ROSAMOND, California - Honda claimed the convertible throne in 1999 with the arrival of the S2000. At the time, 240 horsepower in a lightweight convertible package was far more than any competitor offered. Coupled with a sweet six speed tranny and nimble steering, the S2000 was an instant favorite among the press corps and has sold well ever since. Since 1999, however, BMW has upped the stakes with the M Roadster, Porsche has offered the Boxster S, and Mercedes Benz released the AMG 32 SLK. All of which were expressly designed to outmotor the S2000.
A response from Honda has been expected, but has been delayed for a number of reasons. Primarily, delays in the NSX redesign and a historical self-imposed Japanese horsepower limit of 280 HP have kept Honda from releasing an S2000 variant that might invert the relationship of the NSX and S2000. But 2003 appears to be the year virtually all Japanese manufacturers will drop the 280 HP limit, and though we have no confirmed sightings of the new NSX design, the appearance of the S2000R would suggest Honda is now confident it can release the new NSX for 2003 as well.
The S2000R drivetrain is a huge improvement over the already wonderful S2000 offering. Nearly every component has been uprated in some way, and we suspect some of these pieces are going to find their way into existing S2000s courtesy of bolt compatibility and an enthusiastic owner base.
The R gets two extra cylinders on the front of the engine. That alone changes the entire nature of the car. Peak horsepower is way up, to 360 HP. The introduction of i-VTEC cams on the intake side has also improved low-end torque, so 230 foot-pounds of peak torque are now available at a slightly more tractable 6000 RPM.
In order to handle the increased torque from the engine, the transmission has been significantly beefed up. Rather than making the components larger, Honda has gone the route of using stronger materials. The gears are now made of titanium, with nitrided surfaces for improved wear resistance. The resulting transmission weighs four pounds less than the base unit.
But the big news in the new transmission is the Sport Motor Assist (SMA). This is similar technology to the Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) in the Honda Insight, used for a very different purpose. In both vehicles, the starter motor and alternator have been replaced by a combination motor/generator, and in both vehicles, the system improves gas mileage by recovering energy from braking and using it to accelerate the vehicle later. In the Insight, this motor/generator is integrated into the engine flywheel, instantly starting the engine and eliminating the need to idle the engine at stoplights. During acceleration, the Insight's IMA system provides a substantial portion of the vehicle's power.
The S2000R's SMA integrates the motor/generator into the transmission's input shaft rather than the flywheel. This location allows the SMA motor to synchronize the input shaft to the output shaft during shifts. Shifts are short and startlingly smooth: with no resistance from the syncros, all you feel is the soft thunk of the dogs engaging. Shifts are faster, too, which helps an S2000R driver keep pace with certain paddle-shifting Italian supercars.
The SMA system is interesting to contrast with BMW's SMG transmission. SMG uses an F1-like transmission in which the clutch and shift forks are operated via high-pressure hydraulic actuators. Shifts can happen in as little as 110 milliseconds. SMA, in comparison, is still directly operated by the driver's hands and feet, and so it's slower, but it also gives the driver more feedback from the process. We found our fastest shifts took about 350 milliseconds. Without the extra hydraulics, however, the SMA system is actually lighter than the SMG system, and of course it works for you while you aren't shifting as well.
SMA flips into generator mode during braking, converting some of your forward kinetic energy into the electrical energy necessary to run the car just when you don't want it to be kinetic anymore. This makes a heck of a lot more sense to us than running a generator, water pump and A/C compressor off the engine when we're trying to drag the quarter mile. The energy gets stashed in a pair of 420 volt lithium-ion packs behind the seats. A separate 12V downconverter runs the lights, fans, stereo, and dashboard.
A look under the hood reveals how Honda's elves managed to squeeze two more cylinders into the S2000's engine compartment. The R has no accessory drive belt. There is no generator directly attached to the engine, and the water pump and A/C are driven from dedicated electric motors tucked up against the firewall to improve weight distribution. Even with two extra cylinders, the S2000R motor actually has less spinning mass than the base S2000 motor. Uehara says the lack of accessories is a major reason the S2000R spins up so fast, since the engine's horsepower gets used to accelerate the car rather than the generator and A/C compressor. As a side benefit, the car isn't any slower with the A/C on than off.
