It Takes Two to Targa

Both Porsche and Honda have recently released Targa versions of their rival 911 and NSX models. Which to choose? Mark Hughes was the man in the middle

What a choice, eh? If only all dilemmas in life had such implications if you chose the wrong way. But there are those who would say, 'What is there to think about? A Honda or a Porsche?'

Staffman Paul Fearnley found just such a person at a service station when he took the NSX out for the day. "What's that then? A Honda? Don't see many of them. You could've bought a Ferrari."

Which sort of sums up the NSX's problem. If you're spending over £72,000 on a supercar, why buy one with a badge more normally associated with retired couples in Civics? And no. you don't see many NSXs around, perhaps for that very reason. Honda UK sold just 55 of them last year.

Contrast that with Porsche GB, which moved around 10 times as many 911s in the same period. Cachet counts for an awful lot in this rarefied atmosphere. But you can look at it another way. Some might ask, 'Why buy a 34-year-old design, with the engine in the wrong place and an ancestral line that can be traced back fairly easily to the VW Beetle?' Instead, you can have the supercar which Senna helped develop. A supercar with a technical spec that, on paper, makes the Porsche look compromised: mid-engined, all-wishbone suspension, aluminium construction (even the suspension) and VTEC variable lift and timing for its quad cam V6. Looked at in that light, the NSX T's £8,000 premium (12.5 per cent) over the 911 Targa looks perfectly reasonable.

The Targa-ising of the NSX has been achieved without disrupting its looks. With its roof section in place you'd be hard-pushed to tell it from the standard machine. The removable panel is a simple pull-out affair with catches on either side; once removed it stows snugly into its own section between the lift-up rear glass and the engine cover beneath. Like most Targas it gives some of that open-air feeling, but not the whole deal; even with the side windows down and your hair blowing about you're still aware of the built-up bodywork behind you and the sharply raked windscreen which almost curves over your head.

But that's more than you get in the Porsche. Previous generation 911 Targas had a completely different roof and side window look to the Coupe, but the latest generation attempts to combine the classic Coupe profile with that open top feel. It does still look slightly different to the Coupe, but you need to be looking closely to notice its slimmer pillars, this if anything making it even more attractive.

Inside, instead of the pull-out roof of the NSX (or indeed previous generation 911 Targa) there is an electrically-operated sliding glass panel. Which means of course you can still see the sky through the roof even when it's a hardtop and that you don't have to worry about stopping to take the section out because it simply slides itself back over the rear screen (making the view through the mirror slightly foggy). But, and it's a big but, this has the effect of not making it feel like a Targa at all, more a Coupe with a glorified sunroof because you still have the conventional door pillars and behind you the rear side windows are still firmly in place.

In this respect and quite against what most people's perceptions of the marques are the Honda feels a bit more special, more like a genuine supercar. Not only is the fresh air sensation more vivid, but it's cosier and somehow more exotic to be sitting with your back to the rear bulkhead rather than having a couple of rear seats behind you...

But then that tends to rule out the NSX as an only car. Practicality in such matters is where the Porsche really scores. The rear seats are no good for an adult over any significant distance, but they are at least there and you could squeeze a couple of small kids therein. But the NSX's boot area behind the engine is usefully deep and pretty much a match in capacity for the 911's frontal luggage area. There is no room for luggage in the front of the NSX, incidentally, this being full of the spare, ABS and air conditioning pipework.

The whole tenor of the 911 though, for all its supercar performance, is that it's perfectly appropriate for mundane everyday tasks. This perception comes entirely from the 911's proportions; it's sufficiently upright that you get pretty much the same view of traffic as everyone else and sufficiently narrow that it's not an embarrassment through town or narrow lanes. The NSX carries much more drama. Which is great for making an impression but a pain on anything other than traffic-free, fast, open roads. Visibility is excellent for a mid-engined car but some overtaking moves which are on in the Porsche are not in the Honda because either its lowness compromises visibility or its width means there simply isn't room.

