The Fast and the AmishFollowing the customary technical briefing, our small group of journalists filed into a selection of 2008 S2000s for a drive route that would take us from Columbus into the Amish countryside of central Ohio, where we would weave around smushed horse pies (and their sources), before stopping for a respite at a small lakeside park, where we would switch cars and then point them towards Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, our final destination for the weekend. (The only catch was that we arrived with the cars at Mid-Ohio on Saturday just after noon, but we couldn't actually drive them again until Monday, after all those pesky ALMS and Indy cars had finished up with their business on Saturday and Sunday. I have to say that this was one of the coolest press trips that I've been fortunate enough to be a part of - for our accommodations we each had a rented RV parked trackside right past the bridge at turn 1.)
Fortunately, my driving partner on the street portion managed to secure a CR for the first segment of our route. More often than not, these ride and drives have fairly balanced drive routes, where you set off in one car for some number of miles, then reach a car change point and finish up the route in another car (hopefully of a different trim level) covering roughly the same distance. Then every so often, you have less balanced drive routes, where the car switch point gives you much more time in one car than another. Sometimes this works out in your favor, and sometimes it doesn't. On this occasion, it worked out in our favor, and we spent more quality time with the CR.
During this portion of the drive route, the CRs all had the hardtops installed, and one of the first things I noticed was that the S2000 CR is indeed a fairly loud vehicle - the fixed roof seemed to amplify just about everything. Of course, the sounds are mostly composed of mechanical purity, which is music to my ears - your mileage might vary, however. The second thing I noticed (from the passenger seat) was that even though the CR is mechanically identical to the base S2000 in terms of drivetrain, the tug from the motor felt quite spirited and somehow stronger than a run of the mill S2000, but then again, I rarely find myself in the passenger seat of an S2000.
When it was my turn to take the helm, everything felt very familiar, and very good. Now that I was behind the wheel, I was able to get a feel for the CR's steering - I was never fully onboard with the AP2s switch to a slower ratio, so having the AP1's quicker ratio back is a big plus in my book. While I wouldn't mind a bit more effort and a touch more feel, the steering responds quickly, directly, and naturally. Visibility with the hard top on was acceptable, and surprisingly the huge wing doesn't block much of the view out the back window. As for the body structure itself, I can't yet say with any certainty that I could feel the effects of the steering gearbox brace or even the rear chassis brace on the street, as the S2000's chassis is already well known for its rigidity, but for what it's worth, the CR felt very tight. If there's anything I'm able to sense in a standard S2000, it's an occasional bit of cowl flex over broken pavement, but the CR seemed pretty solid in this respect.
Coils and DampersAs someone who was less than enamored by the AP2's softer suspension settings, I'm very happy with the CR's more aggressive suspension calibrations. Sure, there's a bit of a penalty in ride quality, but this is a sports car - the sharpened responses and unflappable composure more than make up for any such penalties. Unfortunately I didn't have too many opportunities to flog the CR on any seriously twisty roads, but from what I gathered, the car had a more settled and balanced feel to it than the AP2s I've driven. Grip from the RE070s felt quite good, but again, I'll wait for the opportunity to flog them on our normal test loop before coming to any final conclusions.
