2005 Honda S2000 Expert Review:Autoblog
As Fall weather descended on Chicago in the middle of August a bright yellow Honda S2000 roadster entered the Autoblog Garage. At a time when weather should be in the 90s we're getting highs of 60 and rain. Bummer.
So far a quick ride with the top down in between showers gave us the best glimpse of the promise of this roadster. With the panoramic views, small windshield and ultra-low ride this is as close to the road as one can get. The suspension is stiff. How stiff? Lets just say every bump gets me that much closer to the dentist chair as my teeth were regularly knocked around on city roads. But that ride stiffness is all worth it when considering how tightly the car handles.
Larger 17-inch wheels keep this rear-wheeled beast stuck to the ground and the tiny steering wheel delivers that “sure I could be a race-car driver if I really wanted to” impression. As you wiggle around to get comfortable in the snug seats there is no doubt that the slightly overweight might shy away from the S2000. My rapidly aging, late 20-something frame isn’t all that comfortable in it either. After a 20-minute or so ride my body thanked me for climbing out of the S2000, but my mind was wondering when we’d open it up.
After a full day of driving in and out of the city the S2000 is one mean handling roadster. Despite the radar-gun attracting yellow paint job the car is a rather subdued and elegant looking vehicle. Inside the leather is high-quality and brushed aluminum accents add that hint of luxury for a $32,000 car. I'm also wondering why Honda didn't badge this an Acura to sell to their clientele willing to shell out that kind of money.
The dash, instruments and ergonomics might drive buyers to drink and that’s not good when you have to be in complete control of your faculties while driving the S2000. First let’s address the 1980s electronic gauges. Remember those cars that everyone thought were so futuristic because they had digital and not analog displays? Well the guys at Honda I guess still pine for those days.
I remember a clunker of an 1989 Ford Probe I drove and its display was as high-tech looking as the Honda’s. Ouch. Then there’s the radio concealed behind an aluminum door. What’s the deal with this? Sure there are dials to the left of the steering wheel for volume and switching from FM to CD but there isn’t anything that tells the driver what station, track or volume setting he’s on when the door is closed. If you leave it open the door rubs against the shifter. This is just odd. The stereo does sound great though.
The environmental controls are at least easy to figure out and make you wonder why they take up so much space in other cars.
And last there’s the bright red ignition button. OK that’s pretty cool.
It seems everyone wants me to take this car flying down the open road. The talkback comments are pretty interesting. The S2000 is an enthusiast's car for sure but it offers absolutely zero for the everyday driver. To me the best vehicles are the ones that can combine the two. I still rave about the Mazda RX-8 because it had so much sports-car soul but was still a decent daily driver.
The S200 is definitely not a daily driver.
The clutch is a spring-loaded affair that can build muscle. The shifter is also a bit hard to get used to and I found myself missing first a few times which is very unusual for me. The trick seems to be to shift into second then straight up into first before launching. That way you’re confident 1st gear is engaged.
Revving the S2000 is also an interesting exercise. Others have mentioned that you have to get to 5500 to get the real feel for the power. At around 4000 the car is screaming, literally, for a shift even though the redline is way up at 8000. Anytime I tried to get it up that high I was afraid the engine would blow. And by then I realized I was flying down the street too fast as it was.
Another oddity is that this roadster’s rear wheels like to fly out during semi-aggressive and even casual turning. I am not a fan of rear-wheel cars that do this with any regularity but for some reason the S2000 is easier to control when fish-tailing than others I’ve tested. It’s that pinpoint control and handling that is the true beauty of this vehicle. But beyond the glimpses of superb performance the aches the body will endure may not be worth it. I’d love to race this thing though.
On the last day with the S2000 I decided to shed my critical gloves and put on a pair of rose colored ones. It seems I've been looking down on this car, so this morning I left for work early, took a longer, more open route and threw out the journalist conventions for the enthusiast attitude I've been told I lack.
The S2000 is much better this way.
Flying down empty Chicago streets is a high velocity thrill and the ones I chose were generally free of pot holes, bumps etc. With the stereo playing and the wind rushing by it was fun. I didn’t even notice any back problems getting out when I hit the parking lot. Another thing dawned on me. I have finally gotten adjusted to the transmission. It’s not an easy one or as silky as others but it isn’t an unmanageable mess like the GTO’s either. The clutch still needs some extra pressure but it seems I’ve grown a tolerance to that too after a full week of driving.
