New Zealand Classic Car - - Contents -


Twenty-four years ago on a per­fect au­tumn day ex­plor­ing near-de­serted ru­ral roads south of Auck­land, a bright red, black-topped Honda NSX was a real tonic and an es­cape from re­ces­sion-hit New Zealand. The $175,000 price tag, or $187,000 for the au­to­matic ver­sion, was a huge ex­trav­a­gance in the early ’90s, but here was surely the most use­able su­per­car ever of­fered.

Yet was this re­mark­able ma­chine des­tined to be­come a true clas­sic car? This year marks a decade since the end­ing of NSX pro­duc­tion, with the world still await­ing ar­rival of a se­cond gen­er­a­tion. In 2007 Honda an­nounced a new-model V10-en­gined NSX was planned, then shelved the project three years later due to a poor eco­nomic cli­mate. Now, how­ever, the new Us-built NSX is back on the ta­ble, and due for ar­rival some time in 2015.

The orig­i­nal NSX ceased pro­duc­tion in 2005 largely be­cause limited sales had ren­dered the mid-en­gined sports car too costly to make, but the dis­con­tin­u­a­tion was also due to the ex­ten­sive re­tool­ing nec­es­sary to meet strin­gent 2006 US emis­sions and equip­ment reg­u­la­tions. A to­tal of 18,685 NSXS were built over a 15-year pe­riod from 1990, with slightly less than 9000 of these sold into the USA as the Acura. Ja­panese buy­ers snapped up 7420, with the re­main­der go­ing to other mar­kets and only a hand­ful ar­riv­ing in New Zealand.

No Ja­panese car had ever cost so much. How­ever, to put the hefty NSX price tag into per­spec­tive, on the lo­cal mar­ket in 1991 it was $105,000 less than a new Fer­rari 348, and only $300 more than a Porsche 911 Car­rera 2 coupé. It was also only slightly dearer than the same car in Bri­tain, and an as­tound­ing $44,000 less than its sticker price in Aus­tralia.

Honda had vi­sions of sell­ing be­tween eight and 10 new NSXS a year here, but even this proved too am­bi­tious.

Re­li­able and Ex­otic

A re­cent check of the lo­cal se­cond-hand mar­ket showed only three ex­am­ples on of­fer — two leggy Ja­panese im­ports with

ask­ing prices of $50,000, and a dealer-held early man­ual 1990 model with 125,000km on the clock for $79,990. The NSX, of course, car­ries the same in­built re­li­a­bil­ity of any Ja­panese car, so there is lit­tle need to be con­cerned about high-mileage ex­am­ples. In­deed, the NSX has been ac­claimed the most re­li­able ex­otic su­per­car of all time, with some ex­am­ples run­ning more than 300,000 trou­ble-free kilo­me­tres.

Im­ports from Ja­pan are more likely to be au­to­mat­ics, yet the NSX of choice is a man­ual in ei­ther five-speed or later six-speed form. Both used the same C30A3 twin over­head camshaft, 24-valve 2977cc V6 en­gine trans­versely mid­ship-mounted, but whereas man­ual ver­sions pro­duced 201kw at 7300rpm, the less punchy auto mo­tor de­vel­oped 188kw at a lower 6800rpm. The same torque fig­ure of 284Nm at 5400rpm was quoted for both man­ual and auto engines.

It was 1997 that marked the ar­rival of the larger 3179cc V6, giv­ing 216kw and 304Nm of torque. Like the ear­lier power unit, this was packed with cut­ting-edge tech­nol­ogy, in­clud­ing a di­rect-ig­ni­tion sys­tem, a small coil for each spark plug and elec­tron­i­cally con­trolled vari­able valve tim­ing.

When the Type-r was added to the line-up in late 1992, 70kg was trimmed off the orig­i­nal 1370kg kerb weight (in­clud­ing a mere 210kg for the body shell) and the aero­dy­nam­ics were re­vised.

Donn re­calls two drive ex­pe­ri­ences with the Honda NSX, and won­ders if it has yet to achieve true clas­sic-car sta­tus

Spe­cial­ist En­gi­neer­ing

The NSX was made in a pur­pose-built fac­tory near Tokyo that was about the same size as Honda’s CKD plant in Nel­son. There was lit­tle use of robotics in the car’s man­u­fac­tur­ing, with much of the ve­hi­cle be­ing hand built.

Most Ja­panese cars re­quire around three years for de­vel­op­ment, but not so this spe­cial Honda. Six years were spent de­vel­op­ing the NSX, a car that in­cor­po­rated new tech­nol­ogy to make the alu­minium cor­ro­sion-re­sis­tant. Spe­cial highly pol­ished bodys­tamp­ing dies were needed to give the al­loy ex­te­rior pan­els a suf­fi­ciently smooth fin­ish.

