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It would have taken a brave person to bet on Japan becoming an economic and technological superpower in the middle of the 20th century.
As the futuristic, fuel-injected Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing took to Germany’s autobahns in 1954, barely any roads in Japan were paved.
By the time the term ‘supercar’ had crept into the automotive vocabulary with the arrival of the Lamborghini Miura, even fewer would have predicted a Japanese car maker creating its own mid-engined masterpiece.
So for that nameplate – NSX – to carry through to a third generation may have come as a surprise even to the man who first dreamed the impossible dream.
The NSX project began in 1984, born of a desire by company founder Soichiro Honda to match its European rivals on the road as well as the track.
Away from the circuit, Honda’s sights were set on the supercar market, and in particular the Ferrari 308.
From the outset the NSX was a hugely ambitious and advanced project, highlighted by the difference between it and Toyota’s MR2, which was launched the same year design work began.
The MR2 was Japan’s first mid-engined car, but Honda’s supercar was in a different league.
It was the first series-production car to feature an all-aluminium monocoque – a move as groundbreaking in 1990 as that of the Type 14 Lotus Elite more than three decades earlier.
With Honda then dominating Formula One as an engine constructor, it wouldn’t have been too much of a leap to assume that the NSX would be powered by a V12.
Instead, the company’s engineers opted for a bespoke 2977cc V6, a gem of a quad-cam engine that used trick titanium internals which allowed it to spin to an electronically limited 8300rpm, while a clever VTEC variable valve timing system, trialled on the CRX, offered linear yet exhilarating power delivery without the need for forced induction.
Chassis and engine were united in a purpose-built factory at Tochigi that housed 200 of Honda’s best and brightest, hand-picked to piece together each car.
While a contemporary Civic took a 12-hour shift to build, some 40 hours were devoted to each NSX.
Such care resulted in high demand and long waiting lists: even if you had the money, getting your hands on Honda’s new supercar was an epic challenge.
The NSX never made the big time of popular culture like its period rivals from Ferrari.
While Prancing Horse-badged sports cars played starring roles in everything from Magnum PI to Miami Vice, the Honda instead occupied a world of technological counter-culture, when daytime TV shows were switched off to give way to late-night marathons of Gran Turismo and Need for Speed.
The pixelated renderings of Japan’s first true supercar were etched into the minds of an entire generation, mostly too young to drive.
Jeff Dobbie is a tifoso who came under Honda’s spell and now owns ‘our’ magnificent NA1, with manual gearbox, unassisted steering and just 16,000 miles on the clock.
“I wasn’t a fan as a kid, I always had Ferrari stuff on the wall – Berlinetta Boxers and 308GTBs,” he says.
“But I used to live in Midhurst, just north of Goodwood, and my elderly neighbour had one from new.
“It was all dinged and dented; he used it to get his wheelbarrow repaired and would stick it in the boot.”
“That sparked my interest,” he continues. “I always wanted a Q-car, something under the radar.
“I managed to twist his arm to sell it to me, and I eventually traded up to my current car.
“They draw people from similar backgrounds, quirky engineer types. They are just so well built.”
Pininfarina was involved in the early HP-X concept, but the Ken Okuyama styling is all Honda and perhaps the NSX’s most contentious feature.
“I don’t like the view from the back,” admits Dobbie.
“They decided to make the boot bigger. Typical Honda, it’s almost too practical.
“I sometimes don’t know whether it’s good or bad, but it’s certainly different.”
Eager to share his enthusiasm, as all NSX owners seem to be, Dobbie chucks over the keys to his Formula Red car, and before he can point out that the cockpit was inspired by the F-16 fighter, we’re strapped in and ready for take-off.
The NSX might not be highly strung, but it is highly tuned: throttle response from the naturally aspirated V6 is almost instantaneous, with progressive delivery throughout the range.
Even the VTEC system is unobtrusive, although you can feel the change of camshaft profile at 5800rpm.
The exhaust note sharpens, too, giving a more urgent edge when really going for it: as you approach the redline it screams with an attitude that’s lacking during everyday driving.
Things feel light and nimble yet assured as you press on, thanks in part to clever double-wishbone suspension that uses forged aluminium components to reduce unsprung weight by 30%.
A ‘compliance pivot’ that rotates outwards helps absorb shocks and keeps things composed on the crumbling surface of our test track.
