Monday, 20 June 2011

Driven #32:- Honda S2000

I'm not especially easily embarassed. I can't afford to be. I'm tall, with Sideshow Bob size feet, a propensity for making stupid jokes, stupid hair and laughable fashion sense. I'm pretty thick skinned, a defence mechanism I built up, probably because of the points listed above. Basically, I can do things that are quite phenomenally idiotic because I don't mind looking a complete fool.


And yet here I am, in the company of a svelte, trim roadster, on a Sainsbury's fuel forecourt on a beautiful sunny June day, and yet I wish the ground would swallow me up. And all because, for all my experience driving the good, the bad and the ugly, never before have I so comprehensively failed to open a fuel filler cap.

I was quite glad for the fact that there were twenty separate fuel pumps at the garage; during the agonising quarter hour of forlorn searching for a button, tab, lever or switch that might flop the fuel flap open, no queues had formed, people were free to choose another pump. For all my dalliance, I had inconvenienced nobody and had gone essentially unnoticed. My pride, though, was in tatters.

To make matters worse, I couldn't find the owners manual, either. Expecting this to still be on my colleagues desk back at base, I called to see if somebody could search through it for a clue, any clue that help me drizzle unleaded into the tank. No help was forthcoming; the manual was nowhere to be seen. Instead, my colleague had a good old google for it. Many different Honda forums came up with many different answers to the problem, each one more indistinct than the next. What is it about online forums where even the most simple of answers is garbled so as to become almost useless? Everything was contradictory; the fuel flap lever was either on the floor by the drivers door, or the passenger door on LHD cars, or it was in the console between the seats, or it was above the drivers (or passengers) head, in the corner somewhere. They also revealed that the owners book-pack was hidden under a secret flap. WHERE? What bloody flap?

“Have you got any fuel left?”

“Well, it says empty, but it still runs.” According to the LCD fuel gauge, I had zero of the ten bars of fuel remaining. No litres. Nada. Must have just been the fuel in the line remaining. Still, I figured I might just drive the bloody thing back to base, only a few hundred yards away, and we could search for the answer between us.

I arrived. He came straight out. I told him I'd found the owners manual (turned out to be under the boot floor). He opened the drivers door, crouched down a bit, and there, on the slam panel just to the right of the drivers shoulder, was a tiny black plastic nub with the legend FUEL embossed in shallow, indistinct print. He pulled it a centimetre or so; it felt flaccid, impotent. We returned to the fuel filler cap, which we now, unexpectedly, found open.

“How fucking stupid”.

Still, it gave me a terrific little anecdote to use in dinner parties for the rest of my life. It was also quite a good metaphor for the whole ethos of the Honda S2000, that pert little car I was endeavouring to fuel.

The S2000 is Hondas take on the Z4, Boxster, Mercedes SLK class of indulgent upper middle-class sports car. The recipe is similar but the presentation totally different. There is none of the flamboyance of the Germans, everything about it is calculated and necessary. It exudes a very crisp, clean classiness, the deeply chiselled front corners making for a bow section almost hexagonal if looked at in plan view.
Inside, astonishingly I found an acceptable driving position reasonably easily. I mean, it’s not Bentley-like but felt more sports-car than go-kart. I would later emerge two hundred miles down the road without deep-vein thrombosis or any notable aches or pains.

Aside from the ergonomic tomfoolery I opened this story with, it feels like Honda have at least made some kind of effort with the S2000 cabin. On the door kick-strip is a proud announcement of “S2000, Manufactured by Honda Motor Co.” Well, duh. Thankfully, the cabin materials are robust and agreeable to the touch, even if they’re more Jet-Ski than Jaguar.

The instrument pod, an LCD effort straight out of the late 80s, resplendent in luminescent red and orange, is as amusing as it is daft. It certainly puts you in mind of Honda’s Fireblade sports-bikes, as you watch each tiny segment of the rev-counter illuminate with every 100 revs accrued. I like it, although it is ultimately pointless. Also of questionable merit is the Engine Start button, which doesn’t really serve any purpose since you’ve already had to insert a key and twist it to arm the ignition circuits anyway. Additionally, to stop the car you still have to turn the key in the reverse direction, pressing the Engine Start button again just causes the starter motor to spin in futility. I suppose it’s more fun, and sportier, pressing a button than twisting a key.

Less pointless is the way that literally all the controls you need are grouped around the steering wheel. To your right are the audio controls (basically radio band and volume) and to your left are the ventilation controls. The A/C, incidentally, is excellent. Down towards the transmission tunnel is a flap displaying yet another S2000 logo. Open this and the CD/Radio reveals itself, again looking somewhat lost in time and betraying the fact the S2000 enjoyed quite a long production run. Nevertheless, I found that it sounded excellent, well up to the task of disguising the not inconsiderable thrash metal soundtrack.

