At the time Soichiro Honda made the decision to jump head first into automaking, the Japanese government was deep into kei jidosha, pressuring car manufacturers to create cheap, utilitarian microcars that would mobilize its citizenry. Honda-san had no interest in that, opting instead to develop a droptop sports car that hewed to his firm’s motorcycle racing traditions.
What emerged was the original S500/S600/S800, collectively known as the S-Series, engineering marvels with 10,000 rpm redlines and chain-driven rear wheels. Now, after a 6-year hiatus since the demise of the S2000, itself a comeback after a 29-year hiatus of the original trio, the S-Series is back with the all-new Honda S660.
However, the S660’s relationship to Honda’s previous kei sports, the Beat, is also not lost on the company. Both the design and engineering teams acknowledged their roots in demonstrating power band and configuration benchmarked against the Beat. In truth it is the Beat that’s the S660’s closest relative — both kei cars, both having mid-mounted three-cylinders, and both offering top down motoring fun.
The starting price of the S660 is ¥1.98 million yen ($16,520 at current conversion rates), ranging in specification and fittings up to the ¥2.38 million Concept Edition ($19,850), limited to 660 units. A number of optional accessories are available, and the range comes in two trim variations, the Alpha and the Beta.
The turbocharged, double-overhead-cam S660 is available in three standard colors —Admiral Gray, Flame Red and Carnival Yellow II — as well as three pearlized premium hues that add $250 to the sticker — Star White, Mystic Night black, and the color of our example, Beach Blue, which happened to be nearly identical to Ken’s S54 Skyline. Built to maximum kei car spec, the 660cc engine puts out 63hp, which Honda then mates to either a 6-speed manual gearbox or CVT.
The turbo three is shared with some more recent Honda kei cars, including the N-One and N-Box Slash. As such, it lacks that raw, naturally aspirated wail found on signature Honda sports cars past and trades it for an unobtrusive city car calm.
While the usual Japanese kei jidosha specification for capacity, power output, and vehicle size all apply, it’s Honda’s mid-engine engineering in an open sports car that makes the S660 an attractive package. The motor may generate just 77 lb-ft of torque, but the entire car weighs only 1,830 pounds and boasts a 45/55 front/rear weight distribution. What the S660 lacks in raw power, I hoped it would make up in straight smiles and fun-to-drive factor.
Since speaking to the design team on the release of the prototype in 2013, I had been eagerly waiting to get my hands on a production version. Now, with the S660 just launched in Japan, we were first in line to take up occupancy in a vacant factory lot on the outskirts of Kawasaki. A less-than-picturesque location to be sure, but with such an interesting car to look at we did not mind at all.
All S660 come with a removable roof. Much like the folding Targa top of an early 911, the S660 “temaki roof” is designed to stow in the trunk. Unlike the 911 though, which has a rigid collapsible frame, the S660 roof smoothly rolls into a tight bundle like something you might order at a sushi restaurant — hence the name temaki, meaning “hand-roll.”
The top itself is multi-layered, and buttons up tight under tension for a smooth, integrated look. Some serious weather engineering has obviously been included in the design, as numerous seals, rain channels, and drain holes are present on the front header-bow, rear roll-bar seal, the rear edge of the doors, and on the roof itself. This should help address the typical long-term open top woes of a cold water-drip onto your leg in winter. As an ex-Targa driver, this is a thankful addition to neutralize one of the usual negatives of having a removable collapsible roof panel.
Luggage space, however, is limited with the roof stowed in the trunk. While the roof’s storage box is removable, the total trunk space is tight and would perhaps carry one soft duffle bag or a week’s grocery shopping. What the Englishers call a “curry hook” is also provided on the rear firewall, and a single between-the-seats cup holder is also available. Taken with the glove box, this is the total stowage space available on the S660. An Autobacs-style optional cup holder is available as a dealer installed option for the passenger side only. Do not buy an S660 if you intend on packing large items, or really any items at all.
The rearward opening engine compartment lid exposes all engine ancillaries and the rear-mounted stainless steel muffler system. What look like fake vents on the rear clip are not, as with under-body diffusers and NACA ducts, they provide engine cooling flow and dissipation for muffler and exhaust routing. A Mugen twin-outlet system is expected to be available in August, along with a few other go-fast goodies. A fixed hard-top is also rumored to be part of the aftermarket catalog.
While many neat and subtle design features abound, the coolest are perhaps the simple air slots in the engine compartment lid – through which the “Honda” name is proudly seen on the intake plenum.
Getting behind the small — only 350mm — steering wheel, I initially placed the seat in the full rear position. Being 6-foot-1, I thought space would be cramped, but upon re-adjusting the tilt steering wheel and mirrors it was apparent the seat did not need to be in the full rear position. A few clicks forward were available and my head still cleared the roof with no problem at all times. In fact, despite a four air-bag interior (driver, passenger, and two side) it has more space than my S800 Coupe — good news for taller folks who may one day be lucky enough to see the S660 sold in their local markets.
