New Zealand Classic Car’s Motor Man Donn Anderson recalls two drive experiences with the Honda NSX, and wonders if it has yet to achieve true classic car status

Twenty five years ago on a perfect autumn day exploring near-deserted rural roads south of Auckland, a bright-red, black-topped Honda NSX was a real tonic and an escape from recession-hit New Zealand. The $175,000 price tag, or $187,000 for the automatic version, was a huge extravagance in the early ’90s, but here was surely the most useable supercar ever offered.

Yet was this remarkable machine destined to become a true classic car? 2014 marked a decade since the ending of NSX production, with the world still awaiting arrival of a second generation. In 2007 Honda announced that a new-model V10-engined NSX was planned, then shelved the project three years later due to a poor economic climate. Now, however, the new US-built NSX is back on the table, and due for arrival some time later in 2015.

The original NSX ceased production in 2005 largely because limited sales had rendered the mid-engined sports car too costly to make. But the discontinuation was also due to the extensive retooling necessary to meet stringent 2006 US emissions and equipment regulations. A total of 18,685 NSXs were built over a 15-year period from 1990, with slightly less than 9000 of these sold into the USA as the Acura. Japanese buyers snapped up 7420, with the remainder going to other markets and only a handful arriving in New Zealand.

No Japanese car had ever cost so much. However, to put the hefty NSX price tag into perspective, on the local market in 1991 it was $105,000 less than a then-new Ferrari 348, and only $300 more than a Porsche 911 Carrera 2 coupé. It was also only slightly dearer than the same car in Britain, and an astounding $44,000 less than its sticker price in Australia.

Honda had visions of selling between eight and 10 new NSXs a year here, but even this proved too ambitious.

Reliable and exotic

A recent check of the local second-hand market showed only three examples on offer — two leggy Japanese imports with asking prices of $50,000, and a dealer-held early manual 1990 model with 125,000km on the clock for $79,990. The NSX, of course, carries the same inbuilt reliability of any Japanese car, so there is little need to be concerned about high-mileage examples. Indeed, the NSX has been acclaimed the most reliable exotic supercar of all time, with some examples running more than 300,000 trouble-free kilometres.

Imports from Japan are more likely to be automatics, yet the NSX of choice is a manual in either five-speed or later six-speed form. Both used the same C30A3 twin overhead camshaft, 24-valve 2977cc V6 engine transversely midship-mounted, but whereas manual versions produced 201kW at 7300rpm, the less punchy auto motor developed 188kW at a lower 6800rpm. The same torque figure of 284Nm at 5400rpm was quoted for both manual and auto engines.

It was 1997 that marked the arrival of the larger 3179cc V6, giving 216kW and 304Nm of torque. Like the earlier power unit, this was packed with cutting-edge technology, including a direct-ignition system, a small coil for each spark plug and electronically controlled variable valve timing.

When the Type-R was added to the line-up in late 1992, 70kg was trimmed off the original 1370kg kerb weight (including a mere 210kg for the body shell) and the aerodynamics were revised.

Specialist engineering

The NSX was made in a purpose-built factory near Tokyo that was about the same size as Honda’s CKD plant in Nelson. There was little use of robotics in the car’s manufacturing, with much of the vehicle being hand built.

Most Japanese cars require around three years for development, but not so this special Honda. Six years were spent developing the NSX, a car that incorporated new technology to make the aluminium corrosion-resistant. Special highly polished body-stamping dies were needed to give the alloy exterior panels a sufficiently smooth finish.

Yokohama developed a tyre specifically for the car, spending three years researching and producing 6000 different tyres before coming up with the right package. Original NSXs sported 205/50 tyres for the 15-inch front alloys and 225/50 rubber for the 16-inch rears and, remarkably, there were different compounds for each of the four tyres. Thus, the right rear tyre could not be used for the left rear. Without the right fitment of tyres, the traction control system would not operate properly.

In 1994 the wheel diameter increased to 16-inch at the front and 17-inch rears, while the brake pads were reinforced. December 2001 saw 17-inch wheels fitted all round, and the following year came the final update with a new Type-R now boasting fixed, integrated xenon HID headlights rather than the earlier pop-ups. Honda also added the NSX-T open-top model for those wanting fresh air, and claimed the NSX was the first true sports car to adopt clean emission measures.

The car boasted other more significant advances. In 1990 the mid-engined Honda’s all-aluminium monocoque body was a world first for a production vehicle. 

F1 success

Nobuhiko Kawamoto was president of Honda’s research and development when the NSX was created, and when I met him in Japan in 1989 his affection for classic cars was apparent. He might have driven a Legend sedan for daily transport, but his personal garage also housed a Porsche 356, a Triumph TR3, a 1935 Lagonda, and a Honda XBR500 motorcycle. Kawamoto was passionate about masterminding an advanced design in the NSX, but he was clearly also enthusiastic about older cars.