Shift.One of the S2000's highlights has always been the feel of its shifter, and I'm happy to report that the CR's shortened shifter still feels great. The claimed 10% increase in effort is all but imperceptible, but perhaps more importantly, there's no perceivable loss in feel or precision compared to the standard S2000's. Everything else is as you would find it in an AP2 - the F22C revs eagerly, though with the additional torque available, I'm still not convinced it needs a shorter final drive ratio than the AP1 had. The AP2's shorter final drive ratio and lower rev limit equate to lower shift points and tighter gaps between the gears. Being accustomed to my AP1 S2000 with its 9000rpm redline and nearly 65+mph reach in 2nd gear, it always takes me a while to adjust to the shift points when I drive AP2s, particularly since the motor still feels like it's yet to peak by the time you've run it into the limiter. I was reminded of this while attempting to make a quick pass in 2nd gear on one of the 55mph back-roads that was on our route. The car we were following was traveling around 30mph for seemingly miles, and though we were on a mostly straight and flat road and could generally see no oncoming traffic for a good mile ahead of us, we had the dreaded double yellow. That didn't stop two locals from blowing past us, but I lawfully waited for a passing zone. Once we finally reached it (many expletives later), the driver in front of me suddenly started speeding up, as if he had just realized that he had been traveling at around half the posted limit for the past half dozen miles. Of course, this happened just as I had dropped the CR into second and started to pull out around him. I stayed in it, thinking I had plenty of range to slip past him, but within a flash I ran out of revs and slammed into the limiter, and had to upshift into 3rd to complete the pass. As much as I like the improved pace of the F22C, it would have been nice if Honda could have maintained the 3000 rpm powerband of the F20C. See, with both the F20C and the F22C, the VTEC switchover to the big camlobes occurs at right around 6000 rpms. From this point on to the rev limiter, you're pretty much in the sweet spot of the powerband, so the F20C has a broader powerband. Perhaps a lower cam switchover point for the F22C would preserve some of the width of the powerband while still providing more overall oomph.
After enjoying a full weekend of ALMS, Indycar, and Speed World Challenge action at Mid-Ohio, obviously the highlight of the entire press event was the day's planned activities on Monday, when we had Mid-Ohio all to ourselves. Following a commendably succinct briefing up in the control tower, and a van lap, we were set loose in a selection of S2000s. On hand were a pair of base 2008 S2000s, a half dozen CRs, and for comparison, one or two 2007 S2000s. While some of my colleagues wanted to sample the cars progressively, starting with the '07 S2000, I didn't waste any time, and jumped right into an Apex Blue CR. I had been on Mid-Ohio one other time prior to this, way back in 2002 for an Acura press event showcasing their Type-S models. For that event, we drove Mid-Ohio's school cars, which at the time were RSX Type-S's that had been prepped for sustained lapping - which means they had R-compound tires, tightened suspensions, and brake pad compounds that were designed to operate at the type of temperatures normally encountered on track. By comparison, the S2000s we drove were completely stock - as delivered from the factory.
If you haven't driven Mid-Ohio, it's a fairly technical track. While there are a few segments where you will reach triple digit speeds, most of the time seems to be made and lost on the twistier portions of the track. There are several very nice elevation changes and a few spots that are somewhat blind, so having prior experience is definitely a plus. While I had at some prior experience and a vague recollection of the flow of the track, it still took me a while to get comfortable with it. Fortunately, as an S2000 owner, it took me almost no time to get comfortable with probing the limits of the CR, though.
The S2000 has always been at home on a track, so the CR's competence comes as little surprise. Guiding it through each apex was practically second nature, with the car mostly offering gentle reminders during those moments when you'd run out of skill. Like most cars, the CR likes best to be driven with smooth and sure inputs, but at the same time, you can go out there and play pitch and catch with it and still have fun. The only snag I hit had to do with my heel-and-toe downshifting. Basically it felt like I was unable to adequately reach the throttle pedal with my foot while toeing the brake, and as a result, my rev matching stunk. After trying several different tactics, I realized that my foot was in fact depressing the throttle pedal as I intended, but the lag in response from the DBW throttle system was keeping the revs from coming up quickly enough. I was a bit disappointed in this one issue, because besides the rev matching issue, there was no other DBW lag that I could sense.
Base vs. BaseHaving started out with the CR, I figured the base '08 S2000 would be a letdown when I took it out for its inaugural lap. Au Contraire, Mon Frère - the base 2008 felt fantastic on Mid-Ohio. Certainly there was more body movement on the suspension compared to the CR, but it seemed like every move was well damped and in synch with the flow of the track - I never lost confidence in the car itself. Next up was the 2007 S2000. This reminded me of my very first track experience in an AP2, which happened in Japan back in 2003. Compared to the '08s, this car felt underdamped and undersprung, particularly in the rear. The somewhat floaty feel of the rear suspension was enough to erode confidence, particularly through turns 8, 10, and 11 where the hill crests kept the rear end moving around a lot. The only thing I preferred on the '07 vs. the '08 base S2000 was the on-center feel of the steering - I had noticed on the street portion of the drive that the steering of the '08 base model felt a bit more vague on-center than the CR, almost as if the CR had a bit of toe-in, vs. zero toe or even toe-out on the base model, and this sensation carried through on the straight portions of the track as well. Since there's technically been no changes in the steering gear between the '07 and '08 base models, I'm going to assume it was down to slight differences in alignment.
