Back in 1991, Honda launched a radical 660cc mid-engined mini-car called the Beat. Built exclusively for the Japanese domestic market, it was the last car that company founder Soichiro Honda green-lighted for production before he passed away.
The Pininfarina-penned Kei-car (called ‘kei’ in Japan because of the engine size) was powered by a 660cc three-cylinder engine generating around 48kW. And yes, it was rear-wheel drive.
Now, some 22 years on, Honda is revisiting that small, mid-engined combination again with this sharp-looking S660 Concept slated for a world premiere at the Tokyo motor show in late November.
Only this time, Japan’s number three car-maker is targeting a global market.
Honda has a rich heritage when it comes to small engine capacity sports cars. The company started experimenting with tiny coupes like the 360cc S360 in 1962 and the S500 in 1963 -- around the time that the Honda-owned Suzuka circuit opened and the company started grand prix racing.
The last ‘S’ series sports car of that early era was the S800 in 1966. To celebrate its 50th anniversary in 1999, Honda brought back the ‘S’ prefix with the high-revving S2000 that finally went out of production in 2009.
By the time 2010 came around, Honda had already started designing its next ‘S’ series coupe, a concept that debuted at the 2011 Tokyo show called EV-Ster. Those six letters referred to its all-electric powertrain incorporating two motors driving the rear wheels.
Given the EV-Ster’s positive feedback at Tokyo, it is no wonder then that the S660 Concept we’ll see this year is almost identical to the original concept of two years ago.
In fact, first impressions are telling. The EV-Ster’s exaggerated grille design, edgy bonnet and rear lighting scheme have been replaced by an exterior that can only be called ‘near-production.’
Cornering senior designer Ryo Sugiura at the preview in central Tokyo, we learn that the S660 will land in showrooms by 2015 pretty much as is. That’s good, because we think it’s a real looker.
“The only addition will be a fully retractable roof which you don’t see on the concept,” he said. “Oh, one other thing -- we put more angle on the windscreen, that is, we laid it down more because we felt that an upright windscreen is old-fashioned,” says Sugiura, who admits his favourite cars are the Ferrari Dino 246 and the Alfa Romeo Tipo 33.
However, with the knowledge that electric cars are struggling to find their niche in virtually every global market, Honda opted for a turbocharged 660cc petrol engine to power the S660.
That should bode well for this mini sports car, because apart from its almost perfect 50/50 front/rear weight distribution, and a 48kW-plus engine, the coupe also gets a seven-speed CVT gearbox with paddles for manual shifting.
The engine expected to power the production S660 will be a tuned version of the engine in Honda’s popular N-One mini-car, which employs a turbocharged petrol triple generating 48kW at 6000rpm and 104Nm of torque at 2600rpm.
However, one source close to Honda says the company is currently evaluating engines for export models and may settle on a turbocharged 1.0-litre unit which should produce upwards of 75kW.
In a mini-car that tips the scales between 850 and 900kg, that would give the S660 some serious attitude where it counts.
Inside, a compact squarish steering wheel is designed to give drivers more knee room, while the cream-coloured driver's seat trim is meant to signify a driver-focused cockpit design.
But as designer Sugiura adds, “any export version, and we are not saying we have one yet, would have to undergo some major body modifications like the impact-absorbing ‘5mph bumpers’ required for the US market, as well as wider fenders and wheel-arches for larger tyres.”
Interestingly, the S660 is actually part of a bigger picture for Honda -- a picture we are hearing involves three mid-engined sports cars and a reference to the “third brother” of a mid-engined trio that Honda bosses are currently evaluating.
That new coupe, says one Honda engineer, could be similar in size and price to the Toyota 86. That’s good news because without the S2000, Honda certainly needs a compact sports car to slot in between the new NSX and the S660.
In the same way that Honda launched a range of sports cars when it entered Formula One back in the early 1960s, it is looking more like a similar scenario with a new range of sports cars destined to start landing in showrooms about the time Honda teams up with McLaren to return to F1 in 2015.
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