The Forgotten NSX

The Honda NSX (or as North Americans know it as, the “Acura” NSX) will always be one of those vehicles which was truly groundbreaking, but never received the credit it honestly deserved.
Production of the Japanese supercar ceased a few years ago – with a little over ten thousand units produced in total. All of which was achieved within a fifteen-year life span and it all sounds impressive until you find out that Ferrari was able to sell over ten thousand “360 Modenas” within only six years.

Essentially, the NSX (or “New Sports Car Experimental” as Honda called it) was a failure in terms of sales, but truth be told Honda didn’t care. Perhaps had they cared a little more (updated versions and what-not) the NSX could have been more successful, but they knew from Day One it was going to be a niche car. That is what indeed the NSX was and, is.

With original production slated for the early 1990’s, Honda’s then-current Formula One driver, Ayrton Senna, was brought into to give the NSX a racing edge. With his vast knowledge of driving experience and Honda’s superb technology, the project was set. This project would be something completely new for Honda who had never enjoyed a reputation for expensive and fast street cars. This would be a design brief that not only showcased Honda’s current formula one technology, but also display a usability, reliability and comfort well known in Honda road cars. Sadly Mr. Senna would never see the full potential of the brilliant NSX as his life was cut short in 1993 when he suffered a fatal Formula One racing accident.

At the time, this specific market offered just three major names (Porsche, Ferrari and Lotus), and a few followers. All of these cars offered a specific individuality – not only to each manufacturer’s nameplates, but of their respective countries. At the time Porsche was offering the “930 Carrera” and it alone offered everything a sports car enthusiast wanted. It had the heritage, the power and most certainly the prestige of a brand with over thirty years of illustrious history. The same could also be said for Ferrari and their offering, the “348”, as well as Lotus and their “Esprit S4 Turbo”. Meanwhile, America was offering the well known “Chevrolet Corvette” and even Dodge had the “Viper” (also a newcomer at the time).

With all of these vehicles aimed at specific market, they could not have been anymore different. The Lotus utilized a turbocharged four-cylinder, while the Porsche offered six cylinders, the Ferrari and Chevrolet offered eight cylinders and of course, the Dodge was offering a bombastic ten cylinders. And then came along a tidy and sexy-looking exotic sports car with a Honda badge. Such an image was probably a laughingstock to competitor manufacturers, but just as Ferrari learned in the ‘60’s with Ford and their “GT40”, looks can be deceiving.
The NSX was indeed different in this company of cars. For instance, it sported an interior which one could describe as luxurious (very much unheard of in those days). With all sorts of amenities like power windows, air-conditioning, power seats and a radio, the NSX was looking like a bit of a Bentley compared to the minimalism of the other cars.

The engine of this wonderful vehicle didn’t give a whole lot of clues either as to what the NSX was truly capable of. Despite the fact that it was producing a more than acceptable “270bhp” (in those days) and a sophisticated V6 churning out some where around 200lb-ft of torque the NSX was looking hammered – properly. However, the truth remains that the 3.0 litre 6 cylinder was capable of a most unheard-of 8000 rpm rev limit (please note, only the Italians at the time could boast such an achievement).

This intelligent DOHC motor also featured the innovation of an item called “VTEC”. While car enthusiasts are familiar with such a name these days, the NSX was the first Honda to feature such a program (notably adapted from Formula One) and it also broke ground when it happened to be the first high-end sports car to feature any system similar. Only later, would Porsche implement a system of similar operation in a 911 – that being the 993 (“VarioRam”, now coined “VarioCam”).

In the early production run, the NSX made up for its below-average power with the use of variable valve timing. Honestly, in the early days the NSX didn’t have much trouble keeping up with the best of them in a straight line, but as the years passed manufacturers closed the competition as constant updates of Porsche 911’s and Lotus Esprit’s soon arrived (meanwhile the NSX didn’t receive any mind-blowing updates till 2002).

At the time, the NSX’s true weapon was its ability to crush its rivals on the track and even the mighty 911 had great trouble disposing of this newcomer. It didn’t make much sense to sports car aficionados and even dispensed a bit of humility to those who nitpicked and heaped doubt upon the car after its release. Seriously, how could a Japanese car with a luxurious interior and minimal power run with the best of them?

The track is truly where Honda’s Formula One experience shined and it was all down to the chassis dynamics and the extensive use of aluminium. While sporting a conventional steel tubular chassis, the NSX was first road car (yep!) to have its exterior body fully forged from aluminium. This not only offered a great deal of rigidity and balance, but allowed the NSX to save weight and equal (if not out-do) its rivals on the performance scale. With the addition of racing-bred compound brake discs and a 5-speed manual, the NSX was one of those cars that was seriously meant for the track and hence, perfect for the true sports car enthusiast.

What made it all even more so deceiving was how well the NSX served it’s purpose as a road car and when I meant “road car” – I mean a real one (not one advertised as one which clearly wasn’t). Many of the vehicles in this segment were truly not daily-drivers, but the NSX was yet again different. With an interior offering excellent ergonomics, a chassis which was firm but also comforting and an engine which was both economical and smooth, but tough and racy when demanded, the NSX shortly cemented a reputation as the “user friendly” sports car. While common now, this was revelatory at the time. And did I mention that it was a Honda? Just like their regular offerings, Honda screwed the NSX together pretty well, and the NSX hardly ever broke down – compare that to the high-strung and temperamental offerings from Ferrari and Lotus! While honestly lacking any real luggage space (surely a problem) the NSX was one of those unique vehicles that could actually be taken on a long trip across the country. A barrier had been transcended.

