Sheer driving excitement alone wasn't enough to outweigh the usual two seater convertible issues of space, price and practicality when members of the New Zealand Motoring Writers' Guild named Honda's S2000 the 1999 Car of the Year.
Enthralling to drive it certainly is but more importantly the S2000 signposts the future of high-performance cars. An engine that willingly screams to a 9000rpm red line - yet meets the world's strictest emission regulations and demands no sacrifice of everyday refinement - underscores the S2000's mean and green theme.
From a mere 1997cc the four-cylinder S2000 engine develops 177kW at 8300rpm and peak torque of 212Nm at 7500rpm. There's no turbocharger or supercharger under its bonnet either; only the deep-breathing and hard-revving punch of Honda's VTEC variable valve-lift and cam-timing technology.
The S2000 engine is an extremely compact and lightweight all-alloy twin cam. It has slightly over-square bore and stroke dimensions of 87mm x 84mm and an 11.0:1 compression ratio. It produces a specific power output of 88.5kW per litre which raises the benchmark for naturally-aspirated production cars and approaches some pretty good motorcycle engines.
As a comparison, the new 5.7-litre Chevrolet Gen III alloy V8 in the Holden Commodore would need to produce just over 500kW (rather than its actual 220 kW) to rival the Honda's level of efficiency. Yet the S2000 powerplant also meets California's strict Low Emission Vehicle (LEV) classification. By doing so it makes a significant step toward safeguarding the future of high-performance cars which have a viable long-term future only if they can co-exist alongside 21st Century environmental responsibility.
Besides being mean and clean the other achievement of the S2000 powerplant is its driveability. Only a few years ago the only way a 2.0-litre engine could produce 240 brake horsepower was with multiple carburettors, extreme camshaft profiles and compression ratios, and free-flow extractor exhausts.
They were noisy engines and would idle reluctantly - usually with the engine rocking on its mountings. Driving away from standstill and at low speeds required specialist techniques, needing clutch blips to keep the revs up. You could easily foul the sparkplugs; and keeping the engine properly tuned would usually demand regular and expensive expert attention.
In contrast the S2000 is as easy to drive down to the local shops as any Honda Civic would be. The engine remains docile and flexible until it's provoked and is perfectly happy to drive away from standstill at just a touch above idle speed. In everyday driving the mid-range performance matches that of any modern and two-litre 16-valver.
Stir it along with the six-speed gearbox, and from about 5000rpm it has a keen edge and from 7000rpm to that nine grand red line the engine is shrieking with delight at maximum valve lift and overlap. It's easy to focus on the story beneath the lightweight alloy bonnet but there's plenty more to the S2000 repertoire.
A new six-speed gearbox was developed specially for the car. An ultra short-shift action encourages exploration of the gear ratios and shifting simply for the enjoyment of enjoying the enormous range of the engine.
At other times, it's the lack of gear changes which impresses. Find a truly serpentine stretch of road and second gear demonstrates the vast elasticity of the engine by providing a useable speed range - in second gear - from around 25km/h to 105km/h, the engine happy at whatever revs are demanded.
Front engine and rear-wheel drive is a configuration ignored by Honda since the innovative S600 and S800 sports cars of the 1960s. Choosing it for the S2000 not only achieves a return to traditional sports car layout but also a 50:50 front/rear weight distribution.
In Japan late last year I was lucky enough to drive an S2000 on a Honda test track, getting the chance to explore its handling at a level well beyond the scope of the open road. It took only the first few gearchanges and a couple of corners to start getting in tune with the car. The chassis balance is superb and the precision responses to small throttle and steering inputs make it possible to adjust line in closing and opening radius corners without unsettling the car.
A too-quick entry into a tightening bend followed by a throttle lift provoked the rear-end to step-out slightly, but it was easily countered by simply unwinding a touch of steering. The stability under hard braking inspired confidence, the steering accurate but without the intimate road feel a sports car should really deliver.
Acceleration out of the slow corners is assisted by a Torsen limited-slip differential, and balancing the S2000 on a touch of second gear power-oversteer was probably the highlight of the test track session.
I believe a crucial part of the S2000's communicative handling comes from not being over-tyred. The Bridgestone Potenza S-02 rubber is 205/55 R16 at the front and 225/50 R16 at the rear.
It's plenty of top quality rubber but not too much. There's no noticeable tram-lining over uneven surfaces and the overall feel of the car tells you it's a combination of ideal weight distribution, well-tuned double wishbone suspension and tyre choice - rather than sheer grip alone - which makes the S2000 work so entertainingly.
Honda has developed what it calls a High X-Bone frame structure to ensure chassis stiffness. The double-wishbone suspension is firm and the small amount of body movement happens very progressively. Yet the ride is not uncomfortably hard, and the suspension makes an accomplished job of smoothing out uneven surfaces and level changes.
The driving position is low and the cockpit a snug fit in true two-seater sports car style. There is particularly good shape and support from the leather seats, and with the roof raised there's still adequate headroom for taller drivers.
Luggage capacity is for people practised in the art of travelling light. The boot is small (only 152 litres) and though it's reasonably deep in the centre, the spare wheel intrudes into the useable space. You'll squeeze several soft bags into it, but it's not really suitable for anything larger.
The S2000's soft-top is electrically-operated and is secured by two simple latches at the top corners of the windscreen pillars. Provided you've already removed the rear tonneau cover the operation can be completed without leaving your seat.
But there's one trick to remember. Confirmation that the car is stationary comes from a handbrake sensor. The handbrake must be on before the roof electrics will work. At 100km/h the S2000 offers reasonably good wind protection as long as the side windows are raised, but some turbulence swirls in around the back of the discreet roll-over hoops.
It's a measure of the S2000's appeal that I wanted to drive it with the roof down whenever possible. The novelty of some convertibles can wear thin quickly, and they can become tiresome. The only time the roof went up on the Honda was when the weather demanded it and after dark.
With the roof raised rear quarter visibility becomes limited and reversing out of angle parks into the traffic flow can prove a difficult exercise. When it comes to criticisms the lack of steering column adjustment seems an obvious oversight, and the Honda's digital speedometer and LCD bar graph tachometer seem starkly out of character in a car which really deserves a couple of polished-alloy rimmed analogue gauges to match the drilled pedal set and gearshift knob.
With a $67,990 price tag, the S2000 demands a strong equipment package to match its stand-out looks and performance. It doesn't disappoint. The standard specification includes leather-upholstered sports seats, ABS anti-skid brakes, dual airbags, air-conditioning, power windows, remotely-controlled central door-locking with immobiliser and alarm, a leather-trimmed steering wheel and a two-speaker radio/cassette sound system.
The option list is short offering the choice of a six-disc Compact Disc sticker, a boot spoiler, side skirt and front under skirt kit, and a titanium gear knob. There's also a six-spoke BBS forged-alloy wheel option with a more open design than the standard five-spoke wheel. It costs $2000.
At the end of a drive it's the breadth of the S2000's performance which ranks as its most impressive attribute.
The smooth transition from civilised runabout to hard-edged high-performance car is achieved through a recipe of state-of-the-art performance technology and the classic elements of sports car design. It's one of the most involving and rewarding cars on sale and the undoubted star of the 1999 crop.