Honda S2000 CR: Cool RacerThane Peterson
The Good: Handling, handling, handling
The Bad: Lack of amenities, clunky removable hardtop, ugly upholstery
The Bottom Line: A limited-production sports car that's actually affordable
The 2008 Honda S2000 CR is like one of those arguments in which one side goes way out on a limb and ends up winning. In this case, the winners of the argument—for once—were passionate car guys within Honda HMC, rather than the bean counters and marketing types who usually prevail in the auto business. It's hard to believe that a middle-of-the-road company like Honda ever let this vehicle out the door.
The "CR" in the name of this old-school, rear-wheel-drive sports car stands for "Club Racer." It's one of the few high-performance, limited-production sports cars that, with a price of less than $40,000, an average person can afford. In creating the CR, which is new for the '08 model year, Honda both souped up the regular S2000 sports car and pared it down to essentials. You can drive the S2000 CR around town, but it's really made for racing. Among other things, its suspension is so stiff that the car bounds along on the highway like a kangaroo with hiccups.
The CR's power plant is the same as the one in the regular S2000—a 2.2-liter, 237-horsepower, four-cylinder engine coupled with a six-speed manual transmission. But the CR's suspension damping is firmer, its springs bouncier, and its anti-roll bars stiffer than the regular 2000's. A big brace has been added behind the seats to stiffen the frame and improve handling. There's a brutal-looking black wing spoiler perched on the rear deck. To save weight, air-conditioning and a sound system are available only as options.
Oh, and the CR doesn't come with the regular 2000's handy, fold-down soft top. The CR has a removable aluminum hardtop, the catch being that it takes two people and a fair amount of practice to take it on and off, and there's nowhere in the car to stow it. (The soft top folds down into the trunk.) Basically, you have to leave the top at home if you want to head out for an alfresco summer drive; remember to pray it doesn't rain. If you're into hard driving, though, bear in mind that the CR without the hardtop weighs 99 pounds less than the regular S2000—which, of course, makes it even quicker and more agile.
The S2000 CR's pricing is simple: The base version CR costs $36,935 ($2,000 more than the regular S2000). Add $1,000 if you want air conditioning and a sound system. That's it, no other options to worry about.
Fuel economy is better than I expected. The CR is rated to get 18 miles per gallon in the city and 25 on the highway. However, I did somewhat better than that. I got 25.9 mpg. in 246 miles of fast, mixed driving. Premium gasoline is recommended.
How much the CR will boost S2000 sales is open to question. The S2000 was greeted with a burst of enthusiasm and rave reviews when it first came out, but it hasn't been changed much since, and it now looks dated. U.S. sales of the S2000 fell by 31.6% last year, to 4,302. Indeed, some observers—including my colleague Jim Henry—predict that such weekend cars are doomed (BusinessWeek.com)>. Honda obviously doesn't agree, but the company had hoped to sell around 1,500 CRs in the U.S. this year, and a spokesman now says half that number looks more realistic.
Behind the Wheel
The CR's main appeal can be summed up in three words: Handling, handling, handling. As with any sports car in this price range, the CR is quick: Motor Trend and Car and Driver clocked it at around 5.7 seconds in accelerating from zero to 60. But most of Honda's reengineering on the CR has made it more responsive and road-hugging than the regular S2000.
The CR's standard Bridgestone Potenza RE070 tires are designed for more aggressive driving than the regular S2000's RE050s. In addition to the rear wing spoiler, there's an underbody front spoiler. Inside the car, the shift ball sits a little lower down, reducing the shift stroke by 6% so you can run through the gears faster.
By design, shifting takes 10% more effort than in the regular S2000 in order to increase the driver's sense of connection to the machine. The car's front/rear weight distribution is a perfect 50/50.
Both versions of the S2000 have the same electric power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, but the CR's steering ratio is quicker, making the steering more responsive. The slightest turn of the wheel to the right or left has a pronounced effect. Stopping power is also excellent. The CR comes to a dead stop from 70 mph in a mere 153 ft., according to Car and Driver.
The S2000's engine is designed to be high-revving, delivering its maximum 237 horsepower at 7,800 revolutions per minute, as well as 162 lb.-ft. of torque at 6,800 rpm. What this means, practically speaking, is that when you downshift into a sharp curve, you immediately feel a surge of raw power when you hit the gas.
Design-wise, Honda says the CR isn't meant to be a retro sports car, but the cabin is old-school. Space is tight: I found legroom adequate unless you're tall and long-legged, but space for head, shoulders, and hips is limited. To start the engine, you turn a key and then push a red starter button. There's a toggle-style switch and button to the left of the steering wheel to control the optional audio system and another toggle switch to the right of the steering wheel to control the fan.
Storage is minimal. This is one of those sports cars where you must either stow a briefcase or purse in the trunk, or stuff it under your legs in front of the seat. There's very little storage space behind the seats. There are tiny bins in the doors, a storage slot where the glove box usually is, and a small storage box in the back of the cabin compartment. Trunk space is a barely adequate 5 cubic feet.
I could do without the CR's special upholstery. In place of the leather-trimmed seats in the regular S2000, the CR's seats have weird yellow cloth inserts and ugly yellow stitching that seem overly garish in the otherwise black interior. The bolsters are upholstered in synthetic suede, which is supposed to keep driver and passenger from sliding around during hard driving, but which looks odd and a little cheap.
Buy it or Bag It?
The S2000 CR is for serious performance drivers who spend a lot of weekends at the track. If you don't fall into that category, the regular S2000 is a much better choice. Alternatively, such models as General Motors' GM Chevy Corvette (BusinessWeek.com) (average price, $56,173), Porsche Boxster (BusinessWeek.com) ($57,389) and BMW's BMWG Z4 (BusinessWeek.com) ($40,407) sell for more but combine even better performance with more practicality and refinement than the S2000 CR.
If you're looking to spend less, check out The Saturn Sky Red Line ($30,655) and its sister model, the Pontiac Solstice GXP (BusinessWeek.com) ($29,072). They're souped-up versions of the Saturn Sky and Pontiac Solstice roadsters, both of which are gorgeous but have virtually no trunk space with the top down. Another alternative is Nissan's NSANY350Z (BusinessWeek.com)($32,548).
However, a big part of the CR's cachet is its unusualness. It's designed to be track-ready the moment you drive it off the dealer's lot. Hard to believe it's a Honda.
Click here to see more of the 2008 Honda S2000 CR.