Honda / Acura NSX Education Clever Money Cars. Driving the best automotive bets. The Honda NSX is brilliant to drive. Want one? Here’s how to get the best. It changed the the rules of engagement in the supercar club at launch in 1990, and looks to do the same as a great investment. The inside gen on Japan’s greatest supercar of all. A supercar that drove better than a Ferrari, was built like a Benz and as easy to live with as a Civic? This Honda is the answer. Words Chris Chilton. Photography Jonathan Jacob.
C[/dropcap]ast your eyes over the NSX and you can picture the fleet of rival cars Honda’s engineers were benchmarking their brave new halo car against. It’s clearly Japanese, clearly a Honda, but also built from a multitude of classic sports car riffs: the Porsche 959 bridge spoiler, Ferrari-style pop-up lamps and coved flanks, and Corvette ZR1 in the glazed and (optional) black-coloured top. It’s a supergroup of iconic design cues; a car born of the 1980s but destined to make its impact in the following decade.
Reach for the handle located just above the beltline and the frameless door swings open to reveal some brilliantly period ruched leather on the door card. Originally this car would have sported seats covered in more of the same material, but it now has a tasty set of buckets along with the gold BBS rims that give it an appealing modern twist without killing the character.
Throwing a leg over the sill to climb in, a plaque bearing the legend ‘manufactured by Honda Motor Co’ tells us again what the red ‘H’ badge on the nose has given away. Below it, there’s a number: 1000059, revealing this as the 59th NSX to leave the Tochigi plant. The floor mats are monogrammed with the name of the first owner, an original option. We can’t help but wonder how great Takemoto-san must have felt driving Japan’s first supercar – and wonder how long he kept it when the country economically imploded in the early 1990s.
By Ferrari or Lamborghini standards – then or now– the visibility is incredible. We sit close to the floor but the low scuttle and slim pillars mean we can see almost everything. There’s a whiff of dismay at the dash design, which looks like it could have been cribbed straight from an Accord then canted over like a BMW straight-six, and the plain black leather-wrapped airbag wheel that shouts saloon more than supercar. But what’s lost in charm is made up for with electrics that work and switchgear that isn’t from the Fiat parts bin. In fact, judging by those weird column stalk pods, it’s actually from the Starship Enterprise parts bin.
The instruments, though bland, are large and clear. So clear that there’s no missing that the rev counter’s red sector doesn’t start until 8000rpm, a solid 500rpm after Ferrari’s screaming flat-plane crank 348 had thrown in the towel…
That’s some achievement given that this C30A V6 shares DNA with the motor you’ll find in a humble Rover 800. Okay, so maybe it’s disingenuous to stress the link. The NSX’s six has a 90º vee-layout, in common with the also-transverse Rover’s lump. But this one featured niceties like forged conrods, an extra camper bank to operate its 24 valves, and, of course, VTEC.
The Honda NSX wasn’t the first UK Honda car to use the company’s Variable valve Timing and Electronic lift Control system. But it’s a key part of the NSX’s character, and helps it make up what it gave away in cylinder count and swept volume to some key rivals.
At low revs the NSX’s V6 – measuring 3.0 litres here, but stretched to 3.2 for the later models – sounds crisp and feels eager, the sensation (literally) amplified on this car thanks to its fruity aftermarket exhaust. Brush the right pedal and the response is instant, the resulting shove in the back not sledgehammer big, it’s true, but surprisingly urgent. It’s surprising because the maximum of 209lb ft of torque sounds emaciated by modern standards and doesn’t arrive until 5400rpm. Which is about the time things start to get properly interesting.
Within a few hundred rpm of that moment the mild cam lobes, with their modest lift that have been optimised for strong low-end torque and driveability, are sidelined, a rush of oil pressure actuating a second set of spikier lobes and more aggressive valve timing. Together with the opening of a second intake in the induction plenum, VTEC turns what seemed like a pleasantly docile, shockingly driveable sports car into something worthy of banging on Maranello’s front door and demanding the Ferrari 348 step outside for a fight.
But the light-switch moment you’re expecting, that frenzied change of personality when the second set of high-lift valve lobes kick into play on a four-pot VTEC, never happens. It’s subtle – the engine note hardening, the tap on the shoulder becoming a proper push in the back and the rev counter needle moving with vigour as it hoves in on eight grand.
