ATLANTA - Imagine a roadster, lightweight and frisky, with a low-emission four-cylinder engine spinning frantically at 9,000 rpm and generating 240 hp and 25 mpg, with responsive cornering and braking.
For 30 grand.
Honda again has raised the bar in the sports-car world, returning the Japanese high-performance car to prominence after near extinction earlier this decade.
'This is a world-class roadster, a true driver's car, the ultimate expression of Honda heritage and technology,' said Dan Bonawitz, American Honda vice president of vehicle operations and head of product planning. 'We're not afraid of head-to-head competition.'
Indeed, Honda allowed journalists at the press launch here to tear around the Road Atlanta racetrack in the S2000 as well as in the Porsche Boxster and six-cylinder version of the BMW Z3. The latter cars cost $8,000 to $15,000 more than the $30,000 the S2000 will sticker for when it goes on sale in September.
In the eyes of some journalists, the Honda more than held its own.
Dealers are sensing a buzz, too. For the first time, Honda Division is telling dealers exactly what their annual allocation will be. They don't want dealers making unkeepable promises to customers.
Honda will sell only 5,000 of the roadsters a year in America. Every dealer will get at least one, but volume dealers obviously will get the lion's share of the allocation. Rather than alienate customers they can't satisfy, smaller dealers are considering charity raffles, with their only S2000 as the prize.
The target audience is about 40 years old. Honda expects 70 percent to be male, 70 percent married and 75 percent to have finished college. The households will earn more than $100,000 a year.
Since the car already is sold out, Honda will not have to market the S2000 much, at least initially. While Honda cannot prohibit dealers from marking up the sticker price, executives said they will watch the market closely to see if there is gouging.
'Judging by the initial reaction, I wish we could get 20,000 units. But the S2000 was not designed to be a high-volume car. It was designed to be a driver's car,' Bonawitz said.
Because there is such demand, Honda is making it a one-trim-level car, with standard leather seats, limited-slip differential, 16-inch wheels, antilock brakes, high-intensity headlights, air conditioning, cruise control, air deflector, remote door locks with immobilizer system, CD player with remote audio controls and power everything.
SPECIAL VENT SYSTEM
The car will accelerate from zero to 60 in well under six seconds. The ragtop roof will close automatically in less than six seconds as well. The six-speed shifter is directly linked to the transmission for a more controlled feel, unlike today's shift-by-wire systems, and has throws as short as a Mazda Miata's.
There even is a special vent system setting for when the ragtop is down that directs air directly at the torsos of the occupants.
Although Honda executives said there was no car on the market during development that served as a benchmark, several vehicles were admired for their sports-car essence - such as the Lotus Elise and Caterham Super 7, said Ryoji Tsukamoto, assistant chief engineer at Honda R&D North America Inc.
Honda focused on the feeling of delivering driving pleasure by concentrating on acceleration, braking, cornering, wind management and a direct-shift feel.
Creating a perfect 'polar moment of inertia' to make the car handle as neutrally as possible was a high priority, Tsukamoto said.
Achieving a 50-50 weight distribution took it part of the way. Then adding a double wishbone suspension, rigid body, X-shaped chassis and electronically controlled rack-and-pinion steering allowed the S2000 to have immediate steering response without being twitchy or unstable.
But no engine, outside the motorcycle realm, could create the kind of four-cylinder power at high revolutions that Honda wanted. So it was in relatively uncharted turf there. The engine generates the most horsepower per liter of any normally aspirated engine ever built for a production car.
Since the engine was a one-off design built specifically for the S2000, it obviously made development costs higher than normal - although Honda declined to give a specific dollar amount. Consider it an expensive 50th anniversary present from Honda to the world.