Yet if you were graduating to these cars from a normal machine, chances are you'd initially feel more at home in the Honda, despite its more extreme layout. The Porsche, you see, still has that Beetle-like driving position with the offset pedals sprouting from the floor; still has that sudden, almost vicious, clutch movement; a gearchange which feels a bit stiff and rubbery on initial acquaintance; and that flat-six engine which builds and loses revs in the blink of an eye, making it difficult for 911 novices not to stall regularly.

The only way in which the Honda's controls do not feel utterly conventional is in their superb slickness. Such slickness is matched by an impeccable build quality that even those who've most grudgingly parted with their £70,000 + would struggle to fault. Fit and finish is perfect, almost too perfect. Unusually, not an accusation which could be levelled at the Porsche if our test car was a fair example. We've never encountered a Porsche with so many irritating little faults: the internal fuel filler release didn't work, the leather seat backs were not properly attached to their carbonfibre shells; the sliding roof's rear seal was damaged.

Such imperfection, whilst not typical of the 911, is mirrored on the road. For though the Targa has a slightly softer, more friendly feel than the Coupe, it's still very much a 911 in its capacity both to thrill and to frighten. The thrill is there in the crisp response and big performance of the latest version of the air-cooled flat-six, now 3.6 litres and with Varioram variable intake. It's there too in how staggeringly well it puts this power down with its rearward-bias weight distribution. And it's there in how stunningly effective its brakes are.

Which is good, because the last thing you want to be doing is entering a bend too fast. The latest multi-link rear suspension has given the 911 a sight more predictability than in the old days and bags of grip too, but let that rear end build up too much momentum and the laws of physics still apply. You'd need to be doing racetrack speeds for this to occur, yet it's always in the back of your mind. But usually you just revel in the sensation and feel of it all, the way the wheel writhes in your hands as though the whole car is caressing the contours of the road, the way that the initially fierce-feeling clutch is actually weighted perfectly for seamless full-speed upchanges, the speed of that six-ratio 'box.

Yes, the 911's driver appeal is as strong as ever and, driven properly through bends with sufficient visibility, its handling can be beautifully satisfying with a shallow understeer on entry balanced out perfectly as the power is applied to give just a hint of easy power oversteer. Just don't let it build up, don't back off suddenly near the grip limits and don't brake too hard on that wet downhill approach.

Unlike the more extreme Carrera RS, the Targa rides quite softly and there is virtually none of the tramlining or nervousness on the straight. Yet it always feels a more nervy car than the NSX. The thrill of the NSX is less adrenalin tinged but it begins with a soundtrack that will make your neck hairs stand on end. Even the 911's bark sounds ordinary in comparison to something which sounds for all the world like an F1 car with a silencer. It's a shriller, more metallic sound than the 911 and changes deliciously when the VTEC makes the valves push deeper at around 5500-6000rpm. But it never feels quite as fast as the 911 and nor is its five-speed gearbox as quick as the Porsche's.

It puts its power down almost as well it has a torque-sensing limited slip diff as well as traction control with a button so well hidden that you'd need to be really determined to switch it off and sheds its speed almost as dramatically. But it does all of this in a more secure-feeling, more friendly way than the Porsche without compromising its all-out ability for the skilled driver.

In fact its grip limits are even higher than the Porsche's and are relayed to you faithfully through the most wonderful steering. This has electrical power assistance which allows competition car reflexes but bags of feedback. Yet it's channelled feedback of the sort that reminds you that much of the Porsche's writhing antics are surplus to requirements, fun though they might be for a short time. The handling too has a much more flowing, less aggressive feel than the Porsche and remains predictable over a wider range of circumstances. Its ride, while slightly firmer than the Porsche's, stays composed over the sort of awkward surfaces that can have the Porsche skittering uncomfortably.

This depth is what makes the NSX a more convincing machine than its rival. It shows that thrills needn't be at the expense of friendliness, ability needn't be at the expense of accessibility. In a few respects the Porsche is handier, it's significantly cheaper and it has that badge. But, personally, I wouldn't be too bothered what some geezer in a service station thinks about it all I'd take the Honda and care less than zero whether anyone knew what it was.