After driving the '04 S2000 in the twisty mountain roads of Southern California, it was time to test the cars beyond 8/10ths and to push the limits to 10/10ths. We drive from LA to San Diego to attend an autocross held by the TART/SCNAX autocross club. A huge thanks to the club for letting us run and also to Randy Chase (developer of the Concecam which we use for some video shots) for helping me get registered.
I had been driving the '04 on the streets of California for a solid 2 days so I had a good taste of the capabilities of the car on the stock tires. I will defer to Shawn and Jeff on the driving impressions of the '04 on the OEM street tires. I will focus on how the cars perform at an autocross where we would use the same 205-55-16 front and 245-45-16 rear RA1 tires on the stock '00 wheels for both cars. I wanted to discover the capabilities of the car with stickier tires than street tires. Ideally, we would have used a more traditional autocross tire like the Kumho or Hoosier on their respective sized wheels on both cars. However, we don't have that luxury. Take this comparison for what it is: a subjective comparison between the two cars using the same exact tires on this particular autocross course.
The '04 is completely stock from Honda. We did not get the chance to put the '04 on an alignment rack to check the alignment, but we suspect it's a very conservative alignment. The '00 had just a slightly more aggressive alignment than stock, but not really close to what a full-on dedicated autocross car would be set at. The '00 also had a cold air intake. I will analyze the capabilities of both cars at several parts of the autocross course.
Launching at the Start
On the first run of the '04, I purposely used a conservative launch of 4000 rpm. This spun up the tires briefly and once the tires grabbed, there was just the smallest hint of hesitation before the car rocketed back up to redline. I did this with the '00 and it bogged noticeably more. The '04 is definitely much easier to launch and was in the meat of it's power very quickly, while with the '00, you'll have to launch with a higher rpm to keep the engine on boil. Different launch techniques for the cars are called for, but the ability to power out once the tires hooked up on the '04 gives it the edge here.
The 1st to 2nd Gear Change
After the initial left turn at the start, we go up hill slightly for a short straight where you will shift from 1st to 2nd in a straight line. The redline mark on the '04 tachometer is directly at the top of the instrument panel. I like to sit very upright when I'm racing, so the top of the steering wheel blocks my view of the redline demarcation! This is very important to me because the '04 has a lower redline and fuel cutoff is much earlier than the '00. The fuel cutoff occurs practically right after redline. Knowing when you're about to hit redline becomes critical and the placement of the tach is not conducive to this. I had to tilt my head severely for a split second to see when the revs got near the redline to know when to shift.
The '00 has the redline towards the right of the instrument panel which allows me to more easily see the redline. Additionally, you have a few more revs to play with before the fuel is cut off. I nail the shift on the '00 every time, whereas I admit to shifting a couple hundred rpms early on my first run on the '04. Drivers simply need to reacquaint themselves with the redline characteristics of the '04, but the better tachometer positioning (for me) and the extra "over-rev" capability of the '00 gives the '00 the edge here.
Medium Right-Hand Sweeper Entrance
This right-hand sweeper requires partial throttle and then full throttle as soon as possible to make a good run to the long straight after the exit. The '04 was very neutral and predictable on turn-in for the entrance of the sweeper. In fact it felt too tame for me on the first run so I pushed it even harder on subsequent runs. I remembered thinking to myself: "Wow, what a great confidence builder!" However, the car felt like I had to tip-toe around the turn a little bit because it was starting to push as I went faster. The front tires just didn't seem like they had enough grip. Perhaps it was the small 205-55-16 RA1 tires. Perhaps the conservative stock alignment of the '04 was the issue and the tire's contact patch was simply not optimal enough under load to provide enough front traction. Perhaps it's a matter of both. At least the fresher shocks on the '04 lets you know exactly when the tires lose grip. Just like the '00, the '04 will require a more aggressive alignment to wring out the best performance of the car on the autocross. For this part of the course, it's another tie.