Once fired up and under way I soon realise that the S2000 doesn't naturally gel with my typical driving style, but I could certainly learn to get used to it. In fact, even treating it like an idiot, driving brainlessly with the same technique I use in any other garden variety car, it feels perfectly capable. In terms of outright motivation it feels like a slightly torque-castrated MX5, and thanks to the four-cylinder layout and fruitily tuned exhaust, sounds rather like one too.

But the chance is that if you own one of these you'll have learned how to drive one properly. Towards the end of my three hour drive, I think I was coming close. Of course, being a petrol Honda powerplant this has VTEC, their proprietary variable intake system. And in this car the effect is more pronounced than most. As I say, driven ignorantly this car feels like any other lightweight two-litre sports car. But the magic happens when you see just under 100mph on the speedo, and then you realise you're still in third gear

This engine offers you one of the most extraordinary automotive experiences out there. It works equally in all other gears of course, but as a showcase; drop into third at moderate speed, say eighteen hundred revs, then floor it through three, four, five and six thousand revs per minute. You're moving now, and the engine is screaming a happy song of four well sorted cylinders. Except it hasn't stopped revving; not even slightly. In fact now, suddenly, just after six thousand revs, you feel your head pushed back into the restraint slightly harder than before, an unexpected surge in acceleration taking you towards seven thousand revs. And then eight thousand, and amazingly it doesn't let up until nine thousand frantic revs are showing on the dial. And then you change into fourth and do it all again. It's a thoroughly addictive experience, and one that leaves you wishing for more road to play with. 

It's amazing, but it can also be frustrating if you're unused to such a high revving engine. On a cross-country dash, choose the wrong gear and all too often you find yourself missing out on that fabulous top end, the next corner coming up too soon leaving your experience no richer than in any other moderately quick roadster. Get it right, though, and the reward is enormous.

Happily, this combines well with what is possibly the best front end grip I've felt in anything that didn't say Lotus or Caterham on its nose. Turn-in gives new meaning to the term “crisp” and the beautiful little three-spoke steering wheel has you utterly informed of the latest mid-corner developments. The rest of the handling is naturally terrific, again you could liken it to an MX5 that had somehow become enlightened and bestowed with magical powers.

I could very easily, and accurately, proclaim this as one of the finest, best developed and most capable and appealing cars I have ever spent time with. But I won't because of the ways it makes you suffer for its art. I've already mentioned the fuel filler cap release which is inexcusably daft, but a small point in the great scheme of things. More serious is how a big chunk of the drivers footwell is eaten by a sizeable chunk of transmission bulging up through the floor, no doubt only on RHD models. 

Also disappointing was the gearbox. The ratios are perfectly spaced, the alloy gearknob feels tiny and cold and gorgeous, but the shift action itself, while direct and accurate, is too stiff and too notchy to allow a novice to get straight down to business. Now, if you've read my account of the BMW Z4M you'll know that I like a 'box that reminds you just how much stuff there is going on in there; a bit of feeling is nice to have as gears mesh and forks engage. But in this case, on a car with such pronounced top-end fizz, you really want a change that's light and fuss-free. You don't want to have to think about your gearchange, especially when the clutch is so perfect and there are nine thousand revs to monitor.

And it should be mentioned, too, that the S2000 is unlikely to suffer fools too gladly. I got a taste for how it could catch out the unwary when I had to grab a “dab of oppo” on leaving a diesel-lubed roundabout on the A5. Fortunately I was able to just accelerate out of it, but had I been a gear lower and beyond that VTEC threshold, I doubt I would have been able to gather it up at all. That 6000rpm+ spike in power is so profound that I'll wager it can break traction when the conditions are unfavourable. Take heed; the Honda can bite.

I like this car an awful, awful lot. It's a wild child, a by-product of Honda's vast racing experience, and definitely worthy of respect, appreciation and, indeed, lust. But it really is a bit wasted on me. I rarely take my own car beyond five thousand revs, for reasons of “mechanical sympathy”. I am for ever in fear of one of my pistons letting go and bits of engine following it through the bonnet and up into a low Earth orbit. I know it won't happen, but not pushing it too hard too often should reduce that risk still further. Regardless what I drive I tend to drive on the torque 80% of the time and use peak power for just the occasional daring overtake or full-bore standing start.

The VTEC doesn't become a VTEC without half a dozen thousand revs going on, which means it's designed to be revved like that; it thrives on it. And I know that these advanced Honda engines have
a very low failure rate indeed. But on my journey today, seeking to really gain some insight via a country road short-cut, I found myself slipping the clutch for a seamless hi-rev cog-change and my nostrils were immediately filled with the acrid singed-fish odour of hot clutch, causing me to wonder just how often a clumsy oaf like me could be expected to get away with this kind of behaviour.

But, no doubt you're a better driver than me. In which case the S2000 will facilitate some of the most entertaining corner-to-corner shenanigans you'll ever be party to. For me it joins the long list of cars I'm delighted to have sampled, but never need to own.