Our test car wore Silverstone paint and carried a handsome 2-tone red on black interior color scheme. The added elbow and knee room vs the older models is noticeable, but only slightly. Our car was fitted with the optional headrest speakers and XM radio options. Unfortunately the XM radio requires a hideous antenna blob to be centered on the trunklid (see photo on the last page of this article), so I would probably skip that option. The headrest speakers are effective, but the sound stage seems a little wacky until you fade the levels to the front by quite a bit. The new 2-drink cupholder is nice, but if you happen to drink bottled water while hitting the twisties, smaller 16 oz. bottles will move around quite a bit in the large opening, so your best bet is to go with the fatter 24 oz. sport bottles. The gauge cluster has been revised, and frankly, I prefer the old design. The rev counter now only sweeps across about 2/3 of the range of the previous model's design. The fuel and water temperature gauges now reside in the right third of the panel, and are shaped like rainbows. The plain bargraphs on the old gauge panel were fine. For many drivers, this new design means the tach's redline is obstructed from sight by the steering wheel. I want my full range tach back.
We noticed that the "low fuel" light doesn't come on until ALL of the hashmarks (and there are a LOT of them) on the fuel gauge have been extinguished. This is somewhat disconcerting the first time it happens. When this happened to us, it turns out there were nearly 3 gallons of fuel left in the tank at that point. It's too bad that of all those hash marks (dozens??), none are used to provide any resolution once you dip much below 1/4 tank.
Enough about the interior changes, what about the motor? This might sound implausible, but the first thing I noticed when I started the motor was that you can actually feel a stronger snap (than the 2.0L) when it first fires. Thinking I might have been imagining things, I jumped back and forth a couple of times, starting and re-starting both cars, and it's a noticeable difference. Also, considering the lack of balancer shafts in such a large 4-cylinder configuration, I was expecting more buzziness and/or vibrations, but the car idled and revved in relative serenity. Upon more critical back to back comparisons, it seemed that there might have been slightly more texture than the 2.0L motor, but it's almost an imperceptible difference.
Now, snick it into gear, and you can immediately sense the smoother shift action. It is improved without sacrificing much of the feel of the earlier transmission. Once underway, it's definitely a quieter car from a gear thrashing perspective. Driving with the top up in an earlier model, you can hear the gearbox and rear-end sing a polyphonic tune of various mechanical notes, while the same components in the '04 remain virtually silent. That is not to say that the car is quiet by any means, but now about the only thing you hear is the engine, tires, and (at rather high speeds) a bit of windnoise. The engine note itself sounds very much like the 2.0L motor, only now it gains revs quicker in each gear thanks to its shorter effective gearing and additional torque.
From our other article you saw that this car makes substantially more power and torque than the 2000 model. How does this feel on the street? To tell you the truth, the first time I drove it it was hard to really detect the additional power. You can certainly sense that it offers up quite a bit more snap at lower rpms and smaller throttle openings, but at wide open throttle, it really didn't feel much different. Looking at the dyno curve, you can see that it closely tracks the shape of the 2.0L's power curve, except the values are higher virtually everywhere. This results in a similar feel when you're driving around and the car transitions into the VTEC range (at around 6000 rpms), so you don't give up that thrilling rush to redline, except for the fact that the fun is cut short by about 1000 rpms. The added rubber in the rear means that even with the additional torque, straight line traction is rarely an issue. Only by spending several days jumping back and forth between the 2004 and 2000 models that we had on hand were we able to really appreciate the difference.
While a seat of the pants perspective is one thing, how do the cars run head to head? In a few informal runs to 60mph we observed that the 2.0 and 2.2L cars were almost dead even in acceleration, with the 2.2L taking a very slight advantage, if at all. However, once we had the opportunity to do a direct comparison well through 3rd gear, the advantage of the '04's 2.2L motor was unmistakable. The '04 clearly accelerated harder in 1st and 2nd gear, but it would generally give up some of the ground it gained when it had to shift so much sooner than the '00 model (thanks to the reduced redline and shorter gearing). Once in third it was able to gain more distance and it just started walking away from the '00. It should be mentioned that the 2000 car had an AEM cold-air intake and a fully broken-in motor, to the bone-stock 2004's fresh 950 miles. Results of roll-on in gear acceleration comparisons were more conclusive. From a fairly high rpm start (65mph in 3rd gear), the advantage of the 2004 model was measurable, but not staggering. From lower rpms in 3rd gear (we tried from 40mph), the advantage was quite dramatic. The '04 easily put several carlengths of distance on the '00 model before we even hit the VTEC transition at around 6000 rpms. Shawn will be performing several more roll-on acceleration tests with the Vericom and reporting the results in his article.