The regenerative braking from the SMA system contributes an extra 5 MPG during the EPA's city cycle, more than offsetting the pumping losses from the extra displacement and giving the R better gas mileage than the base S2000. Better gas mileage is the point of Honda's investment in Motor Assist technology. Unlike several other car companies that jointly lobby to stem increases in U.S. national fleet mileage requirements, Honda has decided to fight the good fight by making lighter, more fuel efficient cars that consumers really want. If the new R is any indication of the what Honda's future products will be like, sign us up, we're buying it.
It will have to. The new S2000R is a class-defying monster. It costs 54 grand, and has interior amenities considered spartan for even the base model's $33,000 price. On the other hand, it has performance characteristics comparable to Italian imports costing three times as much. Not only does the new R have 360 horses, but Honda corralled them into a package weighing less than a Miata. Think about that for a second. The Miata has 142 HP, and it's a lot of fun to drive. This thing has 2.5 times as many whinnies. Whoa, Nellie!
To help us get to know the new car, Honda supplied us with a pair of S2000Rs for the weekend, track time on the Streets of Willow course, and a BMW M roadster and Z06 Chevrolet Corvette for comparison purposes. Our request for a 360 Modena as well was denied, but we're obviously not the first outside Honda to make that comparison.
Honda also invited us to a Q&A session with Shigeru Uehara, the S2000R project lead. This session was a lot of fun: Shigeru ended up leading us out of the briefing room to where the cars were parked, and soon had us climbing under them while he pointed out the various goodies Honda has packaged into this little gem.
Honda's new machine is nothing less than frenetic: It has the heft of a classic British convertible, but the power to weight ratio of a modern Viper. Reviewers were nearly unanimous that the worst thing about the base S2000 was torque. Two more cylinders and tweaked cams absolutely slam that nail home: The R has 57% more peak torque, and at 3000 RPM torque is up 65%. Best-possible-speed launches are still tricky, and judging from the smell, you probably don't get to try too many of these. But drop the clutch from 3500 RPM and you can get to 60 in less than five seconds, blowing away everything else in its price class. Drop the hammer from 6000 RPM and you can play tag with a 911 Turbo.
Visually, the R is distinguished by a slightly lower ride height, a visible diffuser under the rear bumper, and functional front brake ducts. The fenders are slightly wider to accomodate the larger tires, but our testers couldn't see the difference. The interior is missing the base model's distinctive lateral floor beam just ahead of the seats, and the backs of the seats are finished in black carbon fiber rather than the matching colored plastic of the base model. Take off the badges, and this R could be something of a lurker in the go-fast crowd. Until you turn it on.
The S2000R is the first car to use a new composite chassis manufacturing technique being pioneered at the Takanezawa assembly plant in Japan. Although carbon fiber composites have been used for many years in race cars, the molding and baking process has been historically slow and labor-intensive and therefore unsuitable for mass production.
The new machine uses just seven baked composite pieces, the most massive of which is the central tub. This piece, which holds the driver and passenger, and to which the front and rear suspensions bolt, is baked as a unit from carbon and aramid fibers, balsa wood, and honeycomb aluminum. Where a Formula One chassis might take days to build and hours to bake, the S2000R tub is assembled and baked from somewhat sticky pre-impregnated fiber mats in a vacuum mold in about five minutes. The inner surface of each door, including the side-impact beam, and the seat pans and backrests round out the short list of composite pieces.
Honda is stepping carefully into the composite manufacturing world: The R is expected to be a low-volume production run, none of the composite surfaces are painted or have exposed precision surfaces, and none have to collapse in predictable ways during a collision. Instead, the outer door panels are aluminum, the front and rear fenders and crush zones are built of steel, and the rollover hoops are steel tubes. It will be interesting to see the new technology migrate into other areas of Honda's cars over the next few years.
The composite chassis transmits sound a little differently than we're accustomed to, which leads to an interesting effect: road noise in the R is higher pitched, which makes the cabin sound smaller than it actually is. And while the stereo has not been upgraded from the base model, it's noticeably easier to make out the words of people talking on the radio while driving too fast on the freeway. The doors are oddly light; you almost expect a tinny rattle, but get nothing but a dull whump when the door closes. The hood and trunk lid are both aluminum.