Yoko­hama de­vel­oped a tyre specif­i­cally for the car, spend­ing three years re­search­ing and pro­duc­ing 6000 dif­fer­ent tyres be­fore com­ing up with the right pack­age. Orig­i­nal NSXS sported 205/50 tyres for the 15-inch front al­loys and 225/50 rub­ber for the 16-inch rears and, re­mark­ably, there were dif­fer­ent com­pounds for each of the four tyres. Thus, the right rear tyre could not be used for the left rear. Without the right fit­ment of tyres, the trac­tion con­trol sys­tem would not op­er­ate prop­erly.

In 1994 the wheel di­am­e­ter in­creased to 16-inch at the front and 17-inch rears, while the brake pads were re­in­forced. De­cem­ber 2001 saw 17-inch wheels fit­ted all round, and the fol­low­ing year came the fi­nal up­date with a new Type-r now boast­ing fixed, in­te­grated xenon HID head­lights rather than the ear­lier pop-ups. Honda also added the NSX-T open-top model for those want­ing fresh air, and claimed the NSX was the first true sports car to adopt clean emis­sion mea­sures.

The car boasted other more sig­nif­i­cant ad­vances. In 1990 the mid-en­gined Honda’s all-alu­minium mono­coque body was a world first for a pro­duc­tion ve­hi­cle.

F1 Suc­cess

Nobuhiko Kawamoto was pres­i­dent of Honda’s re­search and de­vel­op­ment when the NSX was cre­ated, and when I met him in Ja­pan in 1989 his affection for clas­sic cars was ap­par­ent. He might have driven a Le­gend sedan for daily trans­port, but his per­sonal garage also housed a Porsche 356, a Tri­umph TR3, a 1935 Lagonda and a Honda XBR500 mo­tor­cy­cle. Kawamoto was pas­sion­ate about mas­ter­mind­ing an ad­vanced de­sign in the NSX, but he was clearly also en­thu­si­as­tic about older cars.

The NSX was set to cap­i­tal­ize on Honda’s 1980s For­mula 1 suc­cess as an en­gine sup­plier to Wil­liams and Mclaren. Ayr­ton Senna helped fine-tune the car’s han­dling on Honda’s Tochigi test track and at both Suzuka and the Nür­bur­gring, and he felt it was too frag­ile. As a re­sult of the master’s in­put, the alu­minium chas­sis was stiff­ened 50 per cent in what was al­most a last­minute de­vel­op­ment. Senna’s ex­per­tise may have made a good car great.

The Brazil­ian Grand Prix star owned two NSXS and said, “It’s not a Fer­rari, it’s not a Porsche, it’s a Honda. I drive many dif­fer­ent makes of car. I like this car for ev­ery­thing it’s not.”

In 1990 Honda bravely en­trusted sev­eral NSXS and a high­speed road cir­cuit in Ja­pan to a group of in­ter­na­tional motoring writ­ers, in­clud­ing a few New Zealan­ders. This pro­vided a great op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore the outer depths of the car, but it also re­sulted in sev­eral spins, and one of the new ex­otic Hon­das was beached in the gravel. You could see driv­ers rev­el­ling in the dy­nam­ics of the car while also oc­ca­sion­ally over­step­ping the mark. Still, here was a su­per­car per­haps more for­giv­ing on the limit than a Fer­rari or Porsche of the day.

Fresh Vigour

The NSX was un­veiled at a time when the Ja­panese mo­tor in­dus­try was dis­play­ing new vigour. Mazda had just taken the wraps off the first-gen­er­a­tion MX-5, and Nis­san had its 300ZX. Twenty-five years ago we were de­scrib­ing the trio as a new sports car threat from Ja­pan, even though there was never any idea the costly NSX would be­come a high-vol­ume seller. Ini­tially the out­put of just 21 cars a day was in­suf­fi­cient to meet de­mand, but the hon­ey­moon did not last. Honda’s pre­dic­tion of sell­ing 6000 a year soon proved too op­ti­mistic — this model was cre­at­ing a halo effect on the mar­que’s more mod­est range of cars rather than be­ing a money-spin­ner.

