Acura NSX: Landmark Exotic Then & Now

by | Apr 15, 2019 | Car Profiles

Photos: John Lamm

Acura NSX: Landmark Exotic Then & Now

by | Apr 15, 2019 | Car Profiles

Photos: John Lamm

This story began more than 25 years ago. It was a very warm day in Southern California, and we were scheduled to do a Road & Track comparison test of an Acura NSX and Ferrari 348 GTS. When the two cars arrived at my home, the top was already off the Ferrari, thanks to minimal air conditioning. The driver of the NSX was cool inside his cockpit. Needless to say, I got in the NSX.

Our destination was a tiny crossroads town called Santa Isabel. A short distance away was Mesa Grande Road. This is about 20 miles of wonderful driving pavement, twisting and climbing up hills before snaking through a forest. Perfect for the likes of the NSX and Ferrari.

Of course, we spent a serious amount of time wringing the two cars out because…well, because that was our job. The winner? You might be surprised to learn it was the NSX, but not necessarily for the obvious reasons. The Acura was about a half-second faster to 60 mph, but both were enjoyable to drive quickly up and down Mesa Grande Road. The big difference was the fact the NSX was what you would call a “complete car.”

A story from the era: Luca de Montezemolo was new to running Ferrari. As the NSX kept beating the 348 in European road tests, he asked a well-known journalist what was so special about the NSX. He replied that Ferrari could create a very fast automobile, but it couldn’t make a cigarette lighter. In other words, Honda got all the details of the car correct.

Not only was the NSX advanced with the likes of its aluminum structure, but, as with any Japanese car of the era, everything from the V-6 to the cigarette lighter worked perfectly.

Which is one reason the contemporary NSX faces a very different challenge. It enters a fertile field of very good, complete sports cars: McLarens, Mercedes-Benz AMGs, Ferraris and any number of Porsches among others.

Dario Franchitti, whose many Indy 500 and IndyCar titles were backed by Honda engines, was involved in the development of the new NSX.

He told us about the many trips he made to advise Honda engineers on the car’s development. The trips were varied: to Honda’s test facility in Ohio, U.S. race tracks and two journeys to Europe and the Alps.

“We started off in Munich,” Dario recalled, “and drove down into Austria. Then we did some runs up and down Alpine roads, to ski resorts that weren’t being used at that time of year. We were looking for bumps and rough roads and tried to put the car in as many different situations as we could.

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“We put it on the Autobahn,” Dario continued, grinning when he said, “I can tell you it hauls on the Autobahn…and it’s stable. That was one of the things we tested in Ohio as well, stability so you could take your hands off the wheel at 190 miles an hour. It’s also very stable in crosswinds. During the trip for the final sign-off we spent time in Italy, France, Austria and back into Germany. Beautiful driving roads and the car was really the finished product. It was a great companion, a great car to drive.”

To get our sense of the current NSX, it seemed appropriate to drive one on the same journey as a quarter of a century ago. Back down to Santa Isabel. Little has changed during the years; the “town” is still just a crossroads.

Over the NSX’s aluminum and high-strength steel structure is a design that makes it look fast and compact. There are the sweptback headlamps and the manner in which the front design seems to be smiling at you. The back end looks all business, the spoiler trailing across the top, the four pipes at the bottom bracketed by diffuser fins on each side. Under it all are front and rear multi-link suspensions, rack and pinion steering and big disc brakes.

Crucial to the NSX’s supercar cred is the power from the mid-mounted twin-turbo V-6 and the car’s motors. The twin-turbo 3.5-liter V-6 has an unusual 75-degree bank angle. It produces 500 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque. Add the power from the direct drive motor between the V-6 and dual-clutch 9-speed transmission and there’s a total of 573 horsepower, and 476 lb-ft of torque for the all-wheel drive with its pair of motors at the front axle. That brings 60 mph in about three seconds–in the ballpark with the competition–and a claimed top speed of 191 mph.

Slipping into the cockpit of the NSX the seats offer good support all around for serious driving. While some drivers might be traditionalists and prefer analog, what works nicely in the NSX is the manner in which the digital display complements the driving modes. Despite it close-coupled look, visibility outward is quite good.

These days we test many cars with multiple driving modes, usually labeled something like comfort, normal, touring and sport. Whether they change throttle, suspension, steering or whatever, it often isn’t easy to tell one from the other. Not with the NSX where the contrasts between Quiet, Sport and Sport+ are delightfully different.

It was surprising when Franchitti told me how much he liked the Quiet mode, but he was correct. It’s almost a little spooky that in a car with the NSX’s potential you can cruise silently through low-speed situations. Equally spooky is the manner in which it seamlessly slips into and out of EV under some circumstances, though range is minimal.

Slip into Sport or Sport+ and the character of the car changes along with the colorful gauge display. From Quiet’s blue to Sport’s gray-and-red to Sport+’s red.

Sport is the best all-around mode, offering plenty of power for most normal situations and keeping the exhaust note sweet but not intrusive. It’s very cool to have stop-start come into play, where you find yourself at a stoplight in a 573-horsepower automobile and suddenly it’s dead quiet.

Switch to Sport+ and there’s more growl from the exhaust as the rev level pops up the tach.

It’s no surprise the NSX was great fun on the twisty roads. The Acura drives “smaller” than it is, very nimble and on a pavement that is not totally smooth and rarely straight.

As for ride and comfort, it is impressive just cruising along in Sport mode, a surprisingly even ride with a comfortable interior sound level. One thing that easily reminds one of the first general NSX is the manner in which the cab forward design of the car gives you a great sense of the road rushing under you. Oh, and mileage is claimed at 21 city, 22 highway.

Pricing? You start at $159,300, though you can easily bump that well up, starting with the $10,600 carbon ceramic brake rotors. Your call.

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