PH Heroes: Honda NSX

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.

The 3.0-litre VTEC will rev to 8000rpm, a party piece that seems slightly old hat these days, but which marked out the New Sports car eXperimental as a supercar extraordinaire when Honda wheeled out the first production model at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show.

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.

Even in its youth, though, the NSX initially came across as the supercar playground weakling - not enough cylinders (everyone else had eight or 12) and not enough power. But the Japanese newcomer managed to avoid being bullied by staying light on its toes, nimble where it mattered, especially around a track.

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.

Honda's engineering ethos has always focussed on efficiency, and as Colin Chapman had previously proven to some effect, you can achieve great efficiency through light weight. Remove mass from the body, for instance, and you then don't need such a large, heavy engine to propel it, nor such large brakes to stop it, you can reduce the size and weight of the wheels - and so it goes on. The NSX was the world's first supercar to use an aluminium monocoque body. Which saved about 200kg compared with a steel equivalent. Incorporated into the body was an extruded aluminium frame, for strength and to attach components to, together with aluminium suspension and an all-alloy engine.

That all equates to lightness you can feel from behind the wheel. You can feel it in the NSX's willingness to change direction; in the way that, once you've changed tack, there's not the momentum of excess weight trying to drag you further around. You can feel it in how the springs and dampers don't feel overworked, or in how snappily the Honda responds to the throttle and dives into three-figure speeds, and in how brutally fast it comes to a halt when you're serious with the nicely progressive and feelsome brakes.

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.

Okay, we are slightly wary of the consequences if a mishap should befall this particular car. It's a pre-production prototype (which means Honda can either crush it or keep it - it can't be sold), and its claim to fame is that Ayrton Senna is alleged to have once driven it briefly around the roads of Chiswick. For a while it was butchered by trainee mechanics at the Honda Institute as they honed their skills, before being stuck outside to decay. A couple of guys from the press workshop later reclaimed the NSX - said to be the second ever in the UK - and restored it for use as a sort of 'museum' demonstrator. The fact that it has done less than 12,000 miles suggests they're pretty picky who they lend it to...

On the trip down to our photographic location on Salisbury Plains, the NSX proves an amiable companion. Ride quality on the motorway is fine, helped by the damping effect of the substantially upholstered seats, and visibility is excellent - the glasshouse was modelled on that of an F16 fighter jet and, while we're not inspecting the clouds for signs of bandits at 12 o'clock, the fact that the NSX stands knee-high to an SUV does make you wary of trucks.

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.)

Which is all very... worthy. A considerable achievement given the NSX can also scorch around a track. But it does leave you wondering if perhaps your supercar ought to feel, well, supercar-ish all the time, even on the run down to Tesco.

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

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (417) Join the discussion on the forum

  • scampbird 24 Jan 2011

    God I miss mine...

    I know the original 3 litre, non PAS cars, are seen as the best but, call me biased, I'd rather have my 3.2 6 speed. Little bit more power and a 2nd gear that isn't quite so crazy.

    Perhaps the auto made it feel more normal, but I never felt I was driving a normal car when I took mine to the shops. It did have a sense of occasion. And it had its foibles, like a gearbox that needed warming up before it worked well.

    What a massive shame that Honda UK chose to keep an auto.

  • anything fast 24 Jan 2011

    the best Jap car ever...

    it has aged gracefuly and i think it now looks truly beautiful and better than a Ferrari 348. Funny thing was it looked a tad arkward next to a 348 when it came out, of the two the NSX is the now one that makes me smile with the fondness you have for an old friend.. when i see a 348 i just think you couldnt afford a 355!

  • Ozzie Osmond 24 Jan 2011

    The greatest tragedy of the NSX is that it left the drawing-board with such dull styling.

    Truly the frumpy ferrari, and not helped in the marketing department by its cylinder count.

  • kambites 24 Jan 2011

    Ozzie Osmond said:
    The greatest tragedy of the NSX is that it left the drawing-board with such dull styling.
    And yet I think it's probably the best looking car of its era. Subtlety isn't necessarily a bad thing.

  • GlenMH 24 Jan 2011

    I walk past an NSX specialist every day and he usually has a couple in being worked on. I *always* stop and look longly at them.... Particularly the Type R he had until just before Christmas... frown

    Edited by GlenMH on Monday 24th January 10:51

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