Honda NSX (1990 - 2005) review

BY ANDY ENRIGHT

Introduction

The Honda NSX is in many ways a landmark car. Sure, Japan had produced some fondly remembered sporting cars before it, most notably the Datsun 240Z and Toyota Celica GT4. However, nothing had come from the Orient to challenge the established supercar elite of Ferrari and Porsche. Not until Honda unveiled the NSX to an astonished press at the 1989 Tokyo Show. Here was a car that offered genuine supercar performance, wrapped up in a high-tech aluminium construction and offering a V6 engine with Honda's renowned VTEC valve technology. It also looked ready to go into production, unlike so many other show cars. Never again would the Japanese be dismissed as pretenders to the supercar crown.

Models

Models Covered: (2 dr supercar 3.0, 3.2 petrol [NSX, NSX-T])

History

Much was made of the trickle-down effect of Formula One technology into the engineering of the NSX. In truth, the car is anything but highly strung and this was both the car's unique selling point and its main criticism. Launched in the UK in December 1990 in 3.0-litre hardtop form, the NSX gained rave reviews for the benign and accessible nature of its performance and handling. There were also carpings that the car didn't feel as special as a (then) £55,000 car should - in effect it felt like a lower, wider Civic. Given the choice, most preferred the sense of occasion bestowed by a Porsche 911. An automatic option, dubbed the F-matic, was also available, but this penalised performance to an unacceptable level, and never sold in significant numbers in the UK. 0-60 in 7.5 seconds is not what people expect of their supercars. The NSX received some minor changes in 1994, with larger seven-spoke alloy wheels and a passenger airbag being fitted. The manual car also received electric speed-sensitive power steering. A more significant development was the introduction in 1995 of the NSX-T model with a lift out targa roof. Mechanically identical to the fixed-head cars, the NSX-T was available with a manual box or the F-matic system. The biggest change in the NSX's lifespan to date came in January 1998 when the range was revised. A 3.2-litre 280bhp engine and six-speed gearbox were introduced to all manual models - the F-matic soldiered on with the old 3.0-litre unit. There were also other upgrades to brakes and steering, a revised front spoiler and a more effective transponder immobiliser. Another revision was visited upon the car in early 2002 when pedestrian safety legislation spelt the end of the pop up headlamps, replaced instead by bulbous fixed pods. The interior was revised slightly and in 2003 a lightweight NSX Type-R sports model was developed for the Japanese market. Some examples subsequently found their way to these shores.

What You Get

If the NSX had a decent boot, you could use it for the weekly shop. That may well belittle the efforts of Honda's engineers who spent many hours thrashing prototypes around Motegi and the Nurburgring, but it's perhaps the car's biggest compliment. Here was an exotic mid-engined supercar that didn't steam up, foul its plugs, or overheat in traffic, that would start first time every time with the minimum of drama, and which had acceptable all round visibility. This was something that took a bit of getting used to. The usual supercar routine of contorting into an ape-like driving position was similarly redundant. It was disappointingly normal. Having said that, the NSX could hold its own with virtually any car produced. The V6 VTEC engine deserves to be remembered as one of the great powerplants of all time. And that howl it produces as it approaches its redline is quite magnificent. Inside, the NSX's cabin is designed to perfectly accommodate two people - but don't expect space for much else. All right, so you could just about fit a weekend's luggage for two in the boot - but you'd have to be selective with your packing. Standard equipment on both fixed and open-topped models runs to air conditioning, leather trim and cruise control.

What You Pay

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What to Look For

Two contrasting emotions here; a). it's just a Honda and b). it's (up to) £65,000 worth of complex rocket science that the home mechanic should steer well clear of with a spanner and mole grips. Both equally true. Whilst the NSX does uphold Honda's traditional reputation for excellent reliability do remember what you are dealing with. Buying a £20,000 NSX that has been neglected will give the term 'affordable supercar' a bitter irony. Check for a full service history, and if possible, have the car inspected by an expert - it's a wise investment. Look for accident damage. Despite its benign reputation, once an NSX begins to spin, it's fiendishly difficult to catch, and repairs to the car's aluminium monocoque are punitively expensive. Few cars tempt you so ingenuously then punish you so hard. It's imperative to make sure clutch, exhaust and VTEC are present and correct, and also look at the condition of the tyres. They're expensive. Finally, look out for non-standard Japanese import cars, such as the NSX Type-R that are not supported by UK garages.

Replacement Parts

(approx prices based on 3.2 coupe) Although nothing like the price of spares for some 'exotics', NSX spares prices are not by any stretch of the imagination inexpensive. A new clutch assembly is £770, while a new exhaust system, not including catalyst, retails for £1600. Front brake pads are just £64, but a new radiator is £490. A starter motor is £272, and if your NSX is winking instead of blinking, a new headlamp will be £408.

On the Road

Magnificent. It is only recently with the development of four-wheel drive supercars such as the Nissan Skyline GTR34 and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VI that the NSX's ability to tempt you right up to its limits have been eclipsed. The sound from the V6 is intoxicating and the ride and handling are spot-on, even in a 1991 car. It really is that good. Inside it's a trifle disappointing. You won't feel a million dollars, even if the car looks it. Standard switchgear recognisable from lower-spec models is obvious and lowers the tone. This is probably where the NSX most shows its age. You'll feel far more chic in an £20,000 Alfa GTV.

Overall

That British NSX sales never amounted to more than a trickle is largely due to our own perceptions of what a supercar should represent. It should be fast, look magnificent and make you feel like a rock star. The NSX just about scores two out of three there. In the final analysis, the NSX wasn't mad, bad or dangerous enough to play the supercar role with any great conviction. However, if you see mad, bad and dangerous are just another way to say ill-conceived and inconvenient, you'll love the NSX. With used prices looking tempting, consider the alternatives carefully. You could be in a brand new Toyota Avensis, or a used Honda NSX. Whoever said life was full of tricky decisions had never driven a Honda NSX.