Planning the Future

Often when people turn 50 years old they decide to treat themselves to a little gift. That tradition was the genesis of the Honda S2000 sports car. It was designed to celebrate Honda's 50th anniversary, and it was first shown in the 1995 Tokyo Motor Show as the "sports study model," a kind of gift Honda gave itself. Even then, it was destined for production with three key markets in mind: Asia, Western Europe and North America.

Recently Driving Today got the opportunity to speak with the key American product planner behind the S2000, Peter Rech, who is assistant product planning manager for Honda cars and trucks. And he told us the key difference between the S2000 and other two-seat sports cars in the market today is Honda's race-bred engineering.

"The car was designed to bring Honda's racing spirit to the street," he said. "It epitomizes the engineering that has made Honda such a strong factor in Formula One and CART racing."

According to Rech the S2000 uses state-of-the-art tech to deliver the most advanced "sporty" handling on the road today.

"We wanted to bring the pleasure of driving to a wide range of audiences," he said.

The sports study model that appeared on the show stand in Tokyo in 1995 was a striking image, but the designers knew that some changes would be necessary to make the car a success in the steaming cauldron that is today's sports car market, a market that includes great products from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Mazda. One of the first things to go was the unique "double-cabin" configuration intended to give the car a true racing car feel. But separating the driver from the passenger proved to be too radical idea even for this leading-edge design.

Still, even though the twin-cabin motif disappeared, the S2000 is still as close as you can get to a formula race car and still be street legal. And Honda technical innovation is in evidence throughout.

Take, for example, the lightweight, all-alloy 2-liter engine. Most advanced 2-liters these days produce 130-150 horsepower. The S2000's four cylinder engine wrings out an amazing 240 horsepower. How? By using racing technology - components like forged pistons and roller cams. To keep it all very light, the materials used are all F1 spec.

Backing up the over-achieving engine is a close-ratio 6-speed manual transmission that also owes its inspiration to racing. With the gear ratios tight and the throws very short, skillful drivers will find themselves losing very few rpm with each shift, and keeping that sweet engine at full song near its 9,000-rpm redline is one way to keep the countryside moving by very rapidly. Just to give you a little taste of its prowess, the 0-60-mph sprint can be made in under six seconds - supercar-caliber acceleration.

Of course, power means very little if the chassis and suspension can't keep the car glued to the pavement. That's another area where the S2000 shines.

First, even though we live in an age of front-wheel-drive, this car was designed from the beginning as a rear-drive platform. Going that route made it considerably more expensive to engineer and develop, but the results are something no heavily tweaked front-drive passenger car could ever dream of.

The "X-Bone" chassis is exceedingly stiff, and its high torsional rigidity allows the suspension componentry to work to the optimum. And, as Rech said, Honda didn't skimp at all on the suspension design. Both front and rear are all-independent, double-wishbone designs: race-proven technology engineered with race-proven lightweight materials. The design and engineering were so flawless that the S2000 offers perfect 50/50 front/rear weight distribution.

Most sports cars that approach the S2000's performance numbers beat their drivers up with an uncomfortable ride and appalling lack of creature comforts, but, for all of the S2000's single-minded pursuit of the racing car ethos, Rech insisted that it still be a civilized car in which to ride.

"In positioning the car at this price point, I knew we had to have features like limited-slip [differential], a power top and leather seats," Rech said.

Honda is known for its top-of-the-line interior ergonomics, but the S2000 takes its reputation one step further. Every lever and control seems to be just an extension of the driver. One example Rech cited are the steering-wheel-mounted radio controls that allow you to change stations and settings without ever diverting your attention from where it belongs - down the road. The pedals are positioned to encourage drivers to "heel-and-toe" to keep the revs percolating, and the perforated leather seats grip you like a giant driving glove.

With all this emphasis on performance one might guess that the S2000 comes up short in other areas, like its attention to the environment or occupant safety, but Rech says it has those bases covered, too. The S2000 is certified as a LEV (low-emission vehicle) thanks to its high-tech computerized engine controls and new-age catalytic converter. The S2000 is also highly rated in terms of its side-impact protection, an especially difficult feat for a small, lightweight vehicle.

So after all the planning sessions were over and the design was locked in, did the production S2000 live up to its American product planner's hopes and dreams? Absolutely, according to Rech.

"The feeling of being connected to the car is like no other I've ever driven," he said. "The engine and transmission are so well synced that it's just like driving a race car."

The S2000 went on sale in North America on September 16 and with only 5,000-6,000 of its 15,000-unit annual production destined for North America, it seems likely to be in short-supply throughout the model year. At just $32,000, it offers all the high-tech componentry of an exoticar at a fraction of the cost, and, on top of that, it delivers the quality and reliability of a Honda - quite a parlay.

As we said, the S2000 was designed as a present Honda gave itself for its 50th birthday, and it's our guess the S2000 is likely to be a birthday gift many 50-year-olds give themselves.