When I was in High School a friend of mine’s family struck oil, literally. They owned some piece of Texas flatland that had suddenly produced a successful well and his father celebrated by buying an Acura NSX. I didn’t know much about the car but I took one look at it and knew it was special. I sat in the passenger seat and to that point this silver NSX was the closest I’d come to riding in an exotic. Even then I thought silver was a terrible color for a sports car. To me this was a Ferrari, and it deserved a Ferrari color.
Two decades later the two NSXs sitting in front of me are making up for my initial disappointment. There’s a pristine ’95 model in red with a factory fresh tan interior, and a yellow ’97 bought by the current owner only weeks before our shoot. All these years and cars since my first encounter with the NSX and now I’ve got the chance to really drive not one, but two. I wonder if this will be one of those cautionary tales about not meeting your heroes, but I’m still excited.
The styling is timeless, even the pop-up headlights don’t seem to date this car like they have on others. There’s a flowing simplicity to the lines of the NSX, and it allows bright colors to accentuate the shape without becoming overbearing. When I walk around the red ’95 to really ponder the styling I realize this is a car I enjoy from every angle. That’s rare. My only critique comes in profile, where the rear overhang seems a bit too long for a mid-engined car and I wish for the cropped look of a Lotus Elise or Ferrari 458. But, this extra tail does give the NSX a usable trunk and allows the sheet metal to curl beautifully up into the integrated rear spoiler. To this day I’ve never seen a rear wing I like better than the one on the NSX.
Inside the cabin feels both modern and familiar. The dual cockpit design with a sloping center console and compact gauge hood reminds me of the 90s Nissan 300zx, a car I owned and loved. But the NSX is full of high-end materials and ergonomic touches far above the Z car and better than many modern day exotics. The gathered leather look on the seats and door-panels is the only dated feature. The plastics feel high quality. The leather and soft touch rubber coatings are both durable and pleasing. This car’s nearly twenty years old but the surroundings feel more luxurious than anything Ferrari or Porsche offered through the 2000s. How is that possible?
The 3.0 liter V-6 kicks to life with all of the drama of a Honda Accord. It just works. The engine doesn’t offer the drama of a Ferrari or the unique flat-six burble of a Porsche. It sounds metallic, and frankly trouble-free. But climb off of idle and the engine grows in personality as the RPMs rise. Get up into V-Tec and this car offers a distinctive howl all its own.
The NSX is not a powerful car. During its lifespan many other cars matched or eclipsed its numbers. The initial 270hp figure lags behind the 300zx and the Toyota Supra, both of which were cheaper. However the NSX benefits from its aluminum construction, giving it excellent rigidity and a weighing less with a driver and passenger than the Supra and Z do when empty.
What the NSX lacks in grunt it makes up for in accessibility and willingness. The engine climbs quickly, responding to the long pedal travel and seeming to sense the urgency of your right foot. The V-tec can trundle along quiet enough for a sleeping neighborhood or howl at full throttle like it’s trying to wake the dead. While many family sedans sold today offer far more power, few other cars give everything they have with such abandon.
Climbing into the yellow ’97 allows us to experience the only major power-train change in the NSX’s fifteen year lifespan. From 1997 to its end in 2005 the NSX offered a 3.2 liter V-6 with twenty more horses and fifteen more lb feet of torque. In the process the five-speed gearbox got swapped for a new 6 speed unit and the whole changeup reminds me of the difference between an AP1 and AP2 S2000. I shouldn’t be surprised as the same engineers responsible for the NSX went to the S2000 for their next project. This is an incremental change and when you consider the horsepower wars of the last decade, the NSX starts to feel almost quaint for continuing with less than 300hp on tap. More surprising is the problem of the automatic NSX, which soldiered on with the smaller engine through the entire run of the car, thereby proving two key truths: 1) no sportscar should come in a traditional automatic. 2) The NSX is better with a manual.
My co-host, Paul, and I were both surprised with the five-speed transmission, enjoying it as much or more than the six-speed. The increased power and gears of the ’97 felt superior in slow commuting or high-speed blasts, but in the tight corners of a canyon the ‘95’s five-speed required less shifting and a great ability to extract power.
Driving the NSX along a canyon road brings to mind the Porsche Cayman and the Scion FRS. The mid-engined layout and easily controllable balance of the NSX feels like the driver-involved tossability of the Cayman. Meanwhile, the surprisingly analog electric steering and the challenge of hanging on to speed in a superb handling but underpowered car remind me of the FRS. These modern cars help shape my feelings on this old NSX in today’s market place. But thinking about this car in its own time is quite different.
When the NSX was released Ferrari was making the 348, and Porsche was still making the 964 911. Honda had specifically targeted the 348 during development and taken advice on the car’s setup from Formula 1 legend Aryton Senna. The NSX entered the marketplace looking every bit as exotic as its competition but offering a lower price and better reliability than Ferrari couldn’t hope to match. Though I seriously doubt anyone at Ferrari really broke a sweat over Honda’s offering, it did alert buyers everywhere that a sports car could and should be both lust-worthy and usable.
Driven slowly, the NSX feels as reliable and straightforward as an Accord. Pushed through corners and boiled in V-Tec, the NSX shrinks around its driver and offers amazing mid-engine balance with little fear it will bite back. This is a car built for roadtrips to racetracks across the nation, while offering satisfaction in either activity.
Interestingly, the NSX has hung on to its value better than the Ferraris of the same era. Most are available around forty-grand, while many can be found for sixty or even a hundred thousand dollars. The Ferrari 355 can be found for similar or less money than a NSX, meaning these cars are not only reliable to own and inexpensive to maintain, but close to their original value. That seems like a lot of money for this twenty year old car.
There’s no denying the NSX is a special car. Behind the wheel it’s involving and analog in spite of the electric power steering. The interior is driver focused while still inviting and comfortable. It is reliable enough to be driven cross country or hooned at a track. Unfortunately for the NSX, all those things can be said about a first generation Porsche Cayman and those can be purchased for the same money or less than a good NSX.
Then I climb into the '95 again, push it up into V-tec and marvel at the balance and sense of occasion available in an NSX. With 0-60 times around 5 seconds it won’t win any stat arguments and can be matched by many modern cars. The steering rack is slow and requires more motion than most current sports cars and worlds more than Honda’s own S2000. And yet, there’s a smile on my face and a desire to drive this car again, and more, and harder than I’ve been able to do so far. I’m going to miss this car once I hand over the keys.
I wonder if the up-coming new NSX has a chance of feeling this unique and impressive when it debuts, let alone 20 years later.
Have you driven the NSX? How much would you pay to own one?
Tells us your thoughts below!