Peter Lyon, Tokyo, Japan
Honda is pushing the limits to redefine its brand and regain its performance creds, both at home and abroad. To that end, Japan’s third biggest car-maker has three of its hottest ever models (S660, Civic Type R and NSX) slated to debut over the next 12 months.
The first one out of the blocks is the spritely S660 sports roadster. Seen as the spiritual successor to the tiny Beat, Honda has launched the all-new, mid-engined, turbocharged S660 micro-roadster in Japan, delivering standout looks, a driving experience to match and a price starting at the equivalent of about $21,000 (US).
But there’s a twist. A source inside Honda tells us the company is also currently working on an export version with a more powerful 1.0-litre turbocharged engine rumoured to pump out more than 120 horsepower.
Now that would give the new Mazda MX-5 a real run for its money... but more on that later.
True to the concept
As I arrived at Sodegaura Forest Raceway, 90 minutes south-west of Tokyo, three S660s sat in the paddock looking like concept cars straight from a motor show.
I cornered 26-year-old chief engineer, Ryo Mukumoto, for some one-on-one time and the more I learned about his mini-charger, the more my eyebrows flexed skywards in surprise.
The first thing that impresses about the S660 is its design. Mukumoto and his team succeeded in bringing the S660 to showrooms with almost no changes to the concept we saw at the 2013 Tokyo show.
But without doubt, its most outstanding features are its unique chassis, its screaming three-cylinder turbo engine and its bespoke six-speed manual gearbox.
That’s right, Honda has developed a one-off chassis just for the S660, constructed out of a diecast aluminium frame and steel sub-frame, that is more rigid than the discontinued S2000's.
The Japan-spec S660 might be fitted with an uninspiring 64 hp engine, but this chassis could take more than twice that power -- like that of the 1.0-litre turbo unit mentioned earlier.
Tipping the scales at just 830kg, the S660 employs the same three-cylinder 660cc turbo engine found in the popular N-Box kei-car. And like that engine, the S660's generates 64hp and 77 lb-ft (104 Nm) of torque in compliance with Japan’s regulations for such cars.
Kei cars are a specialized class of cars in Japan, built within prescribed length, engine size and power limits, that enjoy tax breaks and, in some areas, relief from onerous parking regulations. The S660 fits right up against those limits.
Born to rev
To lift the overall performance of the engine, Mukumoto tells me that he added a smaller turbine and lifted the redline from 7000 to 7700rpm, and a deeper oil pan was also added to cope with the higher g-forces during cornering and braking.
The turbo spools up from 2500rpm and delivers a healthy dose of torque right up to the redline. It’s between 5000 and 7700rpm that the engine really comes to life, letting out a raspy,high-pitched metallic roar that betrays the engine size.
Its six-speed manual transmission has been specially developed for this car and is notchy with short throws and precise gate action. That fact is significant in itself and makes it a prime candidate for use in the more powerful 'S1000' when it arrives.
The first thing I notice when entering a corner is the S660’s tremendous grip level. When pushed hard into a corner at 100km/h, the rear-end just doesn't budge as the low centre of gravity and roll centre resist body roll.
While the stiff chassis is holding everything in check, the Agile Handling Assist – as seen in the Acura RLX – regulates brake pressure to the inside front wheel to enhance cornering.
To complete the substantial cornering package, specially-developed 15-inch Yokohama Advan Neova tyres provide traction levels previously unheard of in kei-car handling.
This pint-size two-door boasts perfect 50:50 weight distribution and completely neutral handling that resists both understeer and oversteer.
The S660 offers just enough weight in the steering, as well as sufficient feedback and crisp, precise turn-in, and it remains neutral under full throttle when exiting a corner.
Wanting to highlight the sporty nature of the S660, Mukumoto and his team are offering buyers an optional active rear spoiler that raises automatically at 70km/h.
Tight but comfortable
This is like no kei-car we’ve ever driven before. It’s a blast to drive. And yes, this 189-cm tall reporter can sit fully inside the cockpit and change gears without smashing knees on the steering wheel. Only just, mind you.
Inside, the cabin is tight but comfortable. The extra-small 350-mm diameter steering wheel fits nicely in the palms and the stick shift is exactly where it should be.
The instrument-panel-mounted display offers drivers the option of a game-like G-meter that gives cornering and braking Gs in real time. Mukumoto tells us the maximum cornering g-force is 1.2g and a couple of us got close to that figure in some of the corners.
Perhaps the only question marks over the car are its ultimate lack of raw power and a fiddly soft-top roof that must be manually folded away and placed in the tiny boot. Other than that, the S660 hits the kei-car genre out of the ballpark.
This tiny roadster is a game-changer and one that should generate loads of interest in export markets – including North America if and when it's offered with a more powerful engine.
Just to highlight its export potential, one engineer also let it be known that the S660’s rear axle and tread can be widened by 30mm each side or 60mm in total to allow wider wheels and tires to be fitted for more grip – and to cater to a gutsier 1.0-litre powerplant.
Indeed, it's unlikely Honda created an all-new mini-sportster packing a bespoke chassis and manual gearbox and unique tyres just for Japan.
So while the S660 will land in Japanese showrooms in early April with a 660cc engine for just over $21,000 (US), an export version is almost certain.
If the 120 horsepower 'S1000' eventuates, it could be sold in export markets by 2017 as a direct rival for the Toyota 86/Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ coupes and Mazda's upcoming MX-5 roadster, with a starting price of under $25,000 (US).
Model: 2015 Honda S660
On sale: April (in Japan)
Price: 1,980,000 yen in Japan (Approx $21,000 US)
Engine: 660-cc three-cylinder turbocharged gasoline
Output: 64 horsepower/77 lb-ft of torque (47kW/104Nm)
Transmission: Six-speed manual
PROS AND CONS
> Mini NSX-like styling
> High-speed stability/cornering
> Sporty engine note at 5000-7000rpm
> Needs more power
> Fussy roof mechanism
> Not available in North America – yet!