Review: Honda S660 – It’s Like Driving A Full-Size Tamiya Car

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Review: Honda S660 – It’s Like Driving A Full-Size Tamiya Car

Angular lines, exaggerated proportions tightly compressed within a tiny package, this little Honda S660 has all the hall marks of Tamiya Mini 4WD and R/C cars, stuff of legends for any ‘80s or ‘90s kid. In the same way Tamiya and its die-cast counterpart Tomica carry a distinct Japanese character with them, so is this S660. It’s an automotive equivalent of Gundam.

At the sidelines of the recently concluded Tokyo Motor Show late last month, we had the opportunity for a short 10-minute drive in the Honda S660. Our time with the car is too short but if an equally special Japan-only icon like Maria Ozawa is to grant you an audience, you can’t expect anything more than 10 minutes don’t you? 

Designed in response to Japan’s punitive taxes on cars, the S660 is part of a genre of Japan-only ‘kei’ ultra-mini vehicles. With their body size and power output capped, kei cars are exempted from parking permits (mandatory in Japan, to be purchased from the local city council before a car can be registered) and enjoy lower excise and vehicle weight tax. They are easily identified by their signature yellow-coloured number plates.

Originally meant to spur demand for cheap, fuel-efficient point-A to point-B commuter vehicles for the masses, it didn’t take long before Japanese car makers decide that small doesn’t necessarily mean boring, and created legends like the Mazda AZ-1, Suzuki Cappuccino and the Honda Beat. Like the works of Ozawa-chan, these Japan-only specialties are highly coveted by foreigners, who can only buy them via unofficial channels.

Specifications for Honda S660

  • Engine: 658cc turbocharged, transverse 3-cylinder, mid-mounted
  • Power: 64 PS at 6,000 rpm
  • Torque: 104 Nm at 2,600 rpm
  • Transmission: 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
  • Price: Not available in Malaysia

To most foreigners, the S660 looks like a toy car but to many fans, that’s exactly why it’s so cool. Don’t for one moment assume this to a Japanese’ version of Barbie’s MINI convertible. Squeezed within the S660’s tiny package is a suite of tech borrowed from supercars. At the lower rear fenders and under the car are functional Ferrari F40-style NACA ducts that sucks in cool air to the S660’s engine, which is mid-mounted transverse, just like the first Honda NSX, and Lotus Elise.  

All the mass, including the driver, fuel tank and the 12V battery, are concentrated right in the middle, condensed and focused on the car’s centre of gravity more intensely than anything else twice its size. The result? A highly responsive car that dart’s around its play pen as if it’s a pin ball with wheels.

Even the brake calipers are installed to face inwards, within the car’s wheelbase, just like any Ferrari. The car's weight distribution is at an almost perfect 45/55 front/rear.

Measuring 3,395 mm long and 1,475 mm wide, just 5 mm below the maximum permissible size for kei cars, the S660 is smaller than even a Perodua Axia (3,640 mm long and 1,620 mm wide), a lot smaller. It has a much smaller engine too – just a three-cylinder 658cc engine. Power capped by Japanese regulations at 64 PS (achieved at 6,000 rpm) but turbocharging and DOHC boosts its torque to 104 Nm at 2,600 rpm. That doesn’t sound like much but remember that this thing weighs just 830 kg, and yet still meets Honda's own G-CON standards for crash safety, which is more demanding than many government-mandated regulations.

Catalyzing the lightweight and concentrated moment of inertia into a fun machine are two ingredients – rear-wheel drive and a short-shifting 6-speed manual transmission. Speaking of wheels, the little S660 uses staggered wheel sizes, just like supercars. The rears are 195/45 R16 while the fronts are 165/55 R15, all Yokohama Advan Neova AD08Rs.

Acceleration from 0-100 km/h is upwards of 11 seconds but that’s an irrelevant indicator when the S660 delivers more fun at 70 km/h than most other cars do at 140 km/h. Besides, the S660 is built for tight Japanese ‘touge’ mountain passes rather than German autobahns.

With such a tiny wheelbase and a super-concentrated weight balance, the S660’s already impressive handling (0.8 G on the skidpad, just 0.08 G less than the S2000) is improved further by a brake-based torque vectoring feature – which Honda refers to as Agile Handling Assist.

With the engine behind, and the foldable roof stowed in a box located under the bonnet in front, there’s hardly any room for bags so don’t even think of doing a cross-country drive in this.

Toy car? Maybe, but that’s exactly why we like it so much. It’s like driving a full-size Tamiya R/C car, remember how darty those little things were?

Inside, the S660’s cabin is as tight as you imagine it to be. However the seats adjust far back enough that our friend the towering six-foot plus tall Chris Wee from AutoFreaks.com can sit snugly inside. Yes, every gear change will inadvertently result in man-touching but the mutual love for driving always triumph over homophobia.

Settled inside the low mounted seats, you become car’s focus and everything is wrapped around you. The centre console rises towards the front, bringing the gear lever closer to the steering wheel, just like a proper race car. The dashboard is designed to be more like a cockpit than a dashboard. All the switches and controls are angled towards the driver.

Where in most cars you would sit with your knees bent slighty, the S660 makes you sit with your legs stretched out flat towards the car’s short nose, with your upper body exposed to the elements. It’s very similar to the experience of sitting in an open-wheel junior Formula series race car. The steering wheel points straight at your chest, just like any Formula series race car.

How does it drive?

The driving experience will polarize many, even among enthusiasts. If you are the type of drivers who understand and appreciate the appeal of an ‘underpowered’ but well-balanced Toyota 86 or Mazda MX-5, then you will love the Honda S660. However if brute horsepower time attack machines are what you fancy, move along and read our review of the Mercedes-AMG GT R instead.