It’s a remarkably easy car to place, even once wound up and at pace, and it never threatens to lose its composure without notice.
Wheels perhaps summed up the NSX best in its 1990 road test: ‘It darts and rushes with none of the machismo of the musclebound Italians.
‘You drive this one with the brain and fingertips. With a Ferrari or Lamborghini it is bravado and biceps.’
Soichiro’s dream was refined as the years went on, with the targa-topped NSX-T joining the range in 1995 and a new 3179cc V6 and close-ratio six-speed gearbox available in early 1997.
The uprated drivetrain marked the arrival of the NA2 model, which for a time combined the pure looks of the original with a useful increase in performance; it wasn’t until 12 years after launch that the styling got a long-awaited revamp.
When the time came, in 2002, the mechanicals stayed largely untouched – bar small changes such as spring rates and tyre widths – while the bodywork enjoyed a light refresh that included a tidier front bumper, side skirts and rear valance, and an aero package that nudged the top speed to 175mph.
The biggest visual change was the pop-up headlights, which were ditched in favour of cheaper and lighter fixed projectors that, crucially for Honda’s motorsport ambitions, didn’t increase drag when they were switched on.
Self-confessed NSX obsessive Mike James is a big fan of the redesign, and when the chance came to buy this high-mileage yellow example, he took it.
“It came up for sale on PistonHeads and the advert said ‘high mileage, owned eight years, ex-F1 driver’s car’,” says James.
“Because I was an NSX fan I knew it was Jenson Button’s: there’s only one yellow facelift in the country.”
“I’ve had it for 10 years and it’s now on 187,000 miles. I used to drive it to Swindon and back, all through the winter.”
He goes on: “I do an oil change every 3000 miles and it has never let me down; nothing has ever gone wrong.
“I changed the original clutch at 169,000 miles, but apart from that it’s needed nothing: no wheel bearings, no bushes, no arms.
“It’s never had an engine rebuild. The exhaust did get rusty, and because a stock replacement from Honda is £3000 I put an aftermarket Pride exhaust on it.”
“I had an NA1 before that and I loved how they drove. It was literally my dream car,” he shares.
“Most people say don’t drive your dream car because it will be awful, but when I drove the NSX it was better than I thought.
“It was perfect. I’d choose an NSX over anything I’ve ever driven.”
Like the early car, the facelifted machine is a delight at sensible speeds with a similarly compliant ride that absorbs bumps and jolts better than a supercar has any right to.
Take it by the scruff and it goes like hell, coming alive above 6000rpm and howling as it approaches the redline, thanks in part to that fruitier exhaust: you have to be in the car to appreciate the noise of the NA1 on the limit, but the later model is a treat for everyone within a five-mile radius.
If the front-engined Advanced Sports Car concept of 2007 gave a hint that Honda wasn’t quite finished with the supercar game, the naturally aspirated, transverse-V6 NSX concept that arrived in 2012 gave a much stronger indication.
The task of creating the next generation NSX had been given to the firm’s North American division, which was assigned three engineers who worked on the original project.
Despite being teased for many years and a V10-engined road car being cancelled when the firm pulled out of F1, Honda’s new creation took just three years to go from drawing board to reality – a huge improvement over the original model’s six-year gestation.
It followed a similar ethos, being designed to match the best European sports cars in terms of looks and performance, but with the sort of reliability and practicality for which Japanese cars in general, and Hondas in particular, have become known.
A £150,000 price-tag took the NSX further into the supercar stratosphere, but for that you get a mixed-material spaceframe with a rear-mid-mounted, dry-sump 3493cc twin-turbo V6 making 500bhp.
Like the old NSX, the new machine doesn’t so much embrace technology as give it a bear hug: a 48bhp electric motor sits behind the engine acting as starter motor and flywheel, while each front wheel is assisted by an electric motor, each rated at 37bhp.
In total, the peak power hits an impressive 573bhp.
That’s good enough for a 0-60mph time comfortably under 3 secs and a top speed just a touch over 190mph, despite it tipping the scales at 1725kg.
It’s the electric motors that pile on those Christmas pounds, but while they inevitably weigh the car down, they also endow the NSX with four-wheel-drive surefootedness and an ability to blast out of fast, sweeping bends quicker than almost anything at the same price point.
Even compared to the hottest of NA1 and NA2 variants, the new NSX is in a league of its own in terms of acceleration and real-world performance: with the taps fully opened and all motors working in unison, the NSX is biblically quick, emitting a monstrous roar as it blasts down our test track.