Af­ter driv­ing the NSX in some­what ar­ti­fi­cial sur­round­ings on the Ja­panese track, where it felt su­perbly man­nered, I was keen to sam­ple the car on lo­cal roads, and the beau­ti­fully weighted man­ual steer­ing felt just right, even at slower speeds. Au­to­mat­ics came with power as­sis­tance and quicker re­ac­tion, with 2.9 turns lock to lock in­stead of 3.1 turns on man­ual steer­ing ver­sions. Al­though lack­ing the on-cen­tre feel and im­me­di­acy of a Fer­rari 328 or Porsche 911, the man­ual steer­ing re­lays more in­for­ma­tion to the driver than the auto NSX.

The soft-bound steer­ing wheel is the right size and feels per­fect, and the ped­als are well placed for heel and toe op­er­a­tion. A light, slick gear-change with a nar­row gate feels bet­ter than any mid-en­gined car I have ex­pe­ri­enced, and ride qual­ity is good. Yet could Honda have done more to en­hance the cabin am­bi­ence? While the er­gonomics are ex­cel­lent and the de­sign taste­ful, even the abun­dance of leather up­hol­stery fails to lift the slightly char­ac­ter­less cock­pit that spells con­ven­tional Ja­panese de­sign. To many eyes this is a dis­ap­point­ment.

Have no fear, how­ever, for once you drove the NSX you knew it was un­like any other Ja­panese car. It felt so Euro­pean. Right from launch, the man­ual NSX safely pulled 7000 revs in fifth hear, top­ping 260kph (just over 160mph) af­ter reach­ing 100kph in less than six sec­onds. Su­per­car stuff, no less.

Honda has long been a master of en­gine de­sign, and at launch the VTEC en­gine in the NSX achieved one of the high­est spe­cific out­puts of any nat­u­rally as­pi­rated pro­duc­tion en­gine in the world. No turbo at that time could have given such throt­tle re­sponse and pro­gres­sive power de­liv­ery. The car sounds great, and the noise is not from the ex­haust but emits from the in­duc­tion sys­tem.

In 1990 this en­gine was clearly ad­vanced, with two de­vices to pro­mote torque at low revs and power at higher rpm — vari­able valve tim­ing, and vari­able vol­ume in­duc­tion, or VVIS, which splits the in­take man­i­fold into two banks of three cylin­ders be­low 4800rpm. Above this en­gine speed six but­ter­fly valves open, pro­vid­ing im­proved breath­ing and added power as the two cylin­der banks are reunited.

As the VTEC en­gine reaches 5800rpm the char­ac­ter changes, and it is sheer magic the way the V6 spins so freely to 8000rpm, still 300rpm shy of the fuel cut-off. All the while the driver is safe in the knowl­edge this mas­ter­piece of engines has such se­cu­ri­ties as ti­ta­nium con rods. Even so, at launch some of the Honda en­gi­neers con­fided the car could do with more power and more char­ac­ter.

For a high-per­for­mance ma­chine the clutch is rel­a­tively light, and while first gear en­gage­ment can be some­what notchy, clutch take-up is smooth and pro­gres­sive. One can only ad­mire the panoramic vis­i­bil­ity up front, al­though the nose is out of sight. Rear views of the sweeping tail are ev­i­dence enough of good three-quar­ter vis­i­bil­ity, of­ten a bone of con­tention with su­per­cars.

En­gi­neers at this en­thu­si­as­tic com­pany had the idea that the NSX would be a mid-en­gined car that would ac­tu­ally re­de­fine the idea of sports cars. The out­come would com­bine the quick re­sponse and han­dling of a light sports car with the per­for­mance to ri­val heavy­weight, large-en­gined ex­otics. And there should be no com­pro­mises.

Honda was the first Ja­panese mo­tor man­u­fac­turer to pro­duce a su­per­car, an ap­pro­pri­ate dis­tinc­tion given the com­pany’s back­ground and sup­port in For­mula 1. With its beau­ti­fully crafted, forged-alu­minium dou­ble wish­bones, quad-cam en­gine, per­fect weight dis­tri­bu­tion, ease of op­er­a­tion and low run­ning costs, the NSX em­bod­ies all the hall­marks of a gen­uine clas­sic car. Yet in many re­spects per­haps the true worth of this two-seater Honda has yet to be ap­pre­ci­ated. The best days, it seems, are still to come.

Neat front-end styling with in­puts from Pin­in­fa­rina

Even though it was er­gonom­i­cally good, crit­ics were dis­ap­pointed with the con­ser­va­tive cock­pit lay­out Ayr­ton Senna played an im­por­tant part in the de­vel­op­ment of the car’s chas­sis dur­ing the pre-pro­duc­tion phase

Honda’s NSX was bril­liant in so many ways, but is its clas­sic car sta­tus yet to be re­al­ized?

Rear view shows the some­what un­gainly, ex­tended tail of the car

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