Since I knew we were going to be on track with the S2000s, I brought along my GPS-based RaceLogic Driftbox to log my laps. I will be the first to tell you that I'm generally not the fastest guy around a given track. Given enough time to learn a track and a car, I can turn some decent laps, but I'm keenly aware that there are several degrees of separation between my skills and a professional driver's (as Dan Wheldon was able to demonstrate), so keep that in mind when you see the laptimes below. Also, keep in mind that we ran the "club" configuration of Mid-Ohio, with the chicane in place between turns 1 and the keyhole.
The quickest car out there, unsurprisingly, was the S2000 CR, with which I was able to turn a pair of 1:51.0 laps. I was in the 1:52 range prior to our lunch break and then something must have clicked, because after lunch I was able to crank out laps in the 1:51 range pretty consistently. Next best was the '08 base model, which wasn't far behind with a pair of bests at 1:52.3. The '07 was a little bit behind that, at 1:52.9, but to be fair, I didn't spend as much time in the '07 working down my laptimes as I did in the '08 models. As I was reacquainting myself with the track, these best times happened in the afternoon, after the cars had been beat on a fair bit and the brakes were generally hot and smoky. I could easily imagine a CR, in the right hands and with fresh brakes and tires breaking well into the 1:40s, maybe even picking up a bit more time with the hardtop installed (for better aero). It wouldn't surprise me to see the base '08 model right there behind it, gapped by maybe a second and a half or so.
Coming off the big straight going into turn 7 (the one portion of the track where I was able to take a moment to glance at the speedometer), the base '08 seemed to carry the most speed of all 3 versions. With the speedo indicating 122-123mph (yeah, it seems the speedo is a bit optimistic, as well) on one or two of my "hotter" laps in the base '08, I noticed it was routinely carrying several mph more than what the speedo in the CR was reporting. At first I thought perhaps it was a production variance on the motors, with the CR's possibly being tighter than the one in that particular base car. But then I drove a few of the other CRs and then the other base car, and this discrepancy was fairly consistent. After a bit of thought, I decided that maybe the CR's bodywork (namely, the big wing) was possibly causing enough drag at those speeds to account for the difference, and after looking at the logs of my best laps in each car, that may be a part of the difference, particularly once the speeds surpass 100mph. Below that point the cars were virtually in a dead heat, but the base model starts to edge ahead slightly once beyond the century mark. While the CR may lose out some of the top end, according to the log files I was able to carry quite a bit more speed through some of the faster corners. For example, around turn 1 my peak speed was nearly 5mph better in the CR, and over 2mph faster on average overall, providing a 0.3 second advantage right there alone. The story was much the same through nearly all of the other turns on the track as well. Though some of that difference is probably due to the CR's improved tires, the only real way to tell would be to swap the wheels on both cars and run more laps. Unfortunately, we were unable to do that.
Overall, we really like the changes for the 2008 S2000, but we're still left with a somewhat bittersweet taste in our mouths. On the one hand, we're happy to see that Honda made the effort to give the brilliant S2000 the dignity of a final update. On the other hand, we're disappointed that the S2000 has been largely neglected from a development standpoint for a number of years, as well as for the fact that it took Honda this long to introduce the CR variant (2002-2003 seems like it would have been about the optimal time to introduce a CR). That said, we have high hopes that Honda is planning a suitable successor to the S2000, and we further hope that the plan includes a steady stream of evolutionary updates as well as a platform variant (such as a fixed coupe). Is the CR the car for you? Well, that depends upon how you'd plan to use it. If your plans include a substantial portion of time spent at track days, then it may just be the ticket. If you only plan to track your S2000 infrequently, the base '08 should do the trick. Either way you go, with the '08 S2000, you're getting the best S2000 chassis yet.