From a subjective standpoint, the additional torque results in a much more relaxed daily driver, with tons of squirt available from relatively low revs in basically any gear. This makes it easier to negotiate heavy traffic (which, unfortunately, we dealt with during much of our time in SoCal). The motor is more tractable right off idle, and never coughs, bogs, or sputters like the 2.0L sometimes does. While there's a huge wallop of additional power at 6000 rpms, there's a decent amount available starting at 2500 rpms, so you don't have to worry so much about being "caught off the cam" in a soft spot like on the 2.0L.
Once underway, cruising at higher speeds, 6th gear generally provides ample tug from as low as 50mph, virtually eliminating the need to downshift to pass on the freeway. With the top up, windnoise is surprisingly absent until you reach speeds approaching triple digits. In fact, from the driver's seat there is virtually NO wind noise, but there seemed to be a bit of a wind leak audible on the passenger side, and audible only to the passenger. Engine noise and the sound of nearby vehicles are the main components of noise inside the cabin on the freeway. The headrest mounted speakers allow you to easily listen to talk radio even with the top down at 80+ mph (I know because I was tracking Tennessee's victory over Miami on the S2000's XM radio this past Saturday). The low-profile 17" tires transmit a bit more of an edge than last year's 16" tires, but the ride is generally not punishing until you put it over some seriously broken pavement. For normal street use and even at the autocross, the tires provide decent grip, letting go progressively as compared to the '00-'03s S-02s.
While the chassis has been stiffened substantially, it's difficult to perceive this added stiffness when compared to the older model, a testament to the S2000's sound design from the start.
The '04 S2000's steering ratio was slowed down to offset the quicker turn in of the lower profile tires, and generally the slower ratio is not a problem. It really only becomes noticeable during sprited driving through tight canyon roads, where the older model's quicker ratio is more satisfying. At the autocross we ran (Qualcomm Park, San Diego) and on the street it wasn't so much of an issue. Turn in is indeed right on par with the older cars, more or less. The 2000 car we used as a basis of comparison was wearing some fat Toyo RA-1s, and the '04 definitely felt crisper than that particular '00.
The improvements to the rear suspension definitely pay dividends. While the '00-'03 models are exceedingly capable right up to their limits, until you familiarize yourself with those limits and learn how to recover once you exceed them, it can be a bit intimidating to drive at a very brisk pace. The '04's recalibrated rear is just rock solid and if you happen to unsettle it, it lets go much more progressively and is easy to correct. From time to time, you will find that the car tends to push a bit more than before, but as I found on the autocross course this is a situation that can generally be avoided if you adjust your driving style a bit.
During our canyon runs, I found that the '04 was every bit as exhilarating to drive as my own '00. With the added low end grunt, you could opt to go a gear ratio higher than you might select in the 2.0L model and give up little or no speed. Through quick transitions I could sense the lower roll center of the rear suspension, resulting in less perceived roll and a more planted feel. The shorter sidewalls and wider contact patches of the RE050s provide sharper response and superior grip compared to the earlier models' S-02s as well. Oversteer is still available pretty much on demand, but I found that the onset is very progressive, easy to modulate, and just plain fun. Occasionally you could force the car to understeer, but it's generally avoidable. My only (minor) gripe in the '04 was the slower steering, and it didn't really bother me until I jumped in the '00 and realized I didn't have to spin the steering wheel quite so much. Also if you're accustomed to driving a 2.0L S2000, the 2.2L motor pulls so hard up top you'll find yourself smacking the limiter a few times until you recalibrate yourself.