Scream Test

Honda’s highly strung new sportscar, the S2000, is no ordinary machine. Matthew Franey heads to Prescott Hillclimb School to find out why.

The purpose of this story is two-fold. Firstly we wanted to tell you about Honda’s new, much-hyped two-seater sportscar, the S2000. Secondly, and no less importantly in this era of Gatsos, speed humps and “traffic calming”, we felt that it was important that the cars we test are driven as their designers intended. For reasons you are shortly to find out, Honda has positioned the S2000 firmly at the extreme end of the sportscar market which makes an every day road car test somewhat irrelevant. Nine out of ten will probably never make it further than the Kings Road, but for the one that does venture forth the pleasures are to be found at the far end of the rev-counter.

Hence the journey to Prescott Hillclimb School in Gloucestershire. The two are not intrinsically linked – nowhere is it said that you have to drive your sportscar anywhere near this picturesque venue – but the tight hairpins and esses at Prescott are perfectly suited to the Honda’s screaming two-litre engine and close-ratio, six-speed gearbox.

Every aspect of this car has been engineered to within a micron of its life. Under the bonnet and beneath the lightweight body everything is new and some of it is scarcely believable. Its normally aspirated engine – this Japanese firm doesn’t meddle in the murky world of turbochargers – breaks every imaginable record, with 237bhp being eked out of the two litre capacity. It also possesses an ability to rev above and beyond the call of duty. All of Honda’s VTEC-equipped cars boast redlines comfortably the far side of 7000, but in the S2000 things are just getting exciting at such conservative levels. Keep your eyes on the race car-style electronic rev counter and by the time it hits the limiter it will be spinning the crankshaft 9000 times every minute.

While peak power figures are to be greeted with a sage nod, there is little to be said for the car’s levels of torque which register a rather paltry 153lb ft at 7500rpm. Below that figure the torque does not fall away alarmingly, but it is an early indication that to make progress in an S2000 requires considerable powers of concentration and early planning. Below 5800rpm, where most car’s would be running out of steam, but where the S2000’s VTEC camshaft is just switching in, the impression is more family saloon than out-and-out sportscar.

It’s almost a question of mindset Those of you who ride a modem, high-revving motorbike might understand more readily the demands that an S2000 places on its driver. If you are driving hard, as we are about to do at Prescott, then you have to use every gear available and thrash the engine as if your life depended on it.

Before we tackle the course in anger, we have to walk it single-file. At Prescott the emphasis is far from setting the fastest time of the day. Students of hillclimbing are expected to participate in their own car with the intention of learning how to drive it safely and progressively but most importantly to conquer the technical aspects of the hill. Power and performance are an irrelevance as the mix of Caterhams, MGs old and new, and even the odd Bristol go to show.

At 1200 yards the walk is not too taxing on the feet but involves considerable exercising of the grey matter. There are only five genuine corners during the ascent yet not one of them could be described as easy. Head first through the flat-out left-hand sweep at Orchard into the endless Ettore’s hairpin before climbing steeply into the unimaginably tight second hairpin Pardon, so named, according to legend, after Prince Bira’s foreign expletives when he crashed out of Prescott’s inaugural event.

Overhead the tree canopy thickens as you endeavour to pick your line through the shadows into the Esses. This is the course at its most picturesque, the small barriers that line the mute funnel into the distance, while natural reference points help you keep the racing line – turn in at the tall tree here, brake at the end of the grass bank there. Finally burst out into the sunshine at Semicircle – an eye-opener of a corner to finish the run. Overshoot here and you are destined for a long, tumbling exit into the paddock below. The trick it seems is to look at the sky ahead of you and avoid it…

Classroom lecture and leisurely walk over, it’s time for a convoy. Snaking up the hill, instructor leading the way, the students drive Prescott for the first time. Progress is slow but the wise ones here take their time, trying to spot the line from a radically different perspective. Then and only then will the school allow its pupils a solo run.

Waved away by the startline marshal the S2000 requires severe provocation to leave the line at speed. New owners will learn quickly that it takes many thousands of revs to generate anything near to a full-blooded start. Grip under full acceleration is impressive, the driven rear wheels shod with Bridgestone Potenza 225/50 VR16 tyres, but you soon forget what is going on at the back when you hear what is coming from the front. Over the last 2000 revs of the range the S2000 surges forward and the noise, an intense, pervasive scream, is pure racing car. At the peak of the howls and reverberations comes the limiter and here the Honda is at its best.

The short travel between the close ratios is critical in keeping the changes as swift as humanly possible and preventing the revs from dropping below that critical fall off point. It takes just a quick snick of the lever for the next ratio to engage and the efficiency with which that change is made is close to perfect. Working the gearbox is a necessity in an S2000 travelling at speed, thank Honda that it is such an enjoyable experience.

Through the first corner balanced on the throttle in second gear, the car is almost flat out. Poise at these speeds – about 65mph – is excellent, the Honda adopting neutral handling while grip levels remain high. It is an excellent representation of how the S2000 will react on twistier public roads, for despite Prescott’s role as a speed hillclimb the S2000 hardly ever gets higher than second gear.

The brakes which utilise anti-lock and electronic distribution systems are called into action at Ettore’s. Velocity is shed from motorway levels to almost nothing as you negotiate the hairpin and the Honda remains stable under the severest provocation. Exiting the corner under power allows you to loosen the car’s rear end for the first time and here through the middle section of the course the S2000 reveals its weak link. The steering, while quick and accurate, is lacking in feel. Indeed, the entire car fails to communicate fully with the driver. Just when you need to know exactly what the Honda is doing you begin to wonder exactly where it is heading. Compared to other sportscars at the extreme end of the market – Caterhams and Elises sprint to mind – it is disappointingly sterile. Up against more expensive rivals – the Porsche Boxster and BMW Z3 – it holds its own.

Less than a minute after you have left the startline your run is over. After four attempts and a chance to discuss progress with the instructors it is time for the moment of truth. Every pupil’s progress is filmed and played back to the class during lunch. No time here for excuses. If you took the wrong line, everyone will know it.

The afternoon is a time to refine those skills and learn more about the Honda. With knowledge of the hill improving after every run the S2000’s failings can be driven around. From the wailing engine to the sublime gearbox there is enough here to keep all but the harshest critics happy. If it is pure driving experience you are after then a Caterham Seven is still the route to take, but if you want Caterham-like performance with such added luxuries as a radio, heater and electric windows then don’t knock the S2000 off your list without a test drive. At £27,000 it weighs in between a low cost kit car and a high price Porsche. It is up to you to decide whether that makes it over-priced or a budget supercar.

One thing, however is for sure, if you have already forked out for an S2000, or you are keen to make better use of whatever you drive, book a day out at Prescott. You will come away a better driver than when you arrived and that, by any definition, is money well spent.

For further information on the Prescott Hillclimb School call 01242 673/36.