The 2003 version of the Honda S2000 recently won a comparison test ("The Blow Dryers, " August 2003) among such leading lights as the Porsche Boxster, BMW Z4, Nissan 350Z Touring, and Audi TT roadster. In case you hadn't noticed, some of those cars are newer than the Honda is.
We have more bad news for those guys. There's a revised S2000 coming their way as a 2004 model, and it features a ton of improvements designed to neutralize the few criticisms we had about the old car.
Chief among these are changes to the engine to make the S2000 more flexible at low- and midrange revs without dulling the tumultuous rush at motorcycle-engine speeds that is this car's trademark. Honda did this by increasing the stroke by 6.7 millimeters, thereby bumping displacement from 1997 to 2157cc.
Both VTEC cam profiles were reconfigured, the compression ratio was raised a 10th (to 11.1:1), and the redline was dropped from a strident 8900 rpm to a merely maniacal 8000 rpm. The redline illuminates as a shifter light on the tidy new instrument cluster and then allows another 200 rpm before shutting off the fun.
The result is the same peak output of 240 horsepower, but developed now at 7800 rpm instead of 8300 rpm, and a stronger torque supply that starts and peaks earlier, with 162 pound-feet at 6500 rpm instead of 153 at 7500. Sure, the longer stroke dictated the lower redline, but piston speeds are actually lower in the new car at redline than in the old one. The '03's pistons whiz at 4906 feet per minute at 8900 rpm, whereas the '04's slugs rip along at just 4761 feet per minute at 8000 rpm.
With the same horsepower, the '04 car runs similar 0-to-60-mph and quarter-mile times but aces the '03 model in the 30-to-50-mph and 50-to-70-mph top-gear passes, running 8.8 seconds versus 9.9 and 7.9 seconds versus 9.4, respectively. That's quite remarkable, particularly since sixth gear in the new S2000 is actually now two percent higher. (First through fourth are four percent lower, for better acceleration, with fifth just one percent lower.)
Along with the gearing revisions is a change to carbon-composite synchronizers, allowing the use of double-cone rings where there were triples, and singles where there were doubles, lightening engagements and smoothing the whole process. It was a pretty magnificent gearbox before, so you can imagine how slick it is now. Think snick-snick with a dab of Vaseline.
Because certain owners had discovered inappropriate vehicle rotation at the point of disappearing talent, Honda set about revising the chassis for better at-the-limit stability and more progressive breakaway characteristics. The front suspension wears stiffer springs and retuned shocks, and the rear axle gets softer springs and a smaller anti-roll bar, along with reduced bump-steer responses and a lower roll center.
We didn't think there was much wrong with the previous car's handling, but this one got around the Bragg-Smith racetrack at Pahrump, Nevada, at least as quickly as its '03 forebear, and with a pleasing lack of body roll or power oversteer to boot. (New readers note: That's when your right foot mysteriously steers the rear axle.)
Larger 17-inch wheels with bigger-cross-section, lower-profile tires aid the new suspension setup. They're Bridgestone Potenza RE050s: 45-series 215s in front, 40-series 245s out back; and if you're squealing these tires out on the public road, well, you should be grateful for the new, stable chassis. We couldn't run skidpad tests because our usual venue had just been resealed with shiny, slippery black goop, but we'd guess a 10th or two up on the '03 model's already respectable 0.92 g.