Japan's motor industry is something of a Jekyll and Hyde business. On the one hand it churns out masses of worthy but dull cars with bizarre names such as Cedric and Gloria. But in a society that is dominated by politeness and team work, there are a few renegades working in the bowels of corporate headquarters who are pursuing a different agenda.
And thank goodness they are, because they are responsible for bringing to life some truly great cars, such as the Mitsubishi Evo series, Subaru's WRX STi Imprezas and the Nissan Skyline GT-R.
And then there is Honda's S2000 – the company's 50th birthday present to itself. On the surface it's a pretty, compact two-seater soft-top with a 2.0-litre engine producing a startling 240bhp with a price tag of £25,995 on-the-road.
But the S2000 has a fantastic selling point – the redline is at 9,000rpm. This is at least 2,000rpm more than most modern four cylinder engines rev to.
Honda's engines, with their clever VTEC technology, are renowned for having all their power at the top of the rev range and it is the same story in the S2000. It's a quick car lower down the rev range, but once the digital readout hits 7,000rpm things get very interesting.
Not only do you start accelerating an awful lot more quickly than you were before, but you also get a fantastic banshee howl soundtrack as the engine unleashes all of its 240 horses.
At this point you need to hold on tight and prepare to change gear very quickly in order to unleash the next surge of power. And once you have experienced the thrill of the engine howling away as it approaches 9,000rpm you'll want to repeat the experience over and over again.
Thankfully, the gearbox is as beautifully engineered as the engine – the six-speed unit is almost racing car precise in its action – a snicky short-throw affair which is the ideal companion to that rev-hungry engine. And to complete the mixture is a chassis which has been engineered to be lithe and accurate.
And you can enjoy all of this from a snug cabin with supportive seats and a wrap-around dashboard with digital readouts for everything. So the driving experience is fantastic, but if this car is to be used by a company driver it needs some concessions to practicality.
Luckily, the S2000 has enough cubby holes in the cabin to stow away all life's essentials such as a mobile phone and wallet, while the boot, while not exactly cavernous, will easily hold the weekly shop or several soft bags for a weekend away.
For £25,995 on-the-road, the Honda offers so much more in terms of performance and driving enjoyment than its rivals here – Lotus Elise excluded.
For the same money you could get behind the wheel of an Audi TT Roadster with 180bhp or a base Mercedes-Benz SLK200 Kompressor with a 2.0-litre supercharged engine with 161bhp and a chassis designed more for cruising and posing than serious driving.
In this company nothing can touch Honda's S2000. It has the best four-cylinder engine in the world, is usable everyday and looks gorgeous.
Three rivals to consider
THE Mercedes-Benz is the least expensive car of our quartet at the front-end, but it is worth remembering it isn't exactly loaded with standard equipment – leather seats are a £710 option, air conditioning is £1,270 extra and a CD player will cost you a further £60. Pretty stingy stuff all round and when these essentials are added up it takes the SLK to £26,650. The Honda comes with leather, air con and CD as standard for £25,815. The Lotus is, as expected, pretty barren on kit.
WITH its relatively simple set-up – it shares an engine with the MGTF – the Lotus is naturally less expensive to service, maintain and repair than its rivals, costing 3.41ppm. However, should that monocoque aluminium chassis get bent in a crash, the repair bill won't come cheap. Next up is the Audi on 4.29ppm with the Honda and Mercedes-Benz tied on 4.45ppm. But the latter three are all famed for their reliability.
LOW weight and a small engine mean a great power-to-weight ratio and so it is that the Lotus is streets ahead here – at 9.33ppm it costs exactly the same as a Ford Focus 1.6 Zetec on fuel over three-years/ 60,000-miles. The Audi, despite its four-wheel drive hardware and extra weight, puts in a good showing on 12.85ppm while the Honda and Mercedes-Benz are tied on 13.39. However, the Honda is by far the most powerful car here – offering 77bhp more than the SLK200K.
IT IS no surprise that the Mercedes-Benz dominates the residual value section of this road test – the three-pointed star is a desirable badge in the used market, regardless of which model it is. CAP predicts it will retain 48% of its cost new after three-years/ 60,000-miles, resulting in a depreciation cost of 21.18 pence per mile. The Audi, which retains 46%, will cost 23.74ppm and the Honda (44%) will cost 24.02ppm. The Lotus Elise comes last in this comparison on 25.99ppm thanks to its residual value prediction of 40%.
THE Lotus takes victory here, thanks largely to its performance in the fuel section – its combined economy figure of 40.9mpg is streets ahead of the competition. The Mercedes-Benz finishes second on 39.02 pence per mile, largely due to its lower front-end price and the best residual value prediction. The Audi is third because of its steady performance in the depreciation, fuel and SMR cost sections. Fuel costs push the Honda back into fourth spot – using all of its 240bhp is a thirsty business.
Emissions and BIK tax rates
THE Lotus takes a clear victory here, thanks to its combination of low weight and a relatively low power engine. The Elise may have only 1.8-litres and 156bhp, but its power-to-weight ratio more than makes up for it, while still being exceptionally benefit-in-kind tax friendly.
The Honda fares relatively well here and has exactly the same emissions as the Mercedes-Benz, despite being far more powerful.
THE Lotus wins the day on running costs but as an everyday car it is not a viable proposition – it's too much of a sports car to be anything other than a weekend fun machine. Of the remaining three, the Honda offers comparable performance to the Elise in a far more user-friendly package and is the winner here. It may not be the most cost-effective, but the performance it offers is unrivalled by the Audi and Mercedes-Benz.
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £25,815
CO2 emissions (g/km): 237
BIK % of P11D in 2002: 29%
Graduated VED rate: £155
Insurance group: 20
Combined mpg: 28.5
CAP Monitor residual value: £11,400/44%
Depreciation (24.02 pence per mile x 60,000): £14,412
Maintenance (4.45 pence per mile x 60,000): £2,670
Fuel (13.39 pence per mile x 60,000): £8,034
Wholelife cost (41.86 pence per mile x 60,000): £25,116
Typical contract hire rate: £485.85 per month