With such small dimensions and so little power, it’s almost impossible to bin the S660 so it’s a very good car to learn the finer aspects of car control. The car responds so well and so accurately as if it’s wired to your brain. This is a car that you instinctively control as if it’s an extension of your hands and feet.

Indeed, this was the objective of Large Project Leader Ryo Mukumoto, who was only 27 years old when he created the S660. Mukumoto first car was an S2000 but he always felt that as a novice driver, it was the S2000 that was carrying him rather than him driving the S2000.

With a top speed of no more than 140 km/h, the S660 is best enjoyed on tight Japanese mountain passes, where realistic and sensible driving speeds barely go past 90 km/h. Sitting so low to the ground, with the convertible top exposing you to the elements while a rev-happy mid-mounted engine sings behind my ears, it’s like riding a sport bike.

Every upshift is accompanied by a chirp of the turbocharger’s waste gate, with added sound effects thanks to a set of pipes that amplify the sound to the cabin. The assault on your senses is intense enough to make 70 km/h felt like 140 km/h. If what you are after is pure unadulterated driving pleasure, the S660’s lack of top-end speed hardly mattered at all.

As the car is so light and with so little inertia, there is little need to brake hard for a corner. Setting the car up for a turn is simply an exercise of tapping the brakes while you heel-toe to a downshift, and pointing the car to trace the ideal line.

Rowing the tight short-shifting gear knob, you choreograph the S660’s mountain dance with your feet and hands, every move, every millimeter of pedal travel, every additional degree of steering input effecting a different pitch and yaw for the car.

The steering wheel is light and precise, and you feel every bit of the tarmac’s grip. Initiate a turn and you will feel the car rotating around your hips. With so little power, you can floor the throttle almost as soon as you clip the corner’s apex line.

How much in Malaysia?

As mentioned earlier, the Honda S660 is a Japan-only special. You can’t buy it from your local Honda dealer but grey importers are selling reconditioned 2015 models for between RM140,000 to RM150,000. Most of the cars on sale are CVT-type automatics but it is the manual transmission models that will become collectors' items. 

In Japan, a new Honda S660 is priced upwards of 1.98 million Yen, which is about 20 percent cheaper than a base-model Mazda MX-5. Applying the same price gap to Malaysia on a similar fully-imported from Mazda MX-5, the fair indicative price for a new S660 would be circa RM190,000. 

Too expensive for what is essentially an affordable sports car aimed at the young? Blame it on our government’s 75 percent excise duty, and the additional 6 percent GST. In Japan, the S660 is priced closer to a Honda HR-V.  

So is it worth the money? For its novelty factor, yes. As a driver’s car, not quite. As much as we’ve praised the S660’s driving experience earlier, we are also very aware that a big part of the S660’s charm can only be experienced in Japan, where roads are mostly populated by similar-sized kei cars, and their tight mountain pass roads are more suited to an S660 than a Porsche 911.

Outside of Japan, the S660 is easily overwhelmed by wider roads and larger vehicles. Even a Perodua Myvi can suddenly look like a Honda CR-V next to the S660. A Toyota 86 or a Mazda MX-5 would’ve been a more realistic option if good handling and two-seater sports car styling is what you’re after.

But does Honda Malaysia have any plans for the S660?

Here is where things get interesting. Officially, Honda Malaysia has no plans to introduce the S660 but for a model that’s not coming to Malaysia they seem to spend a lot of attention in ensuring that we get some driving time in it. Their Japanese counterparts are also very selective when it comes to loaning their press cars to foreign drivers. So why go through so much trouble for a car that isn't coming to Malaysia? We leave it to you to make your own conclusions.

The only other car that our hosts were paying this much attention to was the Honda HR-V Hybrid, which as we have mentioned in our review, is almost certain to be heading to Malaysia next year.

However unlike the HR-V Hybrid, the S660 was never developed for overseas market, which adds another layer of doubt as to what exactly is Honda Malaysia aiming to achieve with us driving the S660?

Unlike grey importers, authorized distributors like Honda Malaysia must comply with a lengthy list of regulations set by JPJ, including European-standard UNECE safety regulations, before they can be allowed to sell any particular model.

As a Japan-only model, the S660's homologation papers are all in Japanese language, tested according to Japanese regulations. These documents are not recognized by our JPJ and Ministry of Transport.

The situation is analogous to a Japanese student with a Japanese high school certificate not automatically admissible to a Malaysian university. This is not to say that the Japanese student is any less brilliant, but he would need to spend additional time and money to obtain the necessary papers recognized by the Malaysian government.

At the same time, we also know that Honda Malaysia is not your typical vehicle distributor company. If a certain model is popular among grey importers, Honda Malaysia won’t sit by idle, as shown with the Odyssey and Civic Type R, and we know that the S660 have been gaining traction among grey importers.

Remember that Honda Malaysia have a history pulling not one but three world’s firsts. Malaysia remains the only country outside of Japan to officially sell the FD Civic Type R, while Malaysia is the first country outside of Japan to launch the City Hybrid and Jazz Hybrid. In fact, the preview for the new Jazz Hybrid was first done in Malaysia, not in Japan. So who knows, Honda might just surprise us with the S660 next year. 

Gallery: Review: Honda S660 – It’s Like Driving A Full-Size Tamiya Car



Hans

Hans

As someone who appreciates cars not just for their horsepower value but also for their cultural significance, he is interested in the art of manufacturing and selling cars just as much as driving them. Prior to swapping spread sheets for a word processor, he spent his previous life in product planning and market research.

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