Some of Honda’s most loyal fans, the sports car enthusiasts, are grumbling. They kept generations of Civics, Integras and Accords because of the cars’ modest yet satisfying performance bona fides. The essence of the brand, they argue, has shifted from building exemplary everyday cars for serious drivers to mainstream for the sake of volume. Where were the sports cars that opened the eyes of a generation, like the NSX, S2000, and Integra Type-R? To where did the passion disappear?

Meet the S660, a roadster developed with the purpose of reminding Honda’s loyalists—past, present and future — that it’s a brand that still cares about having a good time.

First, the basics: The S660, so named for its 660cc engine and its link to Honda’s S-series of sport cars, is a Kei car. Based on a chassis that underpins boxy subcompacts, the 63hp S660 fits within the restrictive size guidelines that make Kei cars terrific city cars. Unlike most Kei cars, however, the S660 was intended to be a sports car first and foremost.

From a distance, the S660 looks the part of a kawaii, open-top runabout. Its styling recalls that of the ‘90s-era Honda Beat, flashing a wry smile that runs between its wheel arches. Subtle grilling behind in the metalwork behind the front seats offers a glimpse of the S660’s mid-mounted engine. The last time Honda built a compact car so cute, it was called Civic del Sol. Every aspect about its rounded-off edges and its wheels pushed to the four corners is simple.

You only really begin to notice the S660’s size upon stepping in to its bijou cabin, which errs on the sides of snug and intimate. The cabin layout is as simple as the S660’s interior design. Everything is in place. Strips arranged lengthwise along the dashboard offer an airy feel, although it’s just an illusion. (You’ll learn to get closer than usual to your passenger.) To experience real expanse, you can remove and stow the targa-style roof, and lower the panel between the front seats. The standard six-speed manual transmission is a design treat in its own right.

We were among the first few North Americans to drive the S660, at Honda’s Tochigi proving grounds outside Tokyo. First, the manual version. The first couple of hundred feet were indicative of everything we needed to know. Clutch feel and shifter action are spot on, feeling light and easy to discern from first to second gear. Steering is reminiscent of a ‘90s Civic, with just enough weight for a roadster so petite. Pulling on to the oval test track, the S660 felt like it would rev forever (it did not) and speed built up at a pace that belied its engine’s total output.

 

Out on the track, the S660’s steering remained tight and maneuverable, as we quickly ran it through the gears and up to its top speed of around 85 mph. At that speed, it remained surprisingly calm.

Honda has built a roadster that can muster the wherewithal to run flat out all the time. The S660, Honda fans, is the beginning of the product revival you’ve been expecting. A Mazda MX-5 Miata this is not, but it’s close. Welcome back to the performance crowd, Honda.

Although the short time on the banked track offered little room to explore the S660’s handling limits, we have no reason to doubt that it can dart through traffic as easily as it can tear up an autocross.

All of this goodness comes with a catch, however: You’ll probably never get to drive the S660, as it’s a product of the Japan domestic market only. Blame it on the power and size restrictions inherent to Kei cars, as well as the crash standards to which they are held—but don’t completely lose hope. The automakers has heard its evangelists’ cries, and rumors abound that Honda is considering a version for export markets that would utilize a larger, 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine.

You don’t have to be a Honda #fanboi to experience the baked-in greatness of the S660. You just need to have a Japanese delivery address.

Vitals
Honda S660
Price: $N/A
Powertrain: Rear-wheel drive; mid-mounted, turbocharged inline three-cylinder engine; 63hp, 77lb-ft. of torque; 6-speed manual or continuously variable automatic transmission

Published on Nov 09, 2015