PH HEROES: HONDA NSX
A car that was partly developed by Ayrton Senna? Definitely a hero...
There's not the same novelty value as when Honda launched this, its first supercar, in 1990, but you still get a buzz when the NSX's VTEC system hits 6250rpm and kicks into rampant life. The surprisingly rich, deep, refined tone of the V6 suddenly loses its smooth edge, turns grittier, more menacing, and the revs soar as if the engine has been blessed with a mid-run revamp. And the higher the revs rise, the more this naturally aspirated motor sounds like a competition unit, tuned as only the Japanese know how.
Now we've got hot hatches with bigger capacity engines in the front and boasting as much power as the 270bhp the mid-engined Honda started out with; the difference is, what the NSX has got can be applied in a more satisfying way, thanks to rear-wheel drive and an original team of development drivers that included Satoru Nakajimi, Bobby Rahal and, famously, Ayrton Senna.
Honda deployed its then considerable motorsport might in the development of the NSX, a tactic that often cancelled out its Top Trumps spec deficiencies. In 2003, for example, an NSX-R matched a Ferrari F360 Challenge Stradale around the Nürburgring, despite the latter's extra 100 horses; these days you could create a whole marketing campaign around a feat like that - just ask Nissan.
The only heaviness associated with the NSX is its steering in slow, tight corners. Bucking yet another piece of traditionalism, Honda equipped its supercar with the world's first electric power steering. On a modern car, electric power steering means being able to park one-fingered and arcade game feedback, but to hustle the NSX over any great distance, you'll be wanting to work on your shoulders and biceps before you get in.
Meaty steering is the Honda's anomaly - everything else about it was designed to make it convenient to own and to encourage you to drive it as often as possible. Bit like a 911, in fact, though somewhat more exclusive and with the engine a little further forward in the chassis. The NSX's reputation for everyday usability is now so ingrained that even when we pick up Honda UK's 21-year-old demonstrator from its home in Slough, we don't hesitate about using it just like we would were we relieving the press office of a 2011 Civic for a few hours.
There's not too much road or wind noise; no tramlining from the steering or thumping from the chassis. The air-con's chilly, the radio easy to tune. And the V6 has enough torque to waft you along at 3000rpm. (The auto works well on the motorway, too, but never be tempted to buy one - it ruins the driving pleasure everywhere else.)
On the other hand, the Honda's friendliness extends to its behaviour in extremis. Gentle understeer evolving into a progressively sliding tail, with none of the snappiness, say, of a contemporary mid-engined Ferrari. Compliant suspension that, while allowing more body roll than you'd expect, doesn't become jittery at speed over rough surfaces. A well-judged balance between the responses of all the major controls. A lack of threat from the chassis and aggression from the engine. It's a car you quickly have confidence in, a confidence that ultimately builds into very high speed.
The NSX continued to improve throughout its life. In 1997 the engine grew into a 3.2-litre with 290bhp, while in 2003 the second generation lightweight NSX-R proved that Ferrari and Porsche didn't have the monopoly on insane road racers. But the original NSX was the most remarkable of the bunch. Remarkable that Honda did it at all. Remarkable that it broke with supercar convention in its powertrain and construction. Remarkable that it was done so well and could go so quickly. That it could never quite out-point the other establishment players, failed to arouse the same sort of intense passion, doesn't make the NSX any less of a hero.
Pics: Brett and Antony Fraser