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Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Honda S660 Set To Get Tokyo Dancing To A New Beat

Honda S660 Concept
Having failed to provide you coverage of the Frankfurt Motor Show due to being busy (and a little disorganised), let's look forward to the Tokyo Motor Show a month from now. This is obviously where Japanese car companies, still among the world's biggest, get to flex their robot muscles and show us what they're up to. It turns out, Honda's up to something very cool indeed. This is the S660 Concept, a near-production preview of a new small roadster that fits within Japanese "kei car" regulations.

You may not think of Honda as being a company strongly associated with sports cars and small roadsters - that's Mazda's game, right? - but their history is littered with them. Their first car (after establishing themselves as bike makers) was a weeny little front-engined roadster called the S500, back in 1962. Only two years after their first road car, they entered Formula 1 in 1964 with the entirely in-house RA271. This featured a 1.5L V12 mounted sideways behind the driver that was a stressed member of the semi-monocoque chassis. Revving to an unheard-of 11,500rpm, it didn't see success until it was put in the 1965 RA272, when Richie Ginther won the Mexican Grand Prix. This was the first Japanese F1 victory, and I think I'm right in saying that Honda are still the only Japanese manufacturer to have won races in Formula 1, as they've also supplied engines to championship-winning teams like McLaren and Williams. Meanwhile their roadsters grew in popularity with an S600, a hardtop version thereof, and later an S800. The numeric part of the name referred to engine size in cc, so we're talking the kind of engine that's not all that far away from their bike engines; tiny but revvy.

Top Half: Beat and NSX
Bottom Half: S2000 and S600
Skip forward through the decades and you find the Honda Beat [pictured left in yellow]. Designed by Pininfarina, no less, this Kei-class mid-engined roadster packed a 656cc 3-cylinder engine with individual throttle bodies producing the usual 63bhp (the limit for Kei engines, for some reason) at a tuneful 8100rpm. It lasted from 1991-1996, when there was a wave of Kei sports cars that included the Suzuki Cappuccino and Autozam AZ-1 (badged as both a Mazda and a Suzuki). It may not have made its mark like previous sporting Hondas, but there's a cult following, and anyone who likes light, simple, revvy sports cars can appreciate it. However, much more appreciation is shown for their other mid-engined car of the '90s, the superb NSX. I won't go on about the NSX long, partly because I already have and also because it doesn't really have much relevance to the new S660 Concept, but Honda's first and only supercar was the Japanese showing Ferrari how it's done, and when the Senna-honed supercar (an obligatory thing to point out) faded away in 2005, it left a simply-but-beautifully-shaped hole in the soul of Honda. The S2000 was similarly loved, being cheaper and more common as it took on the Porsche Boxster, Mercedes-Benz SLK and arguably the smaller, less powerful Mazda MX-5. Its absence from the current range is also sorely felt. Currently there are no rear-wheel-drive Hondas in production with four wheels, and the closest thing to a sports car they have is the CR-Z, a car that promised both a Lotus-worthy drive and Prius-worthy fuel economy in a shape akin to the old CRX, but failed to deliver on either of the former promises with its meager 123bhp and lack of an all-electric mode for cities. We did have the Civic Type-R, and there is another one coming with 280bhp and a turbo, but is a hot hatch really a sports car? Perhaps debatable.

That brings us back to the S660 Concept, a more realistic update of the electric 2011 EV-STER Concept. Honda desperately needs an image-boosting car again, and seeing as the "new NSX" is primarily being done by their American luxury brand Acura, it could fall to this car to inject some much needed fun into the H badge. As the name suggests, this Sports car has a 660cc engine - still three cylinders but this time turbocharged - which is mounted sideways behind the driver and produces the usual 63bhp that Kei cars cannot legally exceed. It won't need 8100rpm to make that power, as things have advanced since the '90s, and it ought to be very economical too, because unfortunately it's connected to a CVT dronebox with seven simulated gears, one element that doesn't pay tribute to the Beat, which had a clutch pedal and a gear stick whether you liked it or not. It's expected to weigh around 900kg, so 63 horsepower is actually not bad. If you think back to your first cars, they probably had those sorts of figures, and I certainly enjoy revving the crap out of my 64 horsepower, ~1000kg car and throwing it at some corners on a Sunday. Driving a slow car fast trumps driving a fast car slowly all day every day, and that method of driving in a mid-engined roadster would be fantastic!

I should point out that production is in no way confirmed, and it would likely stay in the Japanese home market like the Beat did, what with Kei cars not being a thing anywhere else. But considering they've taken a concept from two years ago and turned it into something production viable (the joysticks have been replaced with a steering wheel, for one thing), you'd have to assume they're serious about it. There's already a rumour that they could later export it to other markets with an enlarged engine, displacing a whopping 1000cc - a whole litre! - and producing a thunderous 100 horsepower. Steady on, Honda!

We'll find out more at the Tokyo Motor Show in a month's time, when Honda will also display some uninteresting compact SUV crossover concept and the New NSX Concept. Again. That hints at the production version coming soon. AGAIN. In the meantime, here are a couple more pictures of the cute little sports car for the masses that could just help to turn Honda's image back round again. Hopefully someone out there can find a manual gearbox for it when it does reach production...

The production version will come with a roof that folds away on top of the engine. Japanese folk know tight packaging

Honda refer to this as an "open-top sports-type mini-vehicle." Personally, I prefer "Kei roadster"...
F1-style shift lights aren't so big a deal with a CVT. I get the fuel economy thing, but fun and pretend gears don't mix...
Yes, this is my first blog post in a month. If you follow me regularly, I'm sorry, but then you're used to this kind of thing already. Sorry. Again. I have a window to do some blogging now and I'm damn well using it!

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