Motoring: Honda thrills without frills

Road Test: The power-packed S2000 has a split personality, says John Simister. And on an open, twisty road you'll find Honda heaven
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Why would I want a car whose engine revs to 9,000rpm? Doesn't this sound like a recipe for a frantic disposition and a lot of hard work? Fine for a racetrack, but what's the point on real roads?

So, straight away, Honda's new S2000 sports car poses new questions. Still, if anyone was going to build a road car with an engine able to scream to such stratospheric speeds, it had to be Honda. I have a friend who used to race a hotted-up version of the 1960s Honda S800 sports car, and one day it went bang at 13,000rpm. It was almost worth wrecking the engine just to quote that crazy figure.

Three decades on, the S2000 has an engine two-and-a-half times as big. It also has, at 240bhp, an enormous amount of power if you're prepared to rev the engine hard enough to find it. No other non-turbocharged production car produces as much motivational energy per unit of engine size. Like that S800, but unlike any other Honda since then, the S2000 is a traditional long-bonnet, short-tail, front-engine, rear-wheel drive design, built around a very stiff frame to avoid the body-wobbles usual in an open car.

To emphasise the car's thrills-without-frills design philosophy, the interior is stark to the point of dogma. That would be fine, were it not almost entirely devoid of useful storage space.

You sit racily and non-adjustably low, in an enveloping, leather-trimmed seat, and directly ahead of you is a large LCD arc. This is the segmental rev-counter. The speedo is a digital read-out, the hood is electrically powered (a surprising sop to sybaritism), the tiny gear lever and the holey pedals are of aluminium. Nearly everything else is plastic, broad expanses of it.

Turn the ignition key, and nothing happens. This is not because the immobiliser has immobilised, although that is always a background possibility, but because you have failed to notice the big red button labelled "engine start". Press it now.

An engine noise of surprising normality greets you. That normality continues as you set off, with the engine pulling sturdily, if not exactly electrifyingly, from quite normal engine speeds (say 2,000rpm). The only non-normal aspect is that you find yourself in one gear higher than you would expect at a given moment, because the Honda is so low-geared. But it doesn't matter, because there are six gears to choose from, even if sixth does have shorter legs than the fifth, or even the fourth, of most cars.

So where are all the fireworks? You could drive all day without exceeding 5,000rpm, and still get briskly to your destination. Take the top down, enjoy the Honda's surprisingly supple ride and rattle-free construction, rue the way the steering feels rubbery and dull-witted around the straight- ahead position. This is not a sports car. It's a boulevard cruiser, and I am not being remotely thrilled.

Now I'm overtaking something, and those LCD segments are climbing. At just under 6,000rpm, the fuse reaches the explosive and the Honda takes on a voice as of a giant Fireblade motorbike (another Honda). It's as though the S2000 has just grown a second engine, although all that has really happened is that the VTEC variable valve-timing (a Honda speciality) has just varied. Potent accelerative forces are being unleashed, the Honda is howling, people are surely staring.

Near-instantly the segments reach 9,000rpm, there's the splutter of a rev-limiter, a quick upward gear-change and here we go again. This car has the splittest of split personalities.

The Honda would be entirely happy to stay in this high-revs mania zone all day, as you snick that tiny, click-precise gear-lever up and down through all those gears.

Now you're in the mood, you can discover that the S2000 is a lot more fun in corners than it first hinted it would be. Once you have turned past the steering's rubbery patch, it comes alive as the front wheels bite hard into a bend and the rear wheels spear the Honda towards the bend's exit.

This is rear-wheel drive handling as it should be: confident, interactive and beautifully balanced. Find an open, twisty, sweeping road, and you're in Honda heaven. The trouble is that unless you can find such suitable spaces, or have a very thick skin, you can't enjoy the S2000 to the full. Wound up to excitement level it's just too frantic, and the tut-tutters would soon have your wax effigy pricked with pins.

The idea is terrific. Mix the thrills of a Lotus Elise with the civility of a Porsche Boxster, the power of a TVR with the trad friendliness of a Mazda MX-5, and create the ultimate sports car. But what you actually get is two wildly different cars in one unsettlingly identical-looking package.

Given the right road, you might never have more fun in a car. The problem, in car-clogged 1999, is finding that road.

Specifications

Honda S2000

pounds 28,000. Engine: 1,997cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 240bhp at 8,300rpm. Transmission: six-speed gearbox, rear-wheel drive. Performance: 150mph, 0-60 in 6.0sec, 24-29mpg.

Rivals

BMW Z3 2.8: pounds 28,150. Softer-edged than Honda, with creamy six-cylinder engine. Just facelifted, looks curvier and hunkier.

Lotus Elise 111S: pounds 26,590. Faster Elise uses variable valve-timing, suspension, and changes make it less nervous and even more fun.

Mazda MX-5 1.8i S: pounds 18,775. Far cheaper than the Honda, and much slower, but all it really lacks is the high-revs fireworks.

Porsche Boxster: pounds 34,100. Mid-mounted flat-six engine sounds great, handling's terrific, quality is superb, looks are, well, dumpy.

TVR Chimaera 4.0: pounds 31,700. Cheapest TVR emits old-style V8 rumble, has delightful aluminium detailing. Looks great, and is now well-built.

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