The Ferrari-kicker from the land of the rising sun

1989. A year when the authors of this blog got their driving licenses, Milli Vanilli topped the charts (without singing, as we learned later) and Don Johnson drove his (fake) Ferrari 365 GTB/4 (Daytona) in the last season of Miami Vice. In the real world Porsche and Ferrari dominated the sportscar scene, Porsche obviously with the still air cooled 911, Ferrari with the brand new 348, successor to the classical 328. Honda was a brand among many building family cars, although these were among the most reliable in the world. But even though they had the small go-cart like CRX in the line-up, it was not a brand anyone associated with supercars.

And then, out of nowhere, came the Honda NSX (Acura NSX in the US). A car with precisely the 348 as explicit target, but with in comparison unbeatable everyday usability. A car that from every angle looked absolutely stunning. admittedly with some inspiration from the same 348. And a car that Ayrton Senna at the zenith of his career had actively helped develop, along with a small team of Honda’s most senior engineers and car-builders. Finally a car that became a showcase for Honda’s technical developments at the time.

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Development and Design

Development on the NSX – New Sportscar eXperimental – had started already in 1984 but as it became clear that the Ferrari 348 would succeed the 328 at the same time as the NSX would launch, the initial ideas of a small, 2 litre V6 engine were abandoned in favour of a more powerful mid-mounted 3 litre engine. The car’s design was fully Japanese, with the bodywork and especially the cabin being inspired by the F16 fighter plane, with the objective of giving the driver a similar visibility as in an F16 from inside. Whether that is true I unfortunately cannot tell you, as my experience of fighter planes is slightly limited, but it was a shame that Honda did not take more inspiration of the F16 or for that matter the 348 to build a slightly more exciting interior, which as it was turned out a bit too close to those Honda family sedans.

The NSX was a showcase of new technologies. Firstly the aluminium monocoque body that saved some 200 kg weight over a standard body. To that came aluminium suspension, electrical power steering and Honda’s VTEC technology, allowing the engine to rev up to 8000 rpm’s with a gorgeous sound. The engine produced 270 bhp until 1997 and 290 thereafter, little by today’s standards but very competitive at the time.

imgresAnd then came Senna, who was very involved in the chassis settings of the car, testing it extensively on various racetracks both in Europe and Asia, and who himself owned three NSXs – at the same time.

Versions

The NSX was produced with very few modifications for a very impressive 15 years, from 1990 until 2005. In total around 18.000 cars were built. Outside of Japan there was only one engine version, available with a 4-gear automatic transmission (the US was an important market after all) or a 5-gear manual (6-gear on later models). In 1995 a targa version was introduced, becoming the only version sold in the US whilst it was available alongside the coupé in Europe. In 2002, the pop-up headlamps were replaced with conventional xenon headlamps.

2003 Acura NSX.
2003 Acura NSX.

In Japan the NSX was available in a number of more powerful and lighter versions, but given these cars were never exported and are all left-hand drive, but for a few that were privately imported to the UK, they never made it to Europe.

Driving

Unfortunately I have not (yet!) had the opportunity to drive an NSX. But sitting in one as I did not long ago is quite an experience. The seats are superb, the sitting position is low, visibility is indeed what you could imagine from a plane, and steering wheel and gearshift, although as said looking a bit boring, are perfectly positioned. Apart from those short observations we unfortunately have to rely on external test drives and with very few exceptions, all of these, both then and now, were very positive. The NSX handles like a true supercar from the time, with excellent balance and a chassis and suspension rigid enough to enable very good track times (thank Senna for that!). At its limit the mid-mounted engine cam apparently lead to sudden oversteer, but you would really need a race track to notice.

NSX InteriorUnfortunately a slightly boring interior, compared to the rest!

Owning

The NSX is a Honda, which is really not bad when it comes to owning one. Servicing is marginally more expensive than for a standard Honda but cost-wise has nothing to do with anything from Maranello. Insurance is quite cheap as well, and reliability is superb. But above all, Honda made a point of making a car that was as good as the 348 but easy enough to be used as an everyday car and as per reports, that is precisely the case. In other words a perfectly sensible choice as second car (or third, or fourth…)!

Which one?

Tthe first problem you run into when deciding on an NSX is to find one. The offer is very limited indeed, and finding a later version (after 1995-1996) is practically impossible. Currently there are around 10 cars available in Germany and about as many in Switzerland. In Sweden there is right now only one car on the market.

Clearly you will want to go for the manual version, as a 4-gear automatic can never do the car justice. In terms of colour, chances are you will have to settle on red or possibly black, anything else is very hard to find. There is currently no targa model on the market in the countries mentioned, but even if you find one it is not necessarily the version to go for, as the targa construction added weight to the nimble NSX and also reduced the much-praised chassis rigidity. Finally, apart from a Momo steering wheel that some cars have fitted along with larger wheels (which do the car justice!), don’t go for a transformed one with body kit or gullwing doors, those are neither good for resale value, nor for your image.

If you find the right car, the odds are that its owner has treated it well and remedied the very few shortcomings of the original construction, but if not these are anyway not costly (they notably include electrical windows getting very slow with age, and some engine bearings).

Interestingly, although steadily rising, NSX prices have not really taken off yet. You can find a good car for around 40′ EUR / 40′ CHF with less than 100.000 kms, a price that given the scarcity of cars can be expected to remain very steady if not increase over coming years.

So what more could you ask for? A supercar from the swinging 80’s, designed after an F16, developed by Ayrton Senna, free of problems and marginally more expensive than an Accord to service? Sign me up!

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