With its elegant aluminium architecture and that unmistakable mid-engined stance – low nose, long tail – Honda’s astonishing NSX does a pretty good impression of a contemporary Ferrari even though inside it’s a bit too much like all the other Hondas.
On the plus side that means everything is well-made and well laid-out, but also a bit sober, boring even. Admittedly sitting in it one is virtually horizontal, there’s no back seat obviously, the front ones are leather and nicely supportive and the hifi is much better – but otherwise one could almost be in a Civic.
Except when you turn the key in a Civic, of course, you don’t get quite such an earful as this multi-valve V6 delivers. Nor do you get to experience that magic millisecond as the clutch comes up and the rear end hunkers down under the force of nearly 300 horsepower, or indeed to enjoy the wonderful moment when all that fat rubber gets a grip and you’re fired off into the horizon.
Six seconds is all it takes to see this car on the wrong side of 70 mph by which time you’ve still tried only two of the car’s six gears, and even at this point the Honda is still accelerating faster than most sports cars can manage from zero. As the first bend comes up one is forced sideways as on a fairground ride, although the car itself still feels rock solid, completely stable, with not even the slightest hint that you might lose it (as you might a Porsche or a Ferrari).
And really that’s very much the point of the NSX. Until relatively recently most Ferraris didn’t actually feel that great, Enzo Ferrari being mostly only interested in engines (and it showed). Much of their build quality was highly questionable too, meaning his cars were difficult if not impossible to live with as anything approaching a daily driver, and let’s not forget that to get the most out of one you still really needed to be a spectacularly good driver.
But the NSX? Well nearly anyone can drive one of these and quickly too. Its got the power, its got the chassis know-how, and in a sense it has got the heritage too, since (like Ferrari) Honda is no stranger to the winner’s podium having won the Formula One World Championship every single year from 1986 to 1991. Little wonder, really, that eventually they decided to take on Ferrari away from the circuit as well – and well done them for doing it for approximately 70 per cent of the price – although it’s a shame that having succceeded in creating what’s been described as ‘the best car Ferrari never built’ they haven’t kept up the pace.
The car itself had its origins during that winning streak in the late-1980s, the name being derived from a project known around Honda as New Sportscar eXperimental. From the word go, it was clearly going to be something very special indeed, sporting an all-aluminium monocoque and a hugely sophisticated V6 with sequential multi-point fuel injection, a double-overhead camshaft per bank and Honda’s superb VTEC variable valve timing. Initially a 3.0 litre but later raised to 3.2, its 274 bhp output at 7,300 rpm translated to a top speed of 168 mph with a 0-60 mph time of just 5.3 seconds. The car was also built in its own bespoke factory, at Tochigii, at a rate of just 25 a day.
In 1991, when the first ones came to the UK, the price and performance parameters gave it some pretty stiff competition, including not just the Ferrari 348 and Porsche 911 but also the popular but ageing Lotus Esprit Turbo S3, Nissan’s fast but naff and unlovely 300ZX, and a couple of left-field French contenders in the shape of Renault’s Alpine or A610 and the even rarer Venturi 200. But in ways many and various it was better than the lot of them, lacking the elan and badge appeal of the first two but being a more rounded performer and a much easier machine to live with day to day. This was largely thanks to its quiet progress around city streets and its habit of concealing its supercar status until you were ready to floor it and hit that eight-grand redline. As for the others, it goes without saying that the NSX did and does literally everything better than any of its contemporaries from Lotus, Renault, Nissan or Venturi.
Today, as a result, the cars are hardly cheap, but they are definitely a bargain – being valued at something like two-thirds of the price of a 348 and costing far less to keep on the road. Looked after a good one will still return a wholly acceptable 25 mpg, and whilst you need to find the right guy to do the job servicing costs have always been closer to that of a conventional Honda hatchback than to your average 170 mph mid-engined monster.
That said the cars are not without their weakpoints. Like anything in this bracket they eat tyres – and quite expensive ones too – and clutches can last as little as 10-12,000 miles, depending on how you drive, with replacement costs in excess of two-to-three grand if you visit a Honda main dealer.
The good news is that most of the cars have been looked after pretty well, are held in very high regard by their loyal owners, and seem typically to be fairly low mileage having been purchased as a third or even fourth car by enthusiasts with several other machines parked in the garage. Both buyers and sellers tend to be knowledgeable too, so make a point of speaking to a few of them before taking the plunge. It’s not easy to go wrong with a Honda, but expensive if you do.