From outside the S660, the tacked-on navi display looks just that – tacked-on — but in car it integrates into the driver’s view very well, and with limited dash real estate it is immediately obvious why Honda went this route. The display includes the regular stuff like full smartphone integration, Google mapping, and audio status, but also car geek stuff like a G-meter and brake/accelerator position. USB, Bluetooth, and HDMI interfaces are also provided.
Wheels and tires are standard Yokohama Advan Neova AS08s, staggered 15-inch on the front and 16-inch at the rear. The rear tires also include the world’s smallest over-fenders to ensure the S660 does not contravene Japanese Shaken requirements of tires no wider than the body being allowed. Brakes are 260mm solid discs front and rear, with optional drilled front rotors & harder sports brake pads available at extra cost as a dealer option.
Another quirk important to the Japanese: though electric for adjustment, the mirrors do not auto-retract like many Japanese cars’ do, and have to be manually folded for typical tight Tokyo parking spots. Being only of kei dimension though, this is less of a requirement than for larger cars.
Reversing lights are located behind a transparent panel bridging the rear taillights, and other standard fittings include LED headlamps. Additionally, safety features include Vehicle Stability Assist (utilizing auto-activated ABS), automatic collision avoidance (brake application on proximity to closing car at less than 30 kph), and automatic hazard lamp activation when you slam on the brakes. I avoided testing these last few items.
What I did test though was tractability through local streets, some moderate twisty bits, and expressway on-ramps and straight-line cruising. Chasing a Skyline through the sinuous interchange system in and around Kawasaki, the S660 stayed flat, grippy, and very smooth over a variety of surfaces. With a few drives planned with friends over summer, I hope to experience a few challenging touge too.
At expressway speeds it becomes necessary to close the electric rear window, at least when the side windows are down, as the through-car wind flow is much like a full convertible. However, with the rear window closed and the side windows up, coupled with a relatively high belt-line, there is zero buffeting at speed and the open roof feels much like a large sunroof.
On the expressway too, I was pleased to find the acceleration up through all six gears more than adequate for merging and overtaking trucks and buses in fast and agile passing maneuvers. Overpowered though, the S660 is not. But, engaging Sport Mode I was rewarded with both a faster accelerator response and the Ferrari-like red-ringed tachometer on approaching redline.
As you would expect, the 6-speed’s natural preload is on the third/fourth plane, so palm-only shifts up and down come naturally and smoothly (perhaps only worthy of a comment here as the S660 is the first six-speed car I’ve driven with a full manual gearbox).
What’s not apparent from the many press photographs is the engine air-intake system, which takes up a prominent position on the roll-bar behind the driver’s head. While the signature high-revving Honda induction noise is lacking, the distinct whine of the turbo spooling up for max boost approaching redline can be easily heard.
If the lack of exhaust note bothers you, however, there’s a smartphone app in development to rectify that. When connected to the USB port, it plays the engine sounds of a number of classic Honda sports machines through the S660’s speakers. Notes are matched with the engine revs and you have your choice of Civic Type R, NSX-R, or the Formula 1-dominating McLaren-Honda MP4/5.
Compared to my S800, it felt more like I was driving an Audi R8. Both have the same stubby gear lever, tight cabin, clamshell hood to sloped front windscreen, and overall luggage capacity. Out on the open road, though, it’s a different story. The Ashinoko Skyline feels very tight and skinny in an R8, but I’m sure the S660 will feel right at home.
While the limited Concept Edition — white body with red roof and mis-matched seats — is sold out, I can confirm both the red roof and Concept Edition seat variations are available as options for the rest of the range.
Rumors of an S1000 version are still about, and in speaking with our Honda rep it is apparent that the S660 in stock configuration is capable of at least 100PS, but due to kei jidosha restrictions it was limited to the mandated 64PS. The possibility of a rumored Type R version is even more compelling for its track-day weapon potential.
The Beat was the last car the famously difficult-to-work-for Soichiro Honda oversaw before his passing in 1991. Despite building a multinational empire of beloved cars and motorcycles spanning everything from scooters to supercars, in the end the old man still had a fondness for simple, pure, fun-to-drive sportsters.
For a company built on one man’s desire to challenge the boring car norm, the fact that Honda has not launched a new sports car in 15 years is a travesty. With the new S660 and a new NSX on its way this fall as well, a tide seems to be turning. Soichiro Honda would’ve definitely approved of the S660 if he were around today, but I’m sure he’d berate someone over the lack of exhaust noise.
Skorj is a photographer living in Japan and co-founder of Filmwasters.com.