- The Washington Times - Friday, March 10, 2000

Even as sport utility vehicles and minivans clutter the automotive landscape, there's a ray of hope: We're in the midst of a sports car renaissance.

As any committed enthusiast will testify, that means just one thing: open, two-seat roadsters.

Mazda resurrected the corpse a decade ago with the Miata, which continues its classic course as one of the best sports cars for the money.

Other manufacturers have followed, however, to the point where there are growing choices for that small band of purists for whom driving is more than simply a way to get from point A to point B.

Chevrolet has the Corvette, Dodge the Viper Roadster and Plymouth the Prowler; Mercedes-Benz offers the SLK, a steel-topped two-seater; BMW has the M Roadster, Z3 and Z8; Audi's contribution is the TT roadster; Porsche sends the 911, Boxster and Boxster S; and now we have an opportunity to sample the new S2000 roadster from Honda of Japan.

This crafty little ragtop, which looks a little like a Viper when coming at you, is powered by a 2-liter (just shy of 2000 cubic centimeters), four-cylinder engine that rasps out a raucous, eye-popping 240 horsepower.

That works out to 120 horsepower per liter or, for you old disciples of big American iron, almost two horsepower per cubic inch. There's no way to embellish that. Plainly put, it's the most power for its size of any natural-breathing production-car engine on the planet.

Honda got its start in motorcycles, and the influence is apparent in the S2000's aluminum power plant. There are 16 variably timed valves operated by chain-driven overhead camshafts, and the redline is near 9,000 rpm.

The maximum horsepower arrives at 8,300 rpm, and the modest 153 foot-pounds of torque comes in at 7,500 rpm. Most of it gets delivered to the rear wheels by way of a six-speed manual transmission. No automatic is offered.

This means that even sports car aficionados will have to relearn their driving styles. No more can you let the engine sounds tell you when to shift. At least initially, you have to rely on the tachometer.

True, the S2000 feels perfectly capable noodling around in the 4,000- to 5,000-rpm band. But the power doesn't really whack you in the shoulder blades until the tach hits about 7,000. Then it's whoopee time.

The engine sets up such a racket you worry that you're trashing the innards. But that's the way it's designed and you soon look for ways to punch it up above seven grand. The noise is worst with the top up.

The six-speed gearbox has a short-throw shift linkage that is stiff but easy to snick through the gears. Reverse, however, is a bit of a pain, requiring a determined yank.

Handling is slot-car accurate, with a rigid, no-shake body, a tightly snubbed suspension system, performance tires that are slightly fatter in back and variable-effort electric-power steering that feels like a manual setup at speed. Be careful of the tires, however. They're great on dry surfaces but slide when it's wet.

The ride is harsh over rough surfaces. That, combined with the overall noise level, might prompt second thoughts about a long trip. Best to think of the S2000 as a weekend toy or short-distance commuter.

There are a few other drawbacks. The doors don't open fully, so getting in and out can be a chore. Though the power drop top moves up or down in under six seconds, it has a plastic rear window that will soon succumb to terminal translucency.

For some weird reason, the stereo face plate has a pop-open cover, and there are redundant controls on the left side of the dash. A lockable glove box is awkwardly located between the seatbacks. The instruments are digital, done up in Halloween and deer-hunting shades of orange on black, and minimal in number. Though they mimic some race-car information systems, and the tach is absolutely necessary, most enthusiasts likely would prefer analog gauges.

Fully equipped, the S2000 lists for $32,477. That includes air conditioning, cruise control, remote locking, an alarm system, power windows and mirrors, and even an old-timey cranking button, in red, labeled "engine start."

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