The NSX was set to capitalize on Honda’s 1980s Formula 1 success as an engine supplier to Williams and McLaren. Ayrton Senna helped fine-tune the car’s handling on Honda’s Tochigi test track and at both Suzuka and the Nürburgring, and he felt it was too fragile. As a result of the master’s input, the aluminium chassis was stiffened 50 per cent in what was almost a last-minute development. Senna’s expertise may have made a good car great.

The Brazilian Grand Prix star owned two NSXs and said, “It’s not a Ferrari, it’s not a Porsche, it’s a Honda. I drive many different makes of car. I like this car for everything it’s not.”

In 1990 Honda bravely entrusted several NSXs and a high-speed road circuit in Japan to a group of international motoring writers, including a few New Zealanders. This provided a great opportunity to explore the outer depths of the car, but it also resulted in several spins, and one of the new exotic Hondas was beached in the gravel. You could see drivers revelling in the dynamics of the car while also occasionally overstepping the mark. Still, here was a supercar perhaps more forgiving on the limit than a Ferrari or Porsche of the day.

Fresh vigour

The NSX was unveiled at a time when the Japanese motor industry was displaying new vigour. Mazda had just taken the wraps off the first-generation MX-5, and Nissan had its 300ZX. Twenty-five years ago we were describing the trio as a new sports car threat from Japan, even though there was never any idea the costly NSX would become a high-volume seller. Initially the output of just 21 cars a day was insufficient to meet demand, but the honeymoon did not last. Honda’s prediction of selling 6000 a year soon proved too optimistic — this model was creating a halo effect on the marque’s more modest range of cars rather than being a money-spinner. 

After driving the NSX in somewhat artificial surroundings on the Japanese track, where it felt superbly mannered, I was keen to sample the car on local roads, and the beautifully weighted manual steering felt just right, even at slower speeds. Automatics came with power assistance and quicker reaction, with 2.9 turns lock to lock instead of 3.1 turns on manual steering versions. Although lacking the on-centre feel and immediacy of a Ferrari 328 or Porsche 911, the manual steering relays more information to the driver than the auto NSX.

The soft-bound steering wheel is the right size and feels perfect, and the pedals are well placed for heel and toe operation. A light, slick gear-change with a narrow gate feels better than any mid-engined car I have experienced, and ride quality is good. Yet could Honda have done more to enhance the cabin ambience? While the ergonomics are excellent and the design tasteful, even the abundance of leather upholstery fails to lift the slightly characterless cockpit that spells conventional Japanese design. To many eyes this is a disappointment.

Have no fear, however, for once you drove the NSX you knew it was unlike any other Japanese car. It felt so European. Right from launch, the manual NSX safely pulled 7000 revs in fifth hear, topping 260kph (just over 160mph) after reaching 100kph in less than six seconds. Supercar stuff, no less.

Honda has long been a master of engine design, and at launch the VTEC engine in the NSX achieved one of the highest specific outputs of any naturally aspirated production engine in the world. No turbo at that time could have given such throttle response and progressive power delivery. The car sounds great, and the noise is not from the exhaust but emits from the induction system.

In 1990 this engine was clearly advanced, with two devices to promote torque at low revs and power at higher rpm — variable valve timing, and variable volume induction, or VVIS, which splits the intake manifold into two banks of three cylinders below 4800rpm. Above this engine speed six butterfly valves open, providing improved breathing and added power as the two cylinder banks are reunited.

As the VTEC engine reaches 5800rpm the character changes, and it is sheer magic the way the V6 spins so freely to 8000rpm, still 300rpm shy of the fuel cut-off. All the while the driver is safe in the knowledge this masterpiece of engines has such securities as titanium con rods. Even so, at launch some of the Honda engineers confided the car could do with more power and more character.

For a high-performance machine the clutch is relatively light, and while first gear engagement can be somewhat notchy, clutch take-up is smooth and progressive. One can only admire the panoramic visibility up front, although the nose is out of sight. Rear views of the sweeping tail are evidence enough of good three-quarter visibility, often a bone of contention with supercars.

Engineers at this enthusiastic company had the idea that the NSX would be a mid-engined car that would actually redefine the idea of sports cars. The outcome would combine the quick response and handling of a light sports car with the performance to rival heavyweight, large-engined exotics. And there should be no compromises.

Honda was the first Japanese motor manufacturer to produce a supercar, an appropriate distinction given the company’s background and support in Formula 1. With its beautifully crafted, forged-aluminium double wishbones, quad-cam engine, perfect weight distribution, ease of operation and low running costs, the NSX embodies all the hallmarks of a genuine classic car. Yet in many respects perhaps the true worth of this two-seater Honda has yet to be appreciated. The best days, it seems, are still to come.