Honda NSX – Not So Much ‘Supercar’ as Genuinely Super Car

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By Mark Smyth

By today’s standards, the Honda NSX is not a supercar, at least not when it comes to the Top Trumps stats. Actually it wasn’t a supercar by the stats of the day either, with the beer swiggers’ Lamborghini Countach developing upwards of 353 hp and the champagne quaffers’ Ferrari Testarossa producing 390 hp. In contrast, the NSX produced just 253 hp and 249Nm of torque. Most hot hatches will kick its pretty back-side these days.

At the time it wasn’t even really a poster child either. Youngsters heading into Athena (crikey I’m getting old) to buy a picture to put on their wall probably wouldn’t even find an NSX in the selection as they flicked through the metal framed posters, opting instead for something Italian or their favourite pop star. 

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Perhaps the New Sportscar eXperimental (that’s NSX in case you’re wondering) lacked the drama of its rivals, not just in terms of performance but design too. The NSX has no massive wing, no interesting side strakes, no standout design features at all. Except for one – all of it, the whole thing. It’s just so pretty. Today the world has gone a bit crazy when it comes to design with everything from city cars to supercars having lines, creases, folds, appendages, carbon fibre bits stuck on and let’s not forget, massive grilles. It’s not just you BMW.

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The NSX has none of this. It’s a clean, uncluttered, beautiful piece of design, so much so that McLaren F1 designer Gordon Murray called it “monumental”, presumably in a good way, not that it looked like a monument. When you see images of houses where you can park your car in the lounge, the NSX would suit that environment perfectly. It’s a work of art reflecting Japan’s love of minimalism, of Zen, of calm.

As we’re talking design and yes, I do rather like the topic so indulge me, I need to discuss the interior. Take a look inside most cars old or new and you will regularly find that the lines don’t join up properly. There are often odd angles, and symmetry is a rare thing. Not so in the NSX, back in 1989 Honda’s designers were doing something that few designers have been able to do since. Yes, Ian Callum, we know the yacht inspired curve in the modern Jaguar XJ runs right around the cabin, but not everyone gets it like you. 

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There’s a line that starts in the doors near the B-pillar and then flows along, up onto the dash, across it and then down the other door. It does so with the accuracy of a fraction of a millimetre, something that is even more impressive when you consider the advances in technology today compared to then. I’m not going to go all design speak and start waffling on, although I possibly already am, but yes, I am rather enamoured with the way the NSX looks, inside and out.

Then there’s a chap called Ayrton Senna. The legendary F1 driver was involved in the final development of the NSX. In fact, the NSX has more to do with Senna than the McLaren Senna, which the great man never went anywhere near of course, on account of sadly no longer being with us. He had a first drive of an NSX proto-type in 1989 before famously saying that he felt it was “a little fragile.” Fortunately the engineers respected the F1 champion’s opinion, as they should and invited him to help them tweak it at the Nurburgring. He did and Honda says his input helped to make the chassis 50% stiffer. 

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Fortunately that doesn’t mean it’s so stiff that it feels like riding a skateboard. When I collected it from Honda UK HQ I was told to expect something that was less supercar and more GT. After sitting in it and making the headlights open and close, because let’s be honest, pop-up lights are awesome, I quickly discovered that the Honda people tell it like it is, the NSX really is a great GT car. It cruised down the M4 so smoothly I could have been in a family saloon, albeit one that’s so low to the ground that I was looking up at Fiat 500s in the traffic. 

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It was the first mass-produced car with an all-aluminium body making it weigh in at 1,430kg, but it’s strong too. It feels agile, quick on its feet, not in a sprint way but in a get grippy in the corner kind of way, which it is. It does this better than some modern supercars too because the power is just enough for that sort of thing. You can make the rear step out slightly if you want to but certainly not as easily as in the Lambo or the Fezza. It just ploughs into a corner and sticks, which is nice. It’s really well composed in a proper GT kind of way rather than a ‘scare you into nearly soiling your trousers’ kind of way. 

The hydraulic steering is near perfect and you feel every nuance in the road as though the NSX is actually telling you what’s going on beneath you. It’s a very communicative car and if you’ll excuse the cliché, it’s the kind of car you can properly feel at one with. That’s not as common as you might think. 

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It’s also got excellent visibility which again is a rare thing. The A-pillars are narrow, the wing mirrors small and that rear spoiler is low enough to make sure you can see what’s behind you when reversing. Seriously, those Honda people think about real-world stuff.

Push one of the buttons that are oddly all over the place inside the driver’s door space and you’ll first pop the boot, which in itself is impressively spacious. Push another and up pops the rear glass, complete with the original sticker proudly declaring “Powered by Honda.” Lift the engine cover and you’ll find the C30A, the original NSX engine. The 2,977cc VTEC motor was linked to a 4-speed F-matic auto ‘box that provides only the slightest delay in response. Not gonna lie though, it would have been great to have had a manual for some of the nicer roads. 

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In 1997, the engine was replaced by the C32B, a 3.2 litre producing 276 hp and 298 Nm with a 6-speed manual. And if you’re expecting sky high revs in the style of the Honda S2000 then you’ll be disappointed, maximum power is at 6,800 rpm in the early models and 7,300 in the later version, with both providing their highest torque in the mid 5,000s. 

The NSX was well equipped for its day too, it even had a Bose sound system. Initially, I was cruising along to the sound of Radio 2 because I didn’t have my 1990s mixtape handy for the cassette player, but then I discovered it had a CD shuttle in the boot and those nice people at Honda had slotted in Now That’s What I Call Music 1989. Cue Mike and the Mechanics singing The Living Years, Roxette’s The Look and even Pump Up the Jam by Technotronic. It took a Herculean effort on my part not to swipe the CD in the hope no-one would notice. 

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At this point, many of you clever people will be thinking, “what’s he talking about – 1989, the NSX only came out late in 1990.” Quite right, it did, but you see this was no ordinary production NSX, in fact it’s not a production run NSX really. It was one of the first pre-production models manufactured in 1989 and sent over to Honda UK to be used to train their technicians and dealers. And it’s been with Honda UK ever since, hence it having just 25,000 miles on the clock – 25,000 miles! As its keeper explained to me, it’s had various bits changed over the years, all in the name of technical training, but it’s as immaculate and original as they come.

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Eventually I had to cruise back up the motorway, the sound of that V6 combining with the voices of Paul Abdul, The Stone Roses and Tears for Fears, welcoming the rain because it meant I could pop the head-lights up (I’m really going to have to buy a Mk 1 MX-5 or a Porsche 944 aren’t I?). I’d finally ticked the Honda NSX off the bucket list and it really was worth the wait. It might not be a supercar in the performance sense, but in every way it really is a super car.

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