Honda's Sports Car Past--and Its Future

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 02, 2015

Honda has a really cool sports car history, though you may not know it if all you’ve ever seen is bread-and-butter Civics, Accords and Fits.

Honda's S660: You'll have to get one shipped from Japan. (Honda photo)Imagine this on-the-market Honda we may never see: A tiny (smaller than a Miata) two-seat convertible, the S660, which sells for just $15,000 and weighs 1,850 pounds. Its three-cylinder engine has displacement of only 40 cubic inches, but is turbocharged and intercooled to get it to 87 mph. Honda is already selling them in Japan (where everyone loves Lilliputian cars), but the automaker isn’t making any moves to bring them here.

The Japanese call minuscule buggies like this kei cars. But six-footers can still fit behind the wheel. (Honda photo)A new sports car of some kind is coming from Honda, and there’s some precedent for what it might be like. In 1962, it made the first of its S-Series roadsters, at a time when drop-top British sports cars ruled the road.  The specs were out of this world. In either 360, 600 or 800 form, there was a tiny inline four-cylinder engine that could rev to 9,500 rpm (you read that right) in S600 form.

Former owner Michael Lamm said he could never warm to his S600 car, because it had just 57 horsepower, and highway cruising at 7,000 rpm “sounded like a soprano banshee sustaining high C. I like engines with a tenor or bass voice, not running down the highway singing eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” Only 13,000 S600s were sold worldwide between 1964 and 1966, and it’s a shame—the car was darned cute.

Honda's 1960s S600 was nice looking and high-revving, but no highway cruiser. (Jack Snell/Flickr)The S2000, introduced in 1999 and discontinued (in a second-generation model) in 2009, was another Honda sports car in the high-revving mode. These cars could catch out the unwary, which is why the new model had suspension designed to reduce oversteer. The S2000 offered more than 230 horsepower, and was fine on American highways. Insanely fun, as a matter of fact. Early ones could be revved to 8,900 rpm. A total of 66,547 were sold in its biggest market, the U.S. (including a few leftovers in 2010 and 2011).

The grown-up S2000: Not cheap, and still not a big seller. (Wikipedia photo)Of course, sports cars are never big sellers, especially if they have only two seats. Mazda sold only 4,745 MX-5 Miatas last year, though admittedly sales suffered because a new model was coming.

Only 34,240 Corvettes were made for the 2015 model year. That’s tiny, and hardly justifies the effort—on paper at least. But it’s hard to imagine a Chevy lineup without a Corvette in it, and the company gets endless good publicity when the car magazines show ‘Vettes beating Ferraris in “showdowns.”

Sam Abuelsamid, an analyst at Navigant Research, tells me:

As an automotive enthusiast, my immediate answer is that a new lightweight sports car from Honda is exactly what the world needs. However, looking at it purely from a business perspective, it’s awfully hard to make the case for expending the resources on such a vehicle, especially if it has a dedicated platform. The typical pattern for sporty/sports cars is that there is an initial surge of sales in the first 18 to 24 months after which they fall off pretty dramatically.

Honda has a brand-new Civic coming to market imminently with a Type-R version finally coming to America. I think derivate of column models like the Civic Type-R, Focus RS and ST and VW Golf R and GTI are far more likely to be the performance wave of the future. As derivatives of high-volume models, a lot of the most expensive engineering can be rolled into the main program and most of these high-performance models are typically planned as two- to three-year limited volume vehicles. As the old saying goes, sell one less than the demand and keep it scarce. 

Abuelsamid ticked off some struggling sporty cars, including the Hyundai Genesis coupe and Veloster, Scion FR-S and Subaru BR-Z. “The MX-5 is one of the rare cases along with Mustang, Camaro and Nissan Z, where such vehicle has been able to sustain popularity and more importantly profitability over generations,” he said. “Even the Z is struggling of late and Nissan is reported to be looking at a sporty crossover to replace it (having already shelved the iDX coupe for production).”
It's a California design study, not a production-oriented "baby NSX." (Honda graphic) Still, Honda is clearly toying with sports car ideas, and its banking a lot on its high-performance 2016 NSX, which has a 3.5-liter V-6 under the hood and an innovative three-motor hybrid setup. That’s a Corvette-beater. Some images of what’s been called a “baby NSX” were leaked, but these turned out to be versions of a years-old California design study. Still, Honda thought enough of the far-out design to put a full-scale model on display during the opening of it Silicon Valley studio in July.

The 2016 NSX, seen at this year's Detroit show, is the sports standard bearer. (Jim Motavalli photo)Personally, I’d be happy with the S660, which would likely have a one-liter engine (and 125 horsepower) in any version sold in the U.S. I’m sure the fuel economy would be stellar. It’s mid-engined, with a six-speed manual (or CVT) transmission. Car and Driver, which complains it’s a bit underpowered in its Japanese configuration, nonetheless says a six-footer like me would fit in the minuscule cabin. What’s not to like?

Here's a closer look at the S660 on video, complete with pounding music:

 

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