Cornering and handling as I’ve said all along are where the car shines. I’m still getting that drift in the back but it’s very manageable. Even high revs were enjoyable but I haven’t gotten used to the engine note. It just doesn’t seem right in the same way the RX-8’s rotary whir doesn’t sound right. But the acceleration is top notch regardless.
Also as seen in this head-on shot, the S2000 is the best looking car Honda has ever made and I’m including the Acura NSX in that group. I’m not a fan of the yellow and would probably prefer black, but even this hue offers something for the racer wannabes out there. The menacing front grill has even been copied in many an aftermarket body kit. Some people don’t like the interior because it’s so sparse but I find the high quality materials and leather seats very stylish. I even found myself getting used to the digital gauges since they for the most part resemble analog shapes. And actually with direct sunlight on them they’re more visible than many recessed analog gauges.
The stereo, sans the controls and location, is fantastic. I don’t understand how four speakers can produce such terrific sound while other cars with six or more can’t come close. I generally test Radiohead in every car and the S2000 isn’t at the top where the luxury cars go with surround sound etc., but for the money it’s probably as good as it gets.
And that’s the final note. For $32,000 there aren’t a lot of performance cars out there that you’ll find, let alone roadsters, that offer so much for the money (I’m still waiting to test a Lotus Elise). There are more trade-offs in this vehicle and I think many buyers would choose creature comforts and more room found in other vehicles in the price range. But for those in sunny locales or with wide-open roads the S2000 could (and obviously does after the last batch of feedback) sway opinion.
***I’ve sent a note to Honda about the spacer issue and will report back with an answer.
New Car Test Drive
The four-wheel superbike gets a little more civilized.
The Honda S2000 is a two-seat roadster with the size of the small Mazda Miata and speed of the Porsche Boxster. It's a technological statement from Honda, which has no equal when it comes to pumping big horsepower out of small engines. Witness Honda's domination in the Indy Racing League, including its victory in the Indy 500 with a 3.0-liter engine producing 650 horsepower at 10,300 rpm.
The S2000 has earned a reputation as the sports car with an engine like a superbike motorcycle. Big horsepower from small displacement, with a narrow powerband and extremely high RPM. Nothing could match the original S2000 for exhilaration.
With the 2005 S2000 that still might be true, although it's been tamed a bit. The '05 remains basically unchanged from the '04, which brought refinements to the engine and suspension. Those refinements make it quicker and easier to drive, although the unique and exceptional rush that comes from seeing the tachometer needle reach 9000 rpm has been tempered to seeing a mere 8200. Which is still more than any other car we can think of, except the Mazda RX-8 with its rotary engine.
Other recent changes to the S2000 include 17-inch wheels, up from 16s; changed transmission gear ratios to improve acceleration; more shoulder and elbow room; and some body tweaks, most notably new headlights with a triple-beam design.
One model is available, which retails for $32,950 (plus $515 freight). The S2000 is equipped with a six-speed manual gearbox; an automatic is not available. There are a few dealer-installed options available, including a removable hardtop, trunk spoiler, XM Satellite Radio and headrest speakers.
The way to be noticed in your S2000 is to rev to eight grand, of course; but people will still check the car out when it's standing still. For its basically small dimensions, it has the look of a bigger classic roadster. That's because of the long hood, which is a result of the engine being located behind the centerline of the front axle for better balance and handling. This design also leads to a striking short rear deck.
Speaking of striking, Spa Yellow is the color to choose if you want your S2000 to be noticed. Our test model was Suzuka Blue, a fairly ordinary steel blue, and it didn't do justice to the identity of the car.
The nose has been tweaked in the 2005 model with a softer bumper, and the new triple-beam HID headlights freshen it and make it look more contemporary. But the S2000's visual appeal still doesn't match its mechanical credentials. It looks a little slab-sided and plain compared to some other sports cars, in particular the radical BMW Z4, but the upside to that is more protection for the driver. The new 17-inch wheels are 10-spoke alloys, and they are gorgeous, framed nicely in the front by the flared fenders.