Honda has apparently taken the Kyoto protocol to heart, and thrown a huge amount of R&D into the challenge of building more fuel efficient cars that consumers will actually like. Part of that challenge is technical: cars must become lighter, easier to recycle, and recover more of the energy expended decelerating. Part of the challenge is emotional: Honda wants to teach consumers to desire lighter and more fuel-efficient cars. The S2000R is Honda's first step along this path. Do you want to spend more money for a lighter car with more horsepower and better fuel economy? Of course you do. But automakers need to know how much more you are willing to spend, and that answer is going to change as consumers gain exposure to newer, more efficient designs.
Honda is challenging the Germans at their best game: the 3 liter inline six. Providing us with an M roadster invites the obvious comparison. Both cars have fairly long hoods and long engine compartments. The Honda's engine sits slightly farther back towards the passenger compartment, and appears a bit more compact. Where the BMW sports 6 separate throttle bodies nestled close to the head, the Honda has a single throttle body and a plastic intake manifold, said to reduce weight and provide cooler air to the engine. Perhaps the biggest visual difference between the two is the Honda's lack of a serpentine accessory belt and the associated pulleys, leaving the front of the engine looking surprisingly plain.
The Honda motor makes up for its 200cc displacement disadvantage with 1000 more RPM. And while the Bimmer's engine is snappy and willing to rev, the Honda jumps to its redline with the alacrity of a Scotch Terrier on amphetamines. Switching between the two cars is an excercise in excess: where the M roadster always appears to have enough power to pull satisfyingly through a corner, the Honda appears to want to get you into trouble, launching you at exit cones, guard rails, and the ever-closer redline faster than should be legally possible.
But as fast as the redline comes, shifts are even faster thanks to a slick new transmission utilizing new technology apparently based on telepathy. The partially domesticated F1 motor should be kept between 5 and 9 thousand RPM, and the tranny helps make it so. You never even feel the resistance of the synchros (see the drivetrain sidebar for that story). Every shift drops through the gate like a perfectly executed double-clutch. The combination of the new tranny and new engine bring to mind college age warnings about the multiplicative effects of mixing powerful drugs. The gearbox makes you want to row, which keeps the engine revs up, and you end up driving around all the time with insane amounts of wheel torque available instantly.
Honda has matched the motor with improved brakes and tires. The bigger fronts haul the sled down from 60 MPH in just 105 feet. It brakes so hard the car feels like it is balanced on its nose the whole way down. Front end dive, an issue on the base S2000, has been moderately well contained. Brake feel is firmer than in other Hondas, perhaps from the braided stainless-steel brake lines at all four corners or the new four-piston forged calipers. The ABS cycles so fast the pulses blur into a dull grind. Directional control under braking is superb, even with the rear end's featherweight connection with the ground. In three hours of hard driving on a test track, we were unable to get the brakes to fade significantly, though we nearly burned through a set of factory pads. This is an astonishing performance from any car, and something we expect SCCA members to welcome.
The wider tires all around (225/50ZR-16 up front, 255/45ZR-16 behind) give the R somewhat improved grip, although at the cost of more dartiness over freeway rain grooves. Bump steer is still an issue, as it appears the suspension geometry has not been significantly altered. But the new R is rock stable at high speeds. The front end nervousness that the base car exhibits around 130 MPH is gone. Pavement ripples no longer traumatize the front suspension.
The newfound power changes the character of the car somewhat. You can steer this car with your right foot. High speed corner exits are extremely stable, as the engine thrust moves quite a bit of weight rearward. Deliberate application of power can settle the car down in the esses, but misjudge the timing and that same power will get you in a lot of trouble in a hurry. Where the base S2000 requires some skill to drive very fast, this new R requires skill, daring, and a modicum of composure once the tach jumps into the VTEC range.
Although the Z06 and M Roadster were provided because they have similar power, a handling comparison is hard to make because the Honda is so much lighter. Around the Streets of Willow course, the Honda simply required less commitment than either of the other two cars. Tailslides and other antics happen often, but are corrected quickly. The fantastic acceleration allows many different lines through a corner to work well, and encourages passing where other drivers might not consider it possible. (Ahem.)