We’ve already passed the 270bhp power peak 700rpm earlier, but the noise is so epic we can’t help but keep it pinned. The NSX’s V6 might be at least a couple of pistons short of the accepted super ideal, but we’d swear otherwise when that mix of intake howl and exhaust wail is hot footing down our ear canal. Plenty of great-sounding engines have been built since the NSX was launched but this V6 is still special.
And that soundtrack is enough to compensate for the actual amount of go on offer. It still feels strong, but the new Civic Type R can almost match the NSX’s 5.3sec to 60mph time, reach 100mph two seconds quicker and see it of at the top end too.
Who cares? This still feels like a genuinely fast car, gives you the confidence to green-light any half-sane overtaking opportunity, and throwing gears at the V6 to extract every drop of performance is a thrill no modern dual-clutch paddle-shift box can top. There are only five to throw, a stumpy lever and neat, mechanical action to help you do it, but Honda clearly hadn’t been studying supercar etiquette when it created a gearbox that didn’t ask you to skip second gear when the oil was cold. What were they thinking? No wonder blinkered Ferrari buyers wouldn’t take it seriously.
Maybe Honda’s engineers were busy focusing their efforts on getting the pedals close enough to let us roll on to the gas for a little baaarp to introduce one gear to the next. The brakes feel strong and the crisp throttle response means we can always dish out the right number of revs.
It’s hard to believe anyone with two functioning legs could bring themselves to hobble an NSX with a four-speed auto. Yet look for a used NSX today and you’ll have to swat away scores of emasculated two-pedal cars to find a decent unmolested manual. To really dilute the experience some later cars featured a heavier targa top body and electric power steering. But car 59 gives us a taste of the NSX as Senna and the Honda development team originally intended.
Contemporary testers talked of the steering lacking clarity in communication, but the sensations wriggling through the wheel and nudging my wrists seem unambiguous today. Without assistance and with fatter rubber to move, the rack feels overly weighty at low speeds, and by modern standards it’s relatively slow.
But get rolling and it shrugs of the heft, turning into corners with real conviction and little evidence of roll, the chassis imparting a real planted feel that’s no doubt partly due to this car’s aftermarket Tein coil-overs. They’re probably responsible for a ride quality that’s harsher than the famously supple NSX felt when new, but what you lose in comfort you gain in body control. This is a busy car on a B-road – it’d be a weapon on a fast, smooth racetrack.
We can tell this car, NSX 59, a grey import, has been enjoyed comprehensively. Who can blame those ghosts from the logbook for really taking this NSX to the middle of nowhere and giving it large at every opportunity? The NSX thrives on a thrashing. It’s never intimidating, always on your side. Yet it’s also a car that can be your friend when the red mist has receded. It’s comfortable, easy to drive and the boot is huge, at least without the spare wheel.
Consider for a moment what sets a Modern Classic apart from its crustier, temperamental predecessor. Modern levels of performance and handling play a part, sensible prices too. But more than that it’s the sheer usability. The NSX is at the more extreme end of the daily driver spectrum, but that usability, the factor that set it so far apart from other supercars when new and changed the make-up of the whole genus, remains a strong suit today. And it’s no less of a thrill to drive one for it.
Experience an NSX and you can’t help feel desperately sad that after breaking the mould Honda never developed the concept further, letting others quickly regain ground. This year, the NSX finally returned to Honda showrooms, but by all accounts the latest hybrid machine is a soulless affair.
Criticise the generic mass-market cabin if you like, but that’s the only thing soulless about the original NSX. Chris Scott, the owner of this car, could have bought one 11 years ago when prices were on the floor. He didn’t, and regretted it; forced to sit back and watch as values picked up and rise to where they deserved to be. Only last year did he grab what might have been his final opportunity to buy. If you’ve always wanted to experience the car that shaped the modern supercar, now is the time.
Need an NSX in your life? Turn over for our expert buying guide
‘Who can blame those ghosts From the logbook for really taking this NSX to the middle of nowhere and giving it large at every opportunity?’
‘VTEC turns a docile car into something worthy of banging on Maranello’s front door and demanding the 348 step outside for a fight’