Over the past few years, the Honda/Acura NSX has finally gotten the credit it deserves. If there’s such a thing as a new-timer classic, this is it; just last year, we were wondering if the new NSX would ever see production. Five years before that, the original NSX could be had for used car prices. Five before that, and it was an outdated, overpriced sports car on its way out. And fifteen years before that, there were some smart people out there who were still convinced that a world-class exotic could never come from Japan.
But the NSX proved them wrong. Gloriously, gloriously wrong. Not only did the car prove that the Japanese could run with the world’s best, they could also change the rules of the game. In the past, we’ve talked about how the Toyota 2000GT proved that Japanese automakers could do world-class engineering, or how the Nissan Z-Cars created a new breed of entry-level sports car, but in the 1980s, Asian automakers were still largely known as builders of econoboxes. Sure, there was the Honda CRX, the Toyota Celica, Supra, and MR2, and the aforementioned Z. But these were “sporty cars,” nothing made for the true enthusiast – at least not according to conventional wisdom.
The 1980s were reaching peak excess when Honda quietly began its sports car program. Lamborghini was busy updating the Countach so it could be legally sold in the U.S., and Ferrari Testarossas were the hottest cars in the world, selling for nearly twice their sticker price. But despite their iconic styling, they were still ’80s era Italian cars made from weak Soviet steel, had atrocious electrical systems, and suffered from wildly unpredictable interior quality. Honda felt it could beat the exotics at their own game, and started by learning from one of Italy’s biggest names.
In 1984, Honda debuted the HP-X at the London Motor Show. With a classic wedge-shaped design penned by Pininfarina – the design house behind some of the most iconic Ferraris of all-time – the HP-X was little more than a pure concept, but it was firmly grounded in reality. Mounted amidships was Honda’s 2.0 liter V6 from its Formula 1 cars, which was quickly becoming one of the best engines in the sport. Beginning in 1983, it began supplying engines to Spirit, followed by Williams, Lotus, and finally McLaren. By 1991, Honda engines would be behind five consecutive driver championships, and rack up 71 Grand Prix victories.
But by the time Honda began to get serious about its sports car in late 1985, it decided to ditch both Pininfarina and the Formula 1 mill. The company’s objectives were simple and direct, but incredibly ambitious:
To create a sportscar for a new era, we should balance human feelings and vehicle performance at higher levels. Accordingly, that car will represent Honda value; a benefit no one else can offer.
It would out-perform the V8-powered Ferrari 328 while offering amenities like air conditioning, traction control, and anti-lock brakes. It would also feature an all-aluminum monocoque body – the first of its kind in the world. And under its aggressive wind-cheating body wasn’t a massive V12 or V8; it would use a 3.0 liter VTEC V6 to crank out 270 horsepower and 210 pound-feet of torque, more than enough to help it reach its goal. And despite all this, it would still look and feel like an exotic mid-engined car.
By the end of the decade, McLaren/Honda Formula 1 driver Ayerton Senna had put the car through its paces at the Nürburgring, helping engineers dial in its suspension and suggesting that it stiffen the chassis, and in early 1989, Honda was convinced it had a winner. From Motor Trend Classic:
“Today’s Ferraris are dinosaurs,” declared Honda’s Nobuhiko Kawamoto. “[They] are big and impressive, but they have not adapted to the needs of the times, and eventually that may be their downfall.”
Those were fighting words from an unproven automaker, but at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show (where the Mazda Miata also debuted), Honda proved to the world that it had the firepower to back it up.
Within months, the breathtaking NSX had proved itself to be the real deal; its “New Sportscar eXperimental” vehicle had paid off. Motor Trend’s Don Fuller called it “It’s the best sports car the world has ever produced. Any time. Any place. Any price.” Road and Track warned: “Its fresh, clean-sheet design is about to offer other exotic cars a lesson in civility,” and Autoweek predicted: “The near-exotic universe will shift on its axis in early August when Acura delivers the first NSX.” Suddenly, the Italians were put on notice. For $60,000 ($103K today), the NSX offered standard amenities that would cost thousands in a Ferrari and Lamborghini (with no guarantee they’d work), and with its 5.5 second zero to 60 time, it was faster than a Ferrari 348, better built, and cost $30,000 less.
Despite being an aggressive-looking supercar, the NSX would start every morning without fail. Bits of trim wouldn’t fall off or break. The electrical system was bulletproof, and it was even comfortable to drive. It didn’t need regular engine-out maintenance work performed by expensive technicians at precise intervals either. For decades, the Italians had made the rules of the game. If you wanted an exotic, well, this is what exotic cars needed. But the NSX proved that there was a better way, and once buyers caught on, Ferrari and Lamborghini began to quickly change their tune.
It was also instrumental in legitimizing Honda’s premium Acura brand in the American market. What started out as a marque to sell premium Accords had now become a builder of attractive and competitive sporty cars. The NSX was a perfect halo car; its familiar Honda switchgear and design language trickled down throughout the brand, and it truly felt like each model offered a bit of that excitement without cheapening any of it.
In 1995, the NSX saw its first major round of updates, with the targa-topped NSX-T hitting dealerships with an available four-speed automatic transmission. In 1997, the VTEC V6 was enlarged to 3.2 liters, bumping up horsepower to 290 when mated to the six-speed manual. In 2002, the car saw its biggest design changes, losing its pop-up headlights and getting updated front and rear fascias. But after more than a decade, the NSX was beginning to show its age. In a 2001 comparison test, Car and Driver said:
One would no doubt hesitate to sing the praises of a 10-year-old car among a formidable group of new up-and-comers such as these. Not only does a car’s appearance become dated after a decade, its performance is eventually eclipsed by less expensive machines. This seems to be the case with the Acura NSX.
It took a decade, but technology had finally caught up to the NSX, and few buyers could justify its now $88,000 ($117K today) price tag anymore. In 2005, Honda pulled the plug on the car, ending its foray into the supercar world after 18,685 cars had been built.
In the 2000s, the NSX fell out of fashion as the auto industry embraced technology like drive-by-wire systems, dual-clutch gearboxes, electronic nannies, and integrated infotainment systems. But recently, the appeal of “analog cars” has taken root with collectors, with 1990s performance cars becoming some of the most desired. Models from the ’90s largely benefit from modern conveniences like fuel injection, anti-lock disc brakes, traction control, and working air conditioning while still having a more direct, mechanical connection to the road that can’t be had today. And of ’90s performance cars, no model offers the combination of supercar looks and performance and everyday drivability quite like the NSX.
On the plus side, Honda’s original supercar is finally getting its due – and a long-awaited third-generation. But on the downside, the NSX has leapt back from affordable classic to blue-chip collectible almost overnight. In January 2015, the nicest first-year model could be had for about $52,000. Today, it’s worth over $75K and climbing. While this means most of us will never end up with one in our garages, it’s proof that Honda’s big gamble didn’t just pay off, it created a legend in the process.