Middle of Sweeper
The '00 entered the sweeper nicely and maintained its speed well. There was a little bit more body roll but the car felt solid once the car took a set. Possibly the extra negative camber of the '00 and the softer, worn out original 45,000 mile shocks allowed the weight transfer to occur more quickly and take a set. The '04 felt stable with just a hint of understeer if you were not smooth with the gas pedal. I will call this a draw too.
Exiting the Sweeper
Powering out of the sweeper, the '04 was superior with its higher torque and relatively stable rear. The '04 accelerated onto the straight with authority. The '00 required just a little bit longer delay because it was under VTEC in 2nd gear. However, the accelerator pedal to throttle response ratio of the '04 felt different from the '00 here. Does the gas pedal displacement to throttle response ratio on the '04 have a sharper curve than the '00? This bears more investigation, but I was noticing that I had to modulate the throttle differently than the '00. Advantage to the '04 for it's ability to power out so well.
Screaming Down the Straightaway
Again I had to tilt my head to see when to shift from 2nd to 3rd in the '04. Maybe this action caused me to miss my shift as I could not get it into 3rd gear anyhow. Alas, it was probably pointless anyway as I was already fast approaching the braking point before the turn in for the 90 degree left hander. On my fastest run, I just simply left it in 2nd gear and bounced off the rev limiter a few times though I probably could have cut my time by a couple of tenths if I got a good 2-3 shift AND a good subsequent heel-toe downshift back to 2nd.
The '00 simply lef me wind out 2nd gear all the way to the fuel cutoff. This straight was perhaps the best case scenario for the '00. The tachometer on the '00 was flashing wildly just as I reached my braking point for the left hand turn. On this particular length of straight, the '00's higher speed capability in 2nd gear ruled. No need to short shift or do an extra up/downshift.
3 Cone Slalom
The three cone slalom became a simple two cone slalom by trail braking deep pass the first cone. As a result, my impression of the slalom capability of the '04 is limited. In this situation, the '04 did exhibit a more stable rear during the hard trail brake around the 2nd cone. With the '04's fresher shocks, it felt better, but I believe I got about the same time in this very short slalom on both cars. With the '04's better stability in the rear, it would fare a little bit better on a longer slalom course. This may be a toss up, but the slower steering ratio of the '04 may be affect it on longer slaloms. I will have to wait for another event with a longer slalom to prove this out. For now, I will declare it a tie on this particular part of the course.
Rest of Course
The rest of the course was fairly non-technical. I did notice that our '04 requires a more deft application of the throttle. When the car is at max cornering load, you have to be careful of any abrupt additional throttle applications because it can transition to slight understeer. Again, you can probably dial out this with more negative camber up front.
The '04's higher torque at lower rpms is definitely very useful if you are ever in a situation that forces you to be at low rpms. If you are able to maintain the revs of the '00 above 6000 rpms, then the acceleration through corners is just as good as the '04. I'll say again that having the extra 1000 rpm on the '00 is very nice to play with and is an asset depending on the course.
The slower steering ratio of the '04 did not noticeably affect the '04's performance on course since most of the turns were not too tight. The slower ratio may actually help with the propensity of some drivers to over correct with the steering wheel.
On this particular course, the '04 was really hampered by it's conservative alignment and it's lower redline combined with the shorter gearing. The alignment is easily fixable, but the lower redline would take some getting used to. Some courses may require an extra shift, so make sure you get good at the heel/toe downshift. Note, that if someone has never driven a pre-'04 S2000, the extra revs would never even be missed!
Overall, the '04 is a better platform to autocross with than the pre-'04, though this may take a little bit of development time with the car to bear this out. The '04's handling balance, torquey engine, great shifter, and large wide wheels will enable it to do extremely well. Being able to fit larger race tires on the +0.5" and +1.0" wider front and rear wheels respectively will be a signficant asset. In the mean time, I'll be doing more development with my '00 in hopes of keeping up. :-)
Notice that I did not even mention what times I got in either car. What's more important is the characteristics of the car at each corner and whether it fits your driving style better or can lead you to have more confidence in the car. I believe more people than ever will be able extract the max performance out of this car while still being an incredibly rewarding car for more advanced drivers. You can't fault that. Great job, Honda.