Story and photos by Laurance Yap
Originally published Aug 18, 2003
Acura sold just a handful of NSXs last year – a literal handful. Only five examples of one of the coolest-looking, wonderful-driving cars on the road today. Five copies of the car that, when it was first introduced, put the fright into Ferrari and Porsche. Five copies of a car that, when he started to design the McLaren F1, Gordon Murray used as the benchmark for shifter feel. The car that, more than ten years on from its introduction, is still one of the closest things you can get to driving an F1 car on the road. Without actually driving an F1 car on the road.
The NSX is wonderful. You sit so low, behind such a panoramic windshield, that when you’re moving, it always feels like you’re going faster than you actually are, the world unravelling in front of you in glorious widescreen with motion blur that’s straight out of the movies. Roll down the windows, or pop the targa top and every tunnel becomes an opportunity to live out your Monaco Grand Prix fantasies, the snarling VTEC engine sound reverberating off the walls, the steering writhing like a race car’s in your hands, the wind whapping against your head so that you wonder if it’d be better if you had a helmet on. And a radio link to the pits. And a supermodel girlfriend.
So why, in a time when the streets seem to be littered with tarted-up 911s, Tubi-exhausted Ferraris, when the Yorkville Grand Prix seems as rich as it has ever been, is the NSX not going like gangbusters? The short answer is that, no matter how good it is, it’s still a Honda (sorry, Acura). And that in the realm of super-sports cars, no matter how good you are, that just isn’t going to cut it amongst the image-conscious poseurs who, let’s face it, populate this stratospheric market segment.
It’s at least partly understandable. To buy a really fast car – and despite “just” 290 horses from its VTEC-d 3.2-litre V6, the NSX does indeed qualify as really fast – to actually drive really fast these days is pretty senseless, unless you’re making regular appearances at track days. Road conditions and speed enforcement and the human instinct for self-preservation pretty much obviate the possibility of exploiting a car’s full capabilities on public roads no matter how good a driver the person behind the wheel is. So most people end up buying supercars for their more symbolic attributes: the way their power, performance, looks, and panache rub off on themselves, how the merest suggestion of ultra-power and ultra-speed is enough to get pedestrians’ heads bobbing in envy. Against hallowed marques like Ferrari and Porsche, Acura simply doesn’t yet have that sort of cachet.
That’s too bad, because the NSX is still very much a first-tier sports car, no matter what its age or provenance. While its basic design may be looking a bit dated these days (bubbly headlights, new front spoiler, and new rear design notwithstanding), that’s only because it was so right in the first place: low, low seating position, panoramic glass, mid-engined handling balance and savagely-deployed lashings of naturally-aspirated V6 power. True, its cabin looks very late-eighties with its skinny/shiny column stalks, lack of CD player, and huge airbag cover on the steering wheel, but it’s also better screwed-together than anything the Italians, or even most of the Germans, are able to do even now. The ergonomics – the NSX’s trump card when it was first launched against Ferraris with scattershot control placement and which required ridiculous contortions merely to get into – are simply superb.
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Interestingly enough, had they branded the NSX as a Honda, it may have done better for itself. These days, car enthusiasts are well-acquainted with the performance potential that the square H represents. It’s not only about the souped-up cars that make up the Civic nation, but also about Senna and Villeneuve and years of dominance on the CART circuit. About speed bikes and the best, most powerful lawnmowers you can buy. Honda’s name has a resonance that, for whatever reason – mostly because I just think it hasn’t been around long enough – Acura doesn’t yet possess.
They are working on this as much as they can, of course. The NSX has bigger wheels, flashy finishes (check out the electric blue on blue leather of our test car, which is as trendy as trendy gets), and some minor trim revisions were introduced in 2003. But judged against other aspirational F1 cars like Ferrari’s 360 Modena, it is decidedly down on the high-tech, high-touch factor. There is no sequential transmission, no launch control, no stability program (although there is, thank heavens, traction control). The brakes, though they work fine, don’t have sexy Brembo monoblock calipers, nor are the exhaust pipes as huge as is fashionable these days.
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Then again, at $140,000, the NSX is less than half the price of a Modena, and as a driving experience, is way more than half the car, making you wonder how much of your three hundred grand for the Ferrari is going straight toward the badge, and how much of it is going into those admittedly-wonderful mechanicals. It’s a bittersweet thought: seeing how well the NSX competes at its age (which is ancient in car years) makes you wonder what Honda would be capable of if it decided to do another NSX, to apply itself the way it did when it created this car, which was a world-beater in its day.
Honda’s not doing so well in F1 these days – BAR, and Jacques Villeneuve, who I still cheer for, languish near the bottom of the standings, dogged by bad luck and mechanical failures. It’s a long way from the dominance they showed in the early nineties, a dominance that they also showed with their F1-inspired road car.
Acura’s on a determined push to take its brand into the premier league – the new TSX and the upcoming TL both signal not only a new styling direction for the company but also a focus on driving dynamics, high technology, and sharp styling. Imagine what the new Acura could do if it was given the assignment to do a new NSX.
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