpm and peak power at 8300! And maximum performance in the S2000's case equates to 0-60 in 6.2 seconds and 150mph.
With the engine running on the mild cams the S2000 remains reasonably quiet, hood up or down, which with little wind noise or buffeting makes for a relaxed, comfortable cruiser. Start putting those central cams to work though and things understandably get rather raucous, though that's not because of any harshness from the engine but down to the exhaust, which if you keep the engine working in its upper range through the lanes produces a glorious race car soundtrack.
Keeping the engine spinning in that upper rev range is aided by the superb close ratio six-speed gearbox with its short and very slick shift, which combined with the light clutch pedal makes changing gear a real delight. Like the engine, the gearbox is also specially made for the S2000 and has been designed to be as narrow as possible so the engine could be set back for 50/50 weight distribution without half the interior being taken up by transmission tunnel.
The result is a footwell that accommodates three widely spaced pedals and a full size footrest with ease, while there's plenty of room for the other end of your body too, with about three inches of headroom for Mr Average types. Other ergonomic points worth mentioning are the comfortable, supportive seats and the siting of the heater and various stereo controls (volume, track/channel change and mute) within easy reach on either side of the instrument binnacle.
And in the instrument binnacle is the interior's undoubted pièce de résistance, with its computer game graphics of illuminated orange bars for fuel, temperature and revs and red numbers for speed and mileage temptingly inviting you to 'play more'...
On the practical side, the S2000's power hood comes in handy when you run into rain, taking as it does just six seconds to close, and thanks to the brilliant British summer weather I can tell you that the cabin remains completely dry even during torrential downpours.
Interior stowage space is limited to a lockable compartment on the rear bulkhead that's useful for sunglasses, CDs etc, a net pocket in the passenger footwell that's useful for maps and tiny net pockets in the doors which are too small to be much use for anything, but at least the boot is a useful size.
New for 2002
All of the aforementioned has been part of the S2000 recipe from day one, but following criticism of the S2000's handling Honda have recently revised the all-round double wishbone suspension to make it more progressive at the limit, with stiffer springs, softer anti-roll bars and recalibrated dampers.
The resulting ride is pretty much what you want in a sports car - firm enough to inform you what's happening beneath the wheels and prevent undue roll in corners but compliant enough to be comfortable.
As for the handling, in view of the S2000's 50/50 weight balance I was surprised when my standard 30mph tight right hander test saw the front end sliding about six inches off line, though admittedly the road was slightly (but barely) damp. Similar understeer also occurred during a session on an old runway. This had a dirty surface, so when driving a 237bhp rear wheel drive car along in second, turning the wheel and applying the power you'd normally expect the rear wheels to spin, followed by the car. With the S2000 though it was the front tyres that gave up their grip, the Honda's nose again sliding wide throughout a 180° turn.
Getting the back end round required the use of either the handbrake or the clutch, at which point a heavy right foot could provoke the S2000 into power oversteer, resulting in some very sideways attitudes and violent fishtailing, though suitable adjustments to the steering and throttle always managed to keep it heading in the intended direction.
In less extreme use on a grippy surface though the S2000 generally feels quite neutral, sticking doggedly to its line through numerous fast circuits round large roundabouts. Steering it wide then tightening your line and getting on the throttle induced just enough power oversteer to help the car turn in but not enough to get it sideways. In fact the only time I had to apply opposite lock on the road was when getting off the throttle mid-bend, which can result in sudden lift-off oversteer. Fortunately you only have to be a Pistonheader rather than a Schumacher to sort it out when it happens.
Such recoveries are helped by the electronically assisted steering, which isn't just quick at 2.25 turns lock to lock but also has variable pitch teeth on the rack so the more lock you apply the quicker it gets. Clever, as is the use of speed and torque sensors to vary the level of assistance. Just a pity the system doesn't transmit more information to the sensors holding the steering wheel.
The all round discs are equally useful at helping you cope with sudden "moments" having good bite and excellent stopping power, and in their case I've no reservations about electronic interference, the ABS enabling the S2000 to pull up quickly and straight even on a wet road.
Not having driven the original version I can't comment on the differences this year's revisions have made, but certainly in its current form the S2000 is both docile enough to cope with daily commuting and potent enough to provide some high speed fun at weekends, and even if it isn't as dynamically entertaining as some, it's still the most powerful practical sports car you can get new for £26,000.
However, while I agree with Honda that the S2000's engine is indeed an "engineering masterpiece" I'd still prefer my 240bhp to come with more capacity, more cylinders and more torque.