The Engineer Car Review: Honda NSX

4 min read

Three decades on from its launch, can the original Honda NSX really live up to its reputation? The Engineer drives an icon

The legend of the original Honda NSX precedes it. An automotive icon built by a mainstream Japanese manufacturer to take on the European supercar elite. It was famous for its ruthless application of technology at a time when most supercar makers were still rooted in the dark ages. Suddenly you could buy a mid-engined rocket ship that wouldn’t steam up, break down or allow entire families to shelter in its panel gaps.

Honda had always been an innovative manufacturer. Its first car, the S500 of 1963, featured a tiny 531cc four-cylinder double overhead cam engine that revved to over 9,000rpm. By the 1980s it was a global player with a reputation for building clever, if somewhat bland, saloons. On the racetrack, meanwhile, Honda was at the height of its powers. Every single Formula 1 World Constructors’ title winner from 1986 to 1991 used a Honda engine. At the same time, a certain Ayrton Senna – who picked up all three of his world titles with Honda – was enlisted to help with the work on the new NSX.

honda nsx
This sensible supercar impresses on first viewing

Over 400 patents were filed during the course of the car’s development. It is perhaps best remembered for being the first car in the world to use an all-aluminium monocoque construction. Steel was apparently considered, but the extra weight would have required a larger, more powerful engine to achieve the desired performance targets – particularly with all the mod cons onboard that the Honda’s more traditional competitors generally lacked, such as ABS brakes, power steering and air conditioning.

In the end, five different aluminium alloys were incorporated into the design. A whole new forming process had to be developed for the sills, because – unlike steel – the aluminium wasn’t suitable for deep drawn pressing. Instead, the material was heated to 600 degrees, poured into dies, and extruded while it was being drawn. Honda calculated that this approach would save nearly 200kg compared to a steel-bodied car.

Long before it was fashionable to do so, Honda had set up a small R&D centre at the Nürburgring and began testing on the legendarily punishing 15.2-mile German circuit. However, much of the work was carried out closer to home at the Suzuka circuit in Japan, and it’s here that Senna enters the equation. He test drove the prototype NSX in February 1989 and complained that the chassis “felt fragile” and lacked stiffness.

As a direct result of this feedback, the engineers returned to the finite element models that they were running on Honda’s Cray supercomputer. By the time the production version broke cover later that year they had managed to increase the torsional rigidity by an impressive 50 per cent. This reputedly gave the NSX the highest torsional rigidity of any car on sale at the time. More importantly, it meant that the vehicle dynamics engineers had a uniquely stable platform on which to practise their art.

Other significant innovations can be found right throughout the design. The NSX was the first production car to use titanium connecting rods; it was one of the earliest applications of Honda’s VTEC variable cam timing and lift system; it featured independent four-channel ABS braking; and from 1995 it became the first Honda to use fly-by-wire throttle control.

All this meant the NSX was not just every bit as fast as the Ferrari 348 that Honda had benchmarked it against, but also a great deal more usable day-to-day. So usable, in fact, that it has gained a bit of a reputation as the sensible supercar – enough to make me question whether the car you see here will live up to its iconic reputation or whether it will all turn out to be a little bit too competent.

First impressions are positive. It may not be as svelte as a Ferrari or as sinuous as a Lamborghini, but this immaculate 2005 example from Honda UK’s heritage fleet certainly looks the part. The interior is somewhat less inspiring to behold, with swathes of black plastic and a faint whiff of 1990s minicab, but the driving position is spot on and everything feels just right from the moment you sink into the low-mounted seat.

honda nsx
The 3.2-litre V6 VTEC engine sounds quiet at first

The 3.2-litre V6 sounds relatively muted initially. Its 276bhp output also seems fairly modest by today’s standards (for comparison, the current Honda Civic Type R squeezes 316bhp from a 2-litre inline four). However, once you get the chance to open it up the VTEC engine comes alive. It’s not as frantic as the high-revving four-cylinder engines in the Honda Integra Type R or the S2000 of the same era; instead, there’s a creamy, linear spread of torque all the way up to the 8,000rpm red line, accompanied by an addictive bark from the intake system. The six-speed manual gearbox found on this last-of-the-line example is a wonderfully tactile experience too.

The thing that really strikes you about the NSX, though, is its balance and poise. The steering response is more measured than that of the hyper-sensitive racks found in a lot of modern supercars, but it is unflinchingly linear and brimming with feedback – something that’s particularly impressive when you consider that it’s one of the earliest examples of electric power assistance. The suspension too is beautifully composed, combining a supple ride with excellent body control.

Of course, the fact that it’s a technically accomplished car doesn’t come as any great surprise, given the NSX’s reputation. What’s really impressive is the way it makes you feel. So predictable are its responses that after the first few corners you seem to know exactly what the car is going to do. That gives the NSX a sort of instant familiarity; as if you’ve been driving it for years. No other car I can think of feels quite so much like it’s on your side.

Despite this benign edge to the NSX’s character, you still feel intimately involved with every aspect of the driving experience. It’s the sort of joyous, life-affirming machine that makes you want to drive to the end of a good road and then turn around and drive back again. And that’s why – three decades on from its launch – the legend of the Honda NSX is still very much alive.