Uehara claimed that unsprung weight was a major focus of the S2000R design team, and it shows: The total unsprung weight at the front is down 35%, and at the back it's down 20%. Considering the larger tires, that's quite an accomplishment. It's also likely to be a good portion of the added cost of the car: the suspension links are all aluminum alloy, as in the NSX, and the halfshafts at the rear are hollow carbon fiber units. The calipers, hubs, and the wheel itself are now thinner and denser forged components, and the rotors now attach to the hubs via stainless steel bushings that look as if they've been lifted from a motorcycle unit. Unsprung weight was the major reason the design team rejected using larger 17 inch wheels, which would have added some more obvious visual distinction to the R.
The sprung weight of the car was reduced dramatically by the use of composites in the chassis. The X-bone frame is now rendered in thin sheets of aramid and carbon fibers bonded to aluminum honeycomb and balsa wood. The balsa wood apparently improves vibration damping and sound isolation without adding weight, a technique borrowed from downhill ski design. The use of advanced materials in the chassis contributed 270 pounds to the R's total weight loss of 430 pounds. Honda claims the R is the stiffest convertible ever made, which jibes well with our impression. On the track, the R felt even more solid than the Corvette coupe.
The cockpit is a very familiar weak point of the car. While the driver's seat is cosy, the tachometer is hard to see if you are over six feet tall, the stereo controls offer no visual feedback and the gas pedal is at least a centimeter too far away from the brake. Though the throttle itself was easy to miss while blipping through downshifts, the right RPMs were not, almost as if the engine electronics were guessing what we were trying to do and matching revs for us.
In fact, they are. We should be embarrassed to admit so, but we found the assisted rev-matching to be a helpful feature since it allowed us as journalists to get farther along the learning curve in the limited time we had with the car.
And that appears to be the whole point of this car. Previous excursions down horsepower lane have led car manufacturers to ever heavier luxury mobiles that try to communicate sportiness by virtue of massive thrust. Honda has taken a different fork of this road, and given us a nimble and highly interactive bantam with a rocket under the hood. The new design style allows ordinary punters to feel some of the sensations normally reserved to F1 pilots, which is definitely something we're enthusiastic about.
|List Price:||$53,200||Price as tested includes standard equipment (dual front airbags, rollover protection, anti-lock brakes, leather upholstery, air conditioning, AM/FM stereo/CD, power mirrors, windows and door locks), and destination charge (est $460)|
|Price as Tested:||$53,660|
I love this car. Yes, the cockpit is still bare, the roof is still too low and the stereo is still a joke. But how many other cars give you full blast air conditioning at an idle? Uh huh. How many of those do a 4 second zero to sixty? Uh huh. How many of those can I afford? One.
I get to feel good driving to work because I'm getting better gas mileage. I get to feel good driving if I'm driving too fast on the weekends because the brakes work even on lousy surfaces. My wife is more likely to drive the car to the supermarket than she is to drive it back to the mechanic, and that makes her feel good.
This car will make an expert driver smile, but it's mostly about giving ordinary drivers some of the feeling of being an expert driver. Subtly assisted rev-matching and shifting is actually really enjoyable, although it's probably not the best car in which to practice your double-clutching technique.
Now if only Honda could get SMA into the Odyssey...
We are entering another pony car era. You can buy 300+ HP cars from all three German sports car manufacturers. Ford and GM are selling 390+ HP musclecars, and Chrysler is happy to ship you a 500 HP Viper. Now the gloves are off in Japan as well.
I like the direction Honda is taking their entry. Technology is a wonderful thing, and I like my antilock brakes, variable valve timing, and variable shock damping as much as the next guy, but nothing makes a car fun to drive like less weight. Power only helps when you accelerate. Brakes only help when you slow down. But slice 400 pounds out of a car and every single component does its job better, including the driver. Superbikes have been getting lighter for the last decade, and it's long since time we got a little old-time religion back into the car business.
Which makes me wonder, what is Honda going to do for the forthcoming reworked NSX? The original was an engineering marvel, but frankly overweight. To justify an asking price presumably 50% higher than that of the S2000R, Honda is going to have to produce a rolling miracle. Alternatively, the NSX may become more of a luxury sports car, and leave the bleeding-knuckle crowd to its new lighter and more furious stablemate.
"The most beautiful things in the world are those from which all excess weight has been removed" -- Henry Ford