Yet back in Japan, the NSX was considered anything but a “normal car”, as its production process was something which only exotics such as Ferrari and Lamborghini were treated to. Nearly the entire car was hand built and in turn, brings us to one of the NSX’s biggest downfalls. The price tag!

Yes, it’s true, the NSX was never known as the “bargain supercar”. At the beginning of its production life the NSX was fairly priced among its rivals, but as time passed on and rivals continually upgraded, the NSX soon gained another reputation – that of being “overpriced”. Yet despite the fact it was painstaking for Honda to produce and pricey for consumers to purchase, this did not discourage Honda from continuing to perfect their “baby”. As time passed on the NSX did receive updates, but so few and mostly of such low importance, that those updates can fairly be considered as inconsequential. Nonetheless, perfection, always so hard to attain, was reached.

Later versions included a “targa”, as well as a sequential/automatic transmission. Meanwhile, at its peak the engine was eventually bored out to an extra .2 litres and power peaked at just 290bhp. While such a power figure was acceptable for the 1990’s, the NSX’s price tag meant most of its segment competition had around 350bhp.

Anyhow, the most important version arrived (the “NSX-R”) in 2002 (In Japan anyways, the Europeans received the slightly reworked vehicle in ’04). This balls-out, no-bull track day-inspired NSX monster featured none of the amenities which previous models boasted. No air-conditioning, no radio, no power seats and for the Japanese version, no driver airbags. With the extensive use of carbon fibre and other lightweight bits (like a thinner glass rear engine cover), Honda was able to create a true winner.

NSX-R at its place of dominance

In 2004 this “NSX-R” achieved true glory when in a test conducted by German car magazine “Sport Auto” it was able to match the lap time set by the Ferrari 360 Modena (eight minutes, nine seconds) on the Nurburgring Nordschleife. This impressive lap time also meant it outperformed the 405bhp Porsche 993 Turbo, the 375bhp Ferrari F355 and the 350bhp Lotus Esprit 350.

An amazing feat considering the NSX was using technology that was around ten years old at the time. Honestly though, the NSX-R wasn’t quite as usable as a road car as the regular version, but nonetheless, this was still very impressive.

As the years passed by, the NSX was gradually forgotten by most and is often discussed as the “underpowered, overpriced, no prestige supercar with a Honda badge”. By the time the late 90’s arrived NSX sales dramatically bombed and its final years revealed merely ten or so vehicles being sold in the United States. But you know what? It doesn’t matter.

The story of the NSX brings us here. With the determination and heart Honda was able to create a winner – perhaps not in terms of a “sales winner”, but surely in the hearts of true car enthusiasts. For those unaware, the NSX even managed to make an impression on “McLaren F1” creator Gordon Murray, who stated he wanted the “F1” to have the usability and drivability of a Honda NSX. Apparently Mr. Murray also said something along the lines of: “I want the F1’s transmission to feel just like the NSX’s” (which he believed to be the best on the market at the time).

Often dismissed, The NSX nonetheless had an impact on the supercar segment that rippled out far and wide. Yet, except for a small group of automotive enthusiasts, little is generally known of its history and impact on the automotive world. It all seems a bit unfair in the summing up, because the NSX is deserving of great praise.

Author: Bruce McCulloch

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  1. I haven’t forgotten the NSX. It was a great car and really raised the bar for all exotic cars. I am convinced it be a sportscar icon now if not for the fact that it was Japanese. Old prejudices die hard, and most people just cannot accept that any Japanese maker could put out a car that would run with the best cars in the world.

  2. It was always sort of a pipsqueak among the big boys. I can appreciate what Honda did with what they had, but it was doomed from the start from a sales angle.

  3. I liked the approach Honda took with the NSX. Instead of brute force, they got the job done with finesse.

  4. Excuse me sir, art thou a stoner…?
    THe Mclaren F1 had been in development since 1988…. Honda was arrogant and decided to do their own car and BMW cemented their reputation of being the best engine makers around….
    Honda was playing around with many ideas…. since 1984… but never really had their minds in a straight line… frankly the NSX could have been a better machine than the F1.. however…. It never will be…

  5. What’s you’re point about the F1 being in development since ’88?

    True, Gordon Murray did want a Honda engine for the F1, but they decided not to offer one. That was Honda’s choice, but eitherway it’s completely irrelevant to what the article points out. This article is not about the McLaren F1, it’s about the Honda NSX and it only makes vague mention of the impact on Gordon Murray. But, while where on the subject of Mr. Murray, did you know he bought a Honda NSX when it came out?

    As was mentioned in the article, Honda could have constanly fed the NSX with numerous power upgrades and whatnot, but choose not.

    And I don’t think anyone (certainly not myself)said the Honda NSX was better than a McLaren F1. That would be trite.

  6. Nothing wrong with the NSX that another 100 hp wouldn’t have cured.

  7. Speaking of horsepower, didn’t the NSX come out of the gate with 270, not 260? Or was it different in the U.S. and Canada?

  8. Actually you’re right, thank you for pointing out my mistake. It was 270bhp (274PS).

  9. I can tell you that in Oz the NSX was never considered a second-class citizen. We always appreciated the virtues of the NSX over their competitors, even though we hardly ever saw one about the premises.

  10. Sir-

    Page 1-2 of the “Acura NSX/NSX-T Body Repair Manual 1995 Model Series” states: “The NSX/NSX-T has an all aluminum monocoque body…” and not a “conventional steel tubular chassis” as you suggested in your article.

    Nit picking, perhaps.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the rest of your article. It does need more HP but as Carroll Smith once said to me (we were discussing the NSX at the time) “there isn’t a car out there that, after owning it for six months, you don’t say to your self, “this would be a really great car if it only had another 50 horsepower.””


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