Why the S2000 is better than an Evo

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There seems to be much confusion on this subject, so we at S2ki, as a public service, would like to clear up this not-so-puzzling mystery once and for all.

For all intents and purposes, most of what’s written also applies to the “performance” offerings from Subaru (the Sti) and to a lesser extent Mazda’s new AWD Mazdaspeed 6.

The Lancer Evolution VIII is a fine car. It has loads of power, even without the aftermarket boost kits so prevalent these days. It handles reasonably well under most circumstances and exceptionally well in the wet, due to its AWD capabilities. It offers a full range of models, from the very Spartan RS, up to the tuner-special MR, and offers it all in a similar price range of an S2000. (A little more or less depending on model, options, and discounts which abound on struggling Mitsubishi’s products)

All the above said, how does the Evo compare to Honda’s S2000? There’s NO comparison!!!! They are two completely different animals and shouldn’t even be spoken about in the same breath.

The LANCER Evolution is based on Mitsubishi’s econobox the Lancer. This is a car designed to be built and sold for a very low cost ($14,599) and provide acceptable performance with good gas mileage. Acceptable performance with good gas mileage… not exactly the benchmarks of the sports car, are they?

I hear the Evo camp screaming… “Our car is as far from those base Lancers as a Nextel Cup car is from your old man’s Chevy!” While this would be yet another example of the monstrously gross exaggeration Evo owners are known for, there is also a modicum of truth in the statement that I’d like to address: While Nextel Cup cars don’t actually share a single part with the production models they’re loosely based on, the Evo too has upgraded a huge number of parts from the base Lancer model for even the entry level Evo the RS. While the motor, transmission, brakes and suspension have been completely upgraded, the chassis and body remain relatively intact. Regardless of upgrades, the bottom line remains that when you drive an Evo, you’re essentially driving the equivalent of a  tuners version of a Toyota Corolla.

Even as purpose-built race cars, the Nextel Cup entries are very limited in their handling abilities. Each year, when they take to the course at Infineon Raceway, (a favorite of west coast S2000 racers), they have to do an abbreviated version of the course as their long awkward chassis aren’t able to navigate the tricky middle part of the sport car course.

The Evo is similarly limited. I have driven a number of S2000s and Evos on different California racetracks, and I speak from experience. The Evo is a fast car, that’s relatively easy to drive on-track. The AWD makes recovery from sticky situations much simpler, and the torque advantage allows much quicker recovery from a mistake as well as making gear selection somewhat less of a factor. Lap times are reasonably close to the S2000 with the Honda usually being just a tad faster. The difference in feel is tremendous. While the S2000 is low to the ground with a center of gravity to match, the Evo sits up much higher. The shifter in the S2000 is tight and precise while the Evo shifter feels loose and inaccurate. (In all fairness, I’ve always found the shifter on the Porsches to be pretty sloppy as well, so the Evo’s in good company there) The S2000 just fits better, and it feels like a real sports car. The Evo fells like… well, a tuner Corolla.

While the Evo may be an easier car to drive, it’s capabilities in the hands of an experienced driver prove limited without spending significant $$ on suspension and chassis upgrades. I’ll give a recent example of a clear side-by-side comparison. Recently, I had the pleasure of being an instructor at one of Speedventures High Performance Driving Events (HPDE) at Southern California’s Buttonwillow Raceway. On this particular day, I had one student who had brought his stock ’03 S2000 and another with a nearly new ’06 Evo RS. (about 1000 miles on it) We were running configuration #25 clockwise which has several very high speed sections that should favor the greater powered Evo. Coming out of Star Mazda turn, one can take an almost straight line through the esses and carry very good speed entering the short straight before sunset turn. The S2000 was able to carry greater speed through Star Mazda giving it an advantage entering the esses, but the deficit is made up in the esses with the Evo’s slightly better straight-line acceleration. Exiting the esses, both cars were at similar speed, but this is where the difference in design really shows. In the S2000, I was able to stay full out on the gas and the car would hold the turn beautifully and then whip down the straightaway. When I tried the exact same thing in the Evo, the car just couldn’t hold the turn. We quickly ran out of track and were spinning through the dirt. (My student was surprisingly calm about my off-roading his brand new $30k car through the infield, much to my appreciation)

Don’t just take my word for it. An S2ki member who owns both an Evo and an S2k; had this to say:

“…if you’re an average driver pulling average times, the Evo is the car you’ll be happier and faster with. And reliability will probably be right there with the S2000. But if you’re a fast driver, the limits of the Evo quickly become extremely frustrating and you’ll have to tune the Evo to the limit of reliability (or spend a lot of money on brakes and suspension) to beat an equally fast driver in an S2000.”

As this person mentions, a “stock” Evo can be tuned (at significant expense) to turn just as well as an S2000, (The cars tuned by Robispec of California are particularly good examples) the truth remains that even after an investment of $60k plus, you’ll still just have a really-really hot tuner-Corolla. (If you’re going to spend $60k, you might as well buy a ‘Vette. You still won’t be quite as fast on the track, but you’ll have an excuse to wear those gold chains you’ve still got sitting in your underwear drawer.)

The S2000 is a purpose-built sports car that sells for the incredible bargain price of under $35k. There is no other Honda vehicle based on the same chassis. There is no other Honda vehicle which uses the S2000s phenomenal F20 or F22 power plants. It is ready for the track the moment it rolls off the showroom floor. The brakes, suspension, and every other significant element of the S2000 was designed and built exclusively for this totally unique Honda offering. The phenomenal handling and near perfect weight distribution aren’t the result of which aftermarket parts Honda threw on after the fact as is the case with the Evo. These very deliberate performance characteristics are the product of the fundamental strategy behind this incredible vehicle, to offer the public a superior sports car experience at a significantly lower price than the competition.

The design target of the S2000 was never “acceptable performance with good gas mileage”… it was planned and built from the ground up for both straight-line and lateral speed. (Decent gas mileage was just a bonus of the incredibly efficient 4cyl. power-plant) The chassis, suspension, engine, transmission, and all other performance elements of the S2000 were inspired by Honda’s incredibly successful racing program. They’ve packed all that on-track know-how into a street car that offers the public what Car and Driver referred to as “the most fun you can have south of Ferrari prices” and caused another car mag to comment: “The S2000 is essentially a formula one car with electric windows.”

If you want a fast car that can also haul Aunt Bertha and her bridge club down to the senior center, or actually be useful on a trip home from Home Depot, then I think the Lancer Evolution VII, Subaru Wrx Sti, Mazdaspeed 6, Dodge SRt4, or VW GTi are all excellent choices.

If you want a true purpose-built sports car with acceleration, handling, finesse, and top down, wind-in-your-hair thrills, sell the house, live in a cardboard box, and buy a new Ferrari 430 Spider. Of course if you’d rather keep the house, the S2000 is a very close second choice. (Oh yeah… with what you’ll save on servicing the Ferrari over a few years, you’ll be able to buy two more S2000s)

Ferrari, Porsche, Lotus, BMW, these are the marquees to compare the S2000 against… not some poser-tuner Corolla.

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