Graham Bell test Honda's practical supercar
Recent weeks have seen a huge revival of interest in the Honda NSX thanks to the acclaimed performance of the Type-R version, even though that car isn't actually for sale in the UK - at the moment anyway. That says a lot for a car that's actually changed very little in the 12 years since it first stunned the world with its exotic styling, its groundbreaking all-aluminium construction and its advanced high-revving V6 with fibre reinforced metal and VTEC variable valve timing.
Honda are currently debating whether producing a UK spec NSX-R is worth it, so at the moment, the quickest NSX we Brits can buy is the manual hardtop version featured here, which is good for 0-60 in around 5 seconds and almost 170mph. It might not be able to quite match the NSX-R's pace but still has plenty to offer those seeking a supercar that's equally suitable for work days and track days, not least of which is Honda's renowned reliability.
Twelve years on and the NSX's distinctive styling still excites as evidenced by the attention it gets. It has been given a facelift this year with the most obvious change being the switch from the original pop-up lights to faired-in units. These apparently help reduce the drag coefficient from 0.32 to 0.30, but while they might improve the NSX's aerodynamics, I'm not sure they do anything for its aesthetics. From some angles they look fine, but from others you can see that they bulge out from the bodyline, giving the NSX an odd 'frog eyed' appearance.
The NSX's interior hasn't changed much since day one either, but unlike the exterior the interior has never generated much excitement. Best described as very black - right down (or up) to the headlining - it's often been criticised for being bland, but what it might lack in flair it makes up for in function and a superb driving position.
As befitting a supercar, the NSX sits you very low in a seat that provides good lateral support at both hip and shoulder levels. The pedals are directly ahead of you in a roomy footwell complete with footrest, while the steering column adjusts for both reach and height, and though the low roofline inevitably limits headroom there's plenty of fore/aft seat adjustment so it should accommodate most people very comfortably.
Personally my only gripe with the NSX's interior was lack of stowage. The big glove box lid gives the impression it'll have big glove box, but it doesn't. The glove box is actually so tiny that the owner's manual completely fills it. OK, you can squeeze a map in with it, but that's it thanks to the passenger air bag taking up the space. The only useable interior stowage is provided by the centre console, the split arm rest of which will take a mobile phone and some change, with the console itself offering just enough room for sunglasses and a few cassettes.
There's no stowage room in the nose either - well only that already taken up by the spacesaver spare - though the NSX's long tail allows it to redeem itself in the practicality ratings by facilitating a boot that's big enough to take four medium sized suitcases.
Even more unusually for a mid-engined coupe, the NSX scores highly in the visibility ratings too. You can see the tops of both front wings from the driver's seat which helps to place the car when negotiating gateways or lines of cars, while the low level rear wing is an excellent reversing aid and that wraparound rear window makes rearward manoeuvring a damn sight easier than with the usual rear buttresses.
Twirling the steering wheel during any of this requires no effort thanks to speed sensitive electric assistance, though rapid negotiation of mini-roundabouts requires an inordinate amount of wheel twirling thanks to a surprisingly slow 3.2 turns lock to lock.
More usefully, the clutch pedal is equally light in operation while the six-speed close ratio gearbox has a slick precise shift - not that that matters much around town, especially as that VTEC V6 is flexible enough to potter along happily at 20mph in top.
In fact the only thing that stops the NSX being a totally soft drive around town is the suspension, this year's revisions seeing uprated springs at the front and a beefier anti-roll (and 10mm track increase) at the back along with 17 inch wheels all round, these wearing 215/40 and 255/40 Dunlop SP Sports front and rear respectively. The result is a decidedly firm ride, causing interior creaks over urban bumps (tracked down to the unoccupied passenger seat and stopped by pressing on the cushion) and making trips along manhole infested roads an unpleasant jiggly experience best avoided if you have a full bladder.
Considering it was such a technical tour de force when it was launched it's maybe surprising that the NSX hasn't been given the all the latest electronic driver's aids as part of its updates, but it hasn't. All you get now is what you got back in 1990, namely ABS and traction control to help you keep that aluminium body safe in slippery conditions plus air con and cruise control to help keep your body comfortable on long commuting trips.
B Road Special
But while the NSX does the easy town driving and effortless commuting bits well, what it does best is the B-road blasting bit. And while the NSX might have six forward gears, for maximum speed and maximum fun along twisty rural roads you only need three of them.
Second gear you use for overtaking, because although that 3.2 litre V6 will pull happily from tickover, with its maximum 276bhp being delivered at 7,300rpm and peak torque just 2,000rpm lower, motivating the NSX with any real urgency requires plenty of revs - which not only produces rapid acceleration but THAT noise.
From around 6,000rpm when the VTEC's high lift lobes take over until the limiter cuts in at 8,500rpm the NSX emits a sound that's probably best described as a cross between a roar and a wail. It is quite simply aural ecstasy for petrolheads and it's a pity we didn't grab an MPEG to go with this report because it must rate as one of the best road car soundtracks ever.
Third gear you use for sweeping corners, which is also where that stiff suspension comes into its own, soaking up bumps at high speed without any of the creaks or thumping you can get round town and enabling you to corner hard with plenty of feel but hardly any roll. In extremes the NSX displays mild understeer under normal conditions, while with traction control switched off it is possible to induce power oversteer if you try hard enough, but in general it follows exactly the line you choose for it, thanks in no small measure to the impressive grip provided by those Dunlops.
The reason you use third for cornering is because that will generally bring you out of the bend with the engine just entering the VTEC zone, meaning maximum acceleration and maximum aural entertainment along the straight - or straighter - bits. If they're long enough to hit the limiter in third then that slick shifting close ratio box will enable you to get into fourth without the engine dropping out of the VTEC zone.
Then, when you do run out of straight, you can line up the corner and hit the brake pedal hard safe in the knowledge that the powerful all round vented discs will quickly knock speed off with no danger of snatching a wheel, then change down, turn in, clip the apex, straighten up and hard back on the power before doing it all again.
Thanks to an unusually dry Sunday afternoon and a favourite B-road that was even more unusually devoid of traffic I was able to repeat this exercise numerous times over the course of several miles, and the NSX's rapid acceleration, taut handling and brilliant noise made it a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
If the NSX does have a dynamic flaw it has to be its steering, which while confirming more feel than most power assisted set ups is far too slow compared to its cornering abilities and could probably stand to lose a full turn lock to lock. Also, the NSX felt skittish at high speed along poor surfaces, but that's not unusual for such a firmly sprung car. In the main though the NSX felt totally composed, and with its high levels of grip it could clearly have tackled the turns faster than I was prepared to push it.
It's a good'un
The NSX is undoubtedly an accomplished and enjoyable driver's car and offers a proven mixture of high performance and high reliability, so the question is why did Honda only manage to sell eight in the UK last year? Maybe people thought it was too old. Maybe they thought it was too expensive. Maybe they forgot it even exists?
Whatever the reason, the renewed interest aroused by the NSX-R combined with a whopping ten grand price cut compared to the previous model (now £59,995 for the version featured here) looks likely to see rather more of these unusually practical supercars leaving Honda showrooms in 2003. But how many of them - if any - will be Type-Rs?
Links: NSX Links
© Copyright Graham Bell 2002