In praise of the Honda NSX


First of all, my apologies to those seeing the title of this column and hoping for a review of the all-new Honda NSX. It’s not that no one has yet driven it, just that I’m not one of them.

I can wait. Those test drives that have taken place have been extremely short and were mostly on Honda’s Tochigi test track where journalists were invited to do a couple of laps of the speedbowl. Having done exactly this with the Civic Type R two years ago, I know what an unilluminating exercise it is. As a hack you need to come up with some words because readers are rightly not interested in your excuses for not being able to do your job properly, but I’ll be very happy to wait until I can drive the car for at least a few hours rather than minutes, wherever in the world that might be.

In the meantime, however, I have been thinking about the original NSX, a device denied by badge alone its deserved position in the supercar firmament. So I’ll say now I think it is one of the finest creations of its kind there has ever been.

And no, it has nothing to do with oft-peddled notion that it was developed by Ayrton Senna. It wasn’t. Senna did drive it, for at least an afternoon at Suzuka and if you look below you’ll be able to see him doing it and I don’t doubt his feedback was invaluable. But to say it was only the way it was because of his input is an insult to the talents of those engineers who really were responsible. It was they who set about designing a supercar that could be used everyday, but one of the purest, engineering excellence.

True, the NSX was helped by the fact that, back then, the supercars it was to rival were fairly rubbish. Porsche had its unlovely 964 generation of 911 on sale and its even less lovely Turbo version with its vicious power delivery and unbalanced handling. Over in Italy the 348 remains the worst Ferrari I have come across in my professional duties while all dear old Blighty could muster was an entertaining but already ageing and badly flawed Lotus Esprit.

And then the NSX came among them, this ultra-light, all-aluminium – and to me at least – quite gorgeous supercar. Some said the sound of its V6 engine was contrived but I didn’t care because I just loved its snarl. And while the Ferrari would impressively rev past 7000rpm, the Honda motor went all the way to 8300rpm. Thank titanium conrods for that.

I loved too the fact that Honda thought hard about how the car would be used, hence the superb all-round visibility, great driving position, excellent seats, proper ventilation and air conditioning, not to mention a decent sized boot. Most of all, however, I loved the way it drove, the sound of the motor, the snap of the gearshift, the feel of the steering and the real-world point-to-point pace that only comes from cars that are sensibly proportioned, genuinely light and exquisitely engineered. The NSX was all those things.

Honda did ruin it in almost every area with the automatic version which mandated a lower power engine with a reduced red-line, weird electric steering and softer suspension, but every stick-shift NSX I drove was fabulous. It did over time gain a reputation for being tricky on the limit but I never found it so and am convinced that those who did were in cars with either wonky suspension geometry or worn out rear tyres, something the NSX could manage faster than any other car I’ve known.

From the Archive: Mark Hughes on the Honda NSX versus the Porsche 911 (1996)

Although I’ve driven them since, my last proper blast in an NSX was in 2004. On the tenth anniversary of Senna’s passing, I drove round Europe to as many of the places that were significant to his career as I could, not because of his frankly minor involvement with the car but because it was in its final year on sale, all three of Senna’s F1 titles had been Honda-powered and I didn’t need another excuse. So I drove it from home in Wales to Estoril near Lisbon in a day and a half to see where he had won his first F1 race. From there we went to Monaco where to this day no one has won more Grands Prix, and then onto Imola for reasons you’ll not need me to explain. Finally we went to the Nürburgring to celebrate his victory in the Mercedes-Benz 190 celebrity race that brought him global attention. And I remember well examining its rear tyres in the Dorint car park, discovering a pair of slicks and ringing up the bloke in the Honda press office and saying that if it started to rain on the way home I was going to abandon the car at the nearest Honda dealer and get the train.

Classified Spotlight: Honda NSX

What the Honda NSX should really be remembered for is not who or what influenced its development, but those cars that were influenced by it, for that is a far truer measure of its greatness. And the truth is that the next Ferrari, the F355, represented the single biggest step forward in ability of any Ferrari up to that time. Twenty years later engineers will informally admit the wake-up call of the NSX had more than a little to do with it. As I am sure did the fact that the good but hardly brilliant 964 generation of 911 was replaced by the sublime 993.

Most telling of all, however, is the effect it had on the development of no less a car than the McLaren F1. To Gordon Murray, McLaren’s technical director at the height of Senna’s success with the team, the NSX was such an extraordinary machine, so pure in its engineering and clearly thought out in its packaging, he bought one and kept it for seven years and 14 sets of rear tyres. He saw in its lightweight engineering, user-friendly ergonomics and focus on issues like minimising unsprung mass the same approach he wanted to take with the F1, albeit at a rather different level.

The new NSX (above) with its hybrid drive and electric motors in its front wheels is clearly a devilishly clever and sophisticated piece of equipment, but I wonder if the day will dawn again when designers give up their turbos and hybrid systems, save the weight and just make simple, pure, light cars again. In this modern era, it would be interesting to see how such a car might fare.

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