Air conditioning, power windows, power mirrors, cruise control, keyless remote entry, and tilt steering are all standard. There's a big red button for an ignition switch, and that's pretty cool. The digital tach is an attempt to be cool, with orange lines arcing across the top of the instrument panel, but it's hard to see and comes across as excessively gimmicky anyhow. The S2000 is all about revving, even if to a diminished 8200 rpm now, and everything should point there. Such as a needle on an analog gauge. Maybe the S2000 should have a big tach on the steering column, like the Mini Cooper.
There's also a digital speedometer reading mph in fairly big numbers, flanked by small fuel and coolant temperature gauges. The AM/FM/CD stereo is located behind a flap-like rectangular door on the dash; we found ourselves leaving it open for convenience, which defeated its purpose of hiding the system, of course. The buttons are small, but there are redundant controls just to the left of the steering wheel.
The power top moves up and down easily and latches over the windshield. There's a glass rear window with defroster, and also an aero windscreen behind the seats to reduce buffeting when the top is down.
The leather bucket seats are beautifully comfortable, with one inch more shoulder room than before. The three-spoke leather steering wheel is perfect. There are mesh storage pockets in the doors but no glove box. There's a new small storage compartment between the seats, giving the cabin minimal storage, a slight improvement from virtually nonexistent.
The last time we wrote about the S2000 we couldn't get over its 9000 rpm redline. There isn't a road car on the planet that revs like that. And what a thrill it was. But in the '05, a rev limiter cuts the fuel off at 8200 rpm. That 800 rpm difference is all about the sound, and what it does to your insides. Now it's like listening to Jimi Hendrix riffing his electric guitar toward a climax and then cutting it short.
True, the engine is improved now. It's been stroked to 2.2 liters from 2.0, and makes the same 240 horsepower but delivers more torque, 162 foot-pounds versus 153, at a lower rpm: 6500 rpm instead of an impossibly peaky 7500. So it's got a broader power band and is more friendly to drive, thus easier to drive fast. It's a better car. But, like the Viper SRT/10, it may be better but it's a lot less visceral.
There have been a number of other careful refinements to the S2000, in particular to the handling, starting with the easy things: the 17-inch wheels. Less visible, the frame is stiffer and the suspension is firmer in the front and softer in the rear. On our favorite driving loop that offers a broad variety of corners and road surfaces, the S2000 handled the patchy bits with grace. It's smoother in the rough stuff than the Nissan 350Z, which isn't bad itself. No rattles or thumps, and it followed the contour of the road without softening or neutralizing it. It still has its kart-like quickness; in fact it's better now, with its wider tires.
Like all current Honda automobiles, the S2000's suspension is independent, with control arms (as distinct from struts) at all four corners. It is distinguished from any other current Honda cars, however, by its rear-wheel-drive layout, a platform developed specifically for this limited-edition roadster. (All other Hondas are based on a front-wheel-drive layout.)
The six-speed gearbox has also been improved, with better synchronizers making smoother shifts; its short-throw linkage and aluminum-tipped lever feel like a racecar's. The gear ratios have been lowered by 4 percent, in pursuit of easier takeoffs. There's an electric motor quality to its power, like a Japanese super-bike: no punch in the back, just a sense that with enough forward gears, one might keep accelerating indefinitely.
The brakes are big (11.8 inches front, 11.1 inches rear) and fantastic, vented in front, with standard ABS and improved brake pad material for '05. These are the best brakes we've ever encountered on any Honda vehicle, and they round out a set of sports car credentials that's tough to top.
The key to enjoying the S2000 is to drive it hard: Take off, wind the engine to 8200 rpm in first gear, shift into second, stand on it, and don't shift until you hit 8200 again. This is what the Honda S2000 has to offer over the less-expensive Miata.
Honda's S2000 delivers quick acceleration and razor-sharp cornering that's truly kart-like. It isn't for everyone. It is, after all, a unique limited-production sports car. It's great for someone who wants a superbike with the safety of four wheels and air bags.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Sam Moses reports from the Columbia River Gorge.
Honda S2000 ($32,950).
Options As Tested
Honda S2000 ($32,950).
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