From the outside, on a return run, the noise is enough to make the hairs on your neck stand on end.
It’s that spine-tingling performance that has proved such a constant draw for Peter Buchanan, who, despite being a family man with two dogs and a penchant for classic Jags, has made space in his garage for a 2017 Curva Red NSX NC1.
“I remember being somewhat overwhelmed by the performance on my first drive,” says Buchanan, who has clocked up 3500 miles in it so far.
“I take it for an occasional Sunday drive to Goodwood – it really brings the senses to life with its unbelievable acceleration and cornering.
“Having bought the car on a whim, it has now become a cherished member of the collection and has not disappointed in any way.”
More than a quarter of a century separates the first NSX from Buchanan’s car, and, despite the technological chasm between the two machines, the similarities are striking.
Both early and late cars qualify as engineering tours de force, and even the interim facelift model, which should be outclassed and outgunned by its contemporaries, stands tall among its peers.
Each machine offers a fascinating blend of digital technology and analogue feel, as impressive and capable on track as it is taking the kids – well, kid – to school or on a blast down to the south of France.
The latest iteration of the NSX, just like the original, has many fans but more detractors than it deserves. The irony is that, whether you love it or hate it, it’s probably for the same reasons.
I fall firmly into the former camp: I love that the NSX – in all its forms – is both blisteringly quick and supremely practical.
I also like that it isn’t universally adored, and that it’s still a special rarity that appeals to a select few who value precision, reliability, capability and cutting-edge engineering over fragility and a badge.
And yet plenty of people will probably tell you the NSX is boring.
It’s a bit like the dating game: so many people these days want someone who will ‘keep them on their toes’, as if somehow going out with a volatile sociopath is a good thing – a necessary trade-off for having someone attractive on your arm.
A partner needn’t be a robot just because they don’t randomly cut up your shirts or flush your phone down the toilet, and just because an NSX can run for 160,000 miles on the same clutch rather than needing a new one every couple of years doesn’t make it uninvolving or soulless.
It makes it great.
Images: James Mann
Honda NSX (NA1/NA2)
[Details for NA2 where different]
- Sold/number built 1990-2005/18,685
- Construction all-aluminium monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 2977cc V6 with sequential multi-point fuel injection and VTEC variable valve timing [3179cc]
- Max power 271bhp @ 7100rpm [290bhp @ 7300rpm]
- Max torque 210lb ft @5300rpm [224lb ft @ 5300rpm]
- Transmission five-speed manual with twin-plate clutch or four-speed automatic, torque-sensing differential, traction control, RWD [six-speed manual, single-plate clutch]
- Suspension independent, by double wishbones, coilover telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering rack and pinion with speed-sensitive power assistance as a no-cost option
- Brakes 11in (282mm) ventilated discs with four-channel ABS [11¾ (298mm) front, 12in (303mm) rear ventilated discs]
- Length 14ft 5½in (4405mm)
- Width 5ft 11in (1810mm)
- Height 3ft 10in (1170mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 3½in (2530mm)
- Weight 3062lb (1389kg) [3084lb (1399kg)]
- 0-60mph 5.8 secs [5.7 secs]
- Top speed 168mph [175mph]
- Mpg 28
- Price new £55,000 [£60,000]
- Price now £45-90,000 [£75-120,000]*
Honda NSX (NC1)
- Sold/number built 2016-date/2558
- Construction multi-material spaceframe with carbonfibre floor, and plastic and aluminium body panels
- Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 3493cc V6 with twin turbochargers and electronic fuel injection
- Max power 573bhp @ 6500-7500rpm
- Max torque 476lb ft @ 2000-6000rpm
- Transmission nine-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, RWD with supplementary 47bhp electric motor; additional 37bhp motors driving each front wheel
- Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones, rear multi-link; magnetorheological dampers f/r
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes 15in (380mm) front, 14¼in (360mm) rear carbon-ceramic discs, with servo and anti-lock
- Length 14ft 9in (4490mm)
- Width 6ft 4½in (1940mm)
- Height 4ft (1215mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 7½in (2630mm)
- Weight 3915lb (1776kg)
- 0-60mph 2.9 secs
- Top speed 191mph
- Mpg 26
- Price new £150,000
- Price now £120,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication