Monday, January 21, 2008

Honda S2000 vs BMW 330i ZHP

Yes, I know, apples vs oranges.

Martha has not liked my S2000 since I got it, at first because it's loud and has a hard ride, and more recently because it has no back seat. She wanted me to switch to something with 4 doors. We toyed with the idea of getting a Prius for a while, until I realized that I wasn't going to be happy with anything that couldn't wag its tail on dry pavement.

It may seem odd to be comparing these two (or three) cars. I'm not trying to figure out which is the best car in a particular category, rather, I'm trying to figure out which category I want. I decided that I could live without the convertible top, but not without that sense of engagement I get while driving.

The BMW has most of that engagement, so I got that. It's a used 2004 model year car. I am much happier buying a used car than a new one. I bought the Honda (a 2002) new because at the time the new ones were only a couple thousand dollars more than the used ones. The resale value has held up well enough that it should end up costing about $13/day (depreciation, gas, insurance, tires, and maintenance), which is about what I think I should be paying for a car. Because the BMW is used, it will hopefully depreciate at about the same dollar rate even though the car was more expensive new. The Prius would have been a lot less expensive.

Both cars claim almost exactly the same peak horsepower, though the BMW is 500 pounds porkier. Even so, it accelerates faster, because I'm not willing to thrash the Honda's clutch, and because the broader torque curve makes it much easier to be in the right gear in the BMW. The BMW engine feels more practical; it can relax, and it can lunge, and it is inline-6 smooooth. The Honda engine is more exciting, and responds quicker. Where the BWM takes maybe 200 ms between throttle lift-off and actual engine braking, the Honda's delay is unnoticeable -- maybe 50 ms. Throttle-on delay is tiny in both engines. The Honda sounds better, too, and between 6000 and 9000 RPM it is literally in a class by itself. I wish Honda had built a 9000 rpm inline-6 for their car(s). Fuel efficiency scales with body mass, as usual: almost all cars eat their weight in gasoline every year. Just think about that the next time you are considering buying a big pickup.

The Honda transmission is better. The throws are easier and much shorter, it's less rubbery, and it feels better going into gear. I am really going to miss this shifter. The BMW has wider spaced gears (the ZHP comes with a 6-speed manual), which would be a disaster on the Honda because of the peaky torque curve but in this car give a very relaxed engine note on the freeway. A mechanical engineering friend told me that the Honda transmission is probably the best ever made for a production car, so everything else is a step down. That's the problem with really nice stuff -- transitioning away.

The Honda steering is better. The ratio is faster, and it's lighter. The BMW tends to kick back approaching stop signs with uneven pavement. This last issue is probably due to the heavier car on wider rubber on the BMW. The BMW steering wheel is thicker and nicer to hold.

I haven't really pushed the BMW around yet, and I never did push the Honda past its cornering limits, but I can say that the very first thing I liked about the Honda is still true: there is less commitment in corners. When you are tearing around a bend, you can change your mind, change your line, get into the brakes, roll on the gas, you can do all kinds of things and the Honda reacts in a predictable manner. The BMW feels committed, and that feels scary. Operators vill not exceed zeez limits.

The BMW has a nicer interior than the Honda. It's quieter, the stereo is better, the instruments tell you your averaged MPG, and there is more room. The pedal position is way better than the Honda -- you can really toe-and-toe in the BMW; the Honda pedals were too far apart to do that reliably. Toe-and-toe'ing is lame, though, compared to heel-and-toeing. The best pedals I ever had were in my VW Bug. Yes, the car had a lot of other problems (it rusted all the way through the roof in one spot, the gas pedal would occasionally stick to the floor, and the steering oscillated badly at 70 MPH) but I've never driven any other car in which I could reliably match revs while under hard braking.

I like driving the new car, and I've taken all three girls in it now and they like it. (Well, Ava is noncommital, but she is just one year old and hasn't yet developed her appreciation of these things.) Anya yells "two wheels" going around brisk corners in this one too, although I sometimes think I hear a wistful note in her voice. Ah well, life goes on. I'm sure the next car will be a barge.


  1. got your blog looking for factory engineering reports on the s2000 (I just bought a 2004). my question though is in reference to whether a '92 accord owned by an old lady (43000 mi)needs timing belt replacement. I've had a bunch of hondas and admire their engineering foremost. I have a hard time believing the warning that the mechanics admonish: get it done or the engine will eventually be destroyed. what say you?

  2. Not that I have any amazing insight to share, but I just go with what the factory mechanics say. Most cars have sufficient clearance for the valves that even if the timing belt breaks, the valves cannot crash into the pistons. The '92 Accord is probably one of these ("positive clearance engine"). So you probably won't frag the engine instantly if the timing belt breaks.

    I had a Mazda Miata on which the mechanics installed a timing belt wrongly... twice in a row. Eventually they got it right, and no damage at that time to the engine. Positive clearance engine.

    The guys (Kurt and Dorn's in Palo Alto) dropped a cotter pin into one of the cylinders, however, and 5000 miles later that thing got caught in an exhaust valve. This was about 11 years ago.

  3. If any of you have a ZHP, please register it on Project ZHP Registry.