A 2000 model S2000 has taken residence in my garage for over 4 years now, and it's maintained its status as my all-time favorite vehicle. Upon first hearing about the myriad changes in store for the 2004 model, I was optimistic but at the same time a little apprehensive about some of the upgrades. It seems that many other current S2000 owners feel the same way, or worse.
A number of vocal S2000 "purists" have adopted the stance that the '04 S2000 has been "dumbed down" or softened to the point that the spirit of the car has been compromised or ruined. For the most part, it seems that these conclusions have been reached without any actual experience with the car (sour grapes?). While this sort of thing (feature creep, bloatware) has happened all too often in the past (witness the progression of the lithe 240z to the boatlike 280ZX and 300ZX models), the S2000 seems to have escaped such a predicament.
On paper, the '04's suspension, transmission/differential, and chassis improvements are all intriguing, but for me the big question mark hovered over the new 2.2L motor. Specifically I was concerned by its reduced redline, shorter gearing, and no claimed benefit in power. If there's one thing I love about my S2000, it's the thrill of taching it up to 9000 rpms and hearing it wail. Would I be able to live with the reduced rev capacity?
During a visit to Japan last month, I had the opportunity to briefly drive a Japanese-market 2004 S2000, which supposedly shares all the changes with our car except for the 2.2L motor (due to stiff tax penalties for motors over 2000cc, they continue with the 2.0L motor). The venue was Honda's "winding road course" at the R&D facility in Tochigi (HGT). On the same course, I was also able to sample an NSX-R, Civic Type R, Integra Type R, Accord Euro R, and a standard NSX (somebody pinch me!). To be honest, I came away from that experience a little disappointed with the S2000. I knew the rear suspension had been softened, but on this tight and curvy course it felt way too soft, resulting in poor cornerning stability. This instability was further exaggerated by the addition of a 200+ lb passenger for one of my 2-lap sessions. The Type R cars were all rock solid on this same course (though the NSX and NSX-R were way too powerful), but the JDM S2000's rear never wanted to take a set through a turn, instead bounding back and forth on the bumpstops. Compounding the issue was my comical inability to shift left-handed. Time and time again I missed the 2-3 shift. Somewhere deep in my cortex I was apparently expecting a mirror image of the right-handed shifting pattern (with 1st being at the top right of the pattern, 6th at the bottom left), but of course the pattern is the same no matter which side of the car you sit. I never grew accustomed to shifting the car, so this lack of smoothness only amplified the soft rear damping.
Based on my brief experience in Japan, it would be an understatement to say I was anxious to drive the US model. Delivery times for getting a press car here in Atlanta were sketchy at best, so I arranged to have an '04 waiting for us in Los Angeles last week. We spent the subsequent 4 days putting the car through its paces on canyon runs, the dragstrip, skidpad, interstate, and even an autocross, clocking over 1000 miles on the car in the process. Fortunately, I found that my experience with the Japanese car would not be repeated with the US-market S2000. I'm not sure why, but perhaps there was a problem with the suspension on the particular JDM car I drove, or the suspension tuning is significantly different.