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Honda S2000

Las Vegas—

When the S2000 debuted four years ago, it screamed its way into automotive enthusiasts' hearts with a racing-derived engine singing a 9000-rpm song, a hyper-alert chassis, and a driver-focused cabin equipped with bespoke if somewhat bizarre instruments. We last spent time with the S2000 only three months ago, when we tested a 2003 model against the new Nissan 350Z roadster, the Porsche Boxster, and the BMW Z4 ("Four of a Kind," August 2003). During that comparison, the S2000 performed brilliantly on the racetrack, where it demonstrated sharper reflexes than Venus Williams and a ballerina-like ability to pivot about its axis, but the price for the high revs and the track-time smiles was a shortage of low-end torque and a surplus of road noise from the powerful but frenetic 2.0-liter four-cylinder. We deemed the wee Honda "a specialized car for specialized circumstances."

Overly harsh? Harsh is what happens to your eardrums after you drive the old S2000 for a couple of hours on the freeway, because the VTEC engine delivers the goods only between 6000 and 9000 rpm. Clearly, we were not the only people bothered by the flight of the bumblebees, because chief among a PowerPoint presentation's worth of changes for the 2004 S2000 is a bigger, quieter, calmer, and torquier engine. With an increase in the piston stroke from 84.0 mm to 90.7 mm, the S2000's engine now displaces almost 2200 cubic centimeters, rather than 2000, but the name is unchanged. Power remains the same at 240 horsepower but peaks at a slightly more peaceful 7800 rpm versus 8300 rpm. Torque rises slightly, from 153 to 161 pound-feet, and peaks at 6500 versus 7500 rpm.

The S2000 now launches with considerably more verve, and its power band is more flexible between 1000 and 5000 rpm. The car is also more civilized on the highway, partly as a result of a slightly higher sixth-gear ratio. On an early-morning foray into the red-rock canyons outside Las Vegas, my co-driver and I spoke, rather than yelled, to each other in the top-down cabin.

The new S2000 still lives for track time. Switching back and forth between 2003 and 2004 models at Spring Mountain Motorsports Park, we found things to like about both cars. The old car's smaller, narrower tires (205/55R-16 front, 225/50R-16 rear) allow for easier sliding around corners, which is an enjoyable way to spend three seconds of your life, if not always the most efficient way to get from apex to apex. And there were times in the 2004 car when it really could have used the extra 1000 revolutions of the outgoing car's engine—the redline is now only 8000 rpm.

But to the new car's credit, the engine's greater grunt provides better acceleration out of slow-speed corners, and the newly standard seventeen-inch rubber—215/45R-17 front, 245/40R-17 rear—provides better grip both diving into and barreling out of turns. We could not detect any differences between gearboxes—for 2004, the first five forward gears are lower—but the old gearbox was already super-sweet. The steering feels identical, a bit dead on-center but otherwise quite communicative. Brakes, as before, are great, and the S2000 remains a heel-and-toe champ. Honda claims a 0-to-60-mph time of less than six seconds, and the car feels as light and lithe as ever. Curb weight rises a scant 24 pounds to 2835, mainly because of the bigger footwear.

The S2000, although attractive enough, always has been afraid to make a visual show of itself—the wrong idea for a topless ride. Honda tries to make things more interesting for '04, but it's more of a Botox treatment than a comprehensive face-lift. Front and rear bumpers are new, oval tailpipes replace round, and both headlights and taillights have more modern triple-beam designs. All other body panels, even the hood, are unchanged.

The red starter button and most other interior controls carry over, but thinner door panels increase elbow and shoulder room slightly, fake aluminum trim brightens up the cabin, and there are now two cup holders, one for your Evian and one for your cell phone. By definition, all roadsters are "specialized cars for specialized circumstances," yet the circumstances under which the S2000 can be driven comfortably have expanded to include roads that don't have candy-striped curbs in the corners. But when it's time for a completely new S2000, we'd like to see some styling with as much attitude as the rest of the car.

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