BRASELTON, GA - Power and Honda are not two words that are usually linked, unless you're talking Formula One or the pricey Acura NSX.

But the new Honda S2000 changes that: With 240 hp from a mere 2L the all-new rear-drive 2-seater is set to challenge the very upper reaches of the U.S. roadster market.

The S2000 - only the second rear-drive Honda to ply U.S. roads - began life as the SSM concept at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1995. Honda designers, engineers and powerplant gurus have crafted a striking and stylish high-performance convertible that puts out its 240 hp (at 8,300 rpm) from a 2L, 16-valve, dual-overhead-cam aluminum 4-cyl., all with a California low-emissions vehicle (LEV) rating.

With a keen eye placed squarely on the likes of the Porsche Boxster, BMW Z3 and Mercedes SLK, Honda has met its rivals with a truly competitive offering on any measure of design, handling or power. But it has the competition considerably better with an estimated $30,000 sticker - at least $6,000 under its nearest rival and only about half the cost of its priciest competitor. Official pricing won't be revealed until closer to the car's U.S. debut in September.

>From the separate "engine start" ignition button to the 6-speed manual >transmission with a short-throw, racing-type shifter and the tuned exhaust >growl, Honda has added many details to contribute to the high-performance >image.

Jumping inside, the visual racing cues are unmistakable: aluminum side sill plates, aluminum sports pedals and a Formula One-inspired digital cockpit.

A top-down drive in the sunny Georgia countryside or pounding hard glide around the Road Atlanta track prove that the performance matches the looks. The 50/50 weight distribution give balance to the ride. It's solid and suprisingly comfy for an open-topped roadster. Handling is assuringly precise, and the power - preferably with engine revs sitting in the 6,000-plus range - provides much better than than ample reward.

Standard equipment on the rear-driver includes power-assisted 4-wheel antilock disc brakes, electric rack-and-pinion steering, 16-in. aluminum alloy wheels, a limited slip differential, remote operated premium CD sound system, electric windows, remote keyless entry and cruise control. Also standard is a power convertible top that closes in a snappy six seconds - coincidentally the same time it takes the S2000 to go from 0 to 60 mph.

The only option of the S2000 package is a dealer-installed air deflector that fits between passenger and driver headrests.

Honda innovations on the S2000 include a low back-pressure metal honeycomb catalytic converter, an all-new independent in-wheel double wishbone suspension and a climate control system that can direct more heat to the center of the vehicle with the top down.

Under the hood, the power-packed multi-valve 2L takes variable valve timing to a higher state and squeezes all the power it can via innovations such as fiber-reinforced cylinder liners, lightweight forged aluminum pistons, direct ignition, a multi-port air-assist injection system and a compact, sidemounted anciallary drive system for alternator, air-conditioning compressor and water pump that uses both sides of a serpentine belt.

The moves to keep the package compact makes the 2L about the same length as the 1.6L Civic engine.

Honda's new "high X-bone" frame (see sidebar) also provides torsional rigidity, say Honda engineers, that's "equal to a closed-top vehicle" without an increase in weight.

Current calendar year production of the S2000 at the Takanezawa plant in Tochigi, Japan, will run at about 15,000, say Honda officials. Honda expects annual U.S. sales to be 5,000. Maximum line rate at the plant, which also builds the NSX and the new Insight, is 100 per day. Sale of the S2000 in Japan began in April. U.S. prices will be revealed closer to it arrival in showrooms this fall, says Honda.