Refinement, comfort, reliability, high build quality, good ergonomics and secure handling weren’t traits associated with supercars before 1990. And certainly not all in one vehicle.
Then came the Honda NSX.
Inspired by Honda’s return to Formula 1 in 1983 as an engine supplier and designed to bridge the gap between the company’s motor racing activities and its showroom line-up, the NSX aimed to redefine the supercar formula.
If the NSX’s mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout didn’t go against convention for an exotic sports car (though it certainly did for a Honda passenger car), its construction did.
A world-first mass-produced all-aluminium body, which required a dedicated Honda plant, made this super sports car a substantial 200kg lighter than had it been made from traditional steel, as with its rivals.
The NSX’s engine was also made from aluminium and it, too, defied convention – a normally aspirated V6 in a world of V8s, V10s and V12s, that contributed to a kerb weight as low as 1350kg.
The 3.0-litre V6 was also highly advanced, debuting Honda’s now-famous VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control) technology that helped to enhance peak power at high revs (201kW at 7300rpm), while providing useable, flexible performance at lower revs.
VTEC was complemented by Programmed Fuel Injection that carefully metred sequential delivery of fuel according to engine load and vehicle speed demands, as well as a Variable Volume Induction System, which helped to fill the engine’s cylinders with air more rapidly and more completely.
Extreme testing of development models in the late 1980s coincided with Honda’s remarkable period of success with Formula 1 team McLaren and the late, legendary racing driver Ayrton Senna, who would go on to win three world titles with Honda power.
Senna was given the opportunity to test an NSX prototype and his feedback prompted engineers to significantly increase the car’s rigidity – by 50 per cent – before moving testing to Europe’s infamously challenging, 21km Nürburgring circuit in Germany.
The NSX debuted at the 1989 Chicago motor show, retaining its development codename but initially showcased under the Acura luxury brand Honda had introduced in North America.
When the NSX reached Australia in 1991, it proceeded to win the country’s much-sought-after motoring award – Wheels Car of the Year.
“That the NSX is the best built, most inviting, least intimidating supercar the world has ever seen is beyond rational dispute,” wrote the magazine in its Car of the Year (COTY) coverage.
“Dynamically, the car is close to flawless in all but the most extreme on-track situations, with steering that’s alive in the driver’s hands, incredibly powerful brakes – anti-skid, of course – and levels of grip and electronically modulated traction that few mortals will feel the need to approach.
“Given the judges' unanimous praise of the car's true supercar handling, what surprised was the subtlety of the sports car's ride. Some rated it the best ride/handling suspension compromise to be found among COTY contenders.”
Judges for the 1991 award testing included three highly respected racing drivers in Kevin Bartlett, Colin Bond and Christine Gibson.
Wheels’ former long-running editor and then European correspondent, Peter Robinson, was highly familiar with various Ferraris and Lamborghinis. He rated the NSX as the best-handling mid-engined car he had ever driven. “It’s just so good. It’s a milestone.”
Value for money was also judged excellent, even though the Honda’s price was far beyond most people’s reach. The NSX was priced from $159,900 at launch in 1991 – about 25 per cent ‘cheaper’ than its supercar contemporaries that typically cost well above $200,000.
Standard equipment on the mechanical side included four-wheel double wishbone suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, anti-lock braking system, limited-slip differential and traction control.
Convenience features extended to electrically adjustable leather front seats, driver’s side airbag, cruise control, climate control, power windows, electric side mirrors and a Bose audio system. A passenger side airbag was added in 1993.
There was a $6000 option to have a four-speed automatic gearbox (which introduced power steering) in place of the standard five-speed manual (though the auto came with a slight reduction in power).
If any scepticism had been raised about the NSX’s motorsport credentials, this was quickly dispelled by the inaugural Targa Tasmania road rally in 1992.
During six days of intensive, technically challenging cross-state race stages, Greg Crick and his navigator Greg Preece took their NSX to a stunning victory – following an epic duel with the factory-prepared BMW M5 driven by the late Denny Hulme, the legendary 1967 Formula 1 champion.
It was pure coincidence, of course, that a Targa variant of the NSX joined the coupe in 1995, offering an open-air experience with its removable roof panels.
The panels could be stored inside the rear canopy, while a strut brace was added to the engine compartment to maintain high levels of rigidity despite the opened roof.
The Targa itself was perhaps some compensation for local performance enthusiasts, as Australia did miss out on Honda’s specially-modified, lighter interpretation of its supercar, the NSX-R.
As part of a significant performance upgrade in 1997, the NSX received a larger-capacity, 3.2-litre V6 engine, giving the NSX manual – now a six-speed unit – a lift in power to 206kW (the auto stayed with the 3.0-litre engine).
Further revisions included a reshaped front spoiler and larger brakes, along with refinements to the steering, clutch, suspension and security system. Two new, grand-prix-inspired colours were also added: Monte Carlo Blue and Spa Yellow.
The NSX continued to be sold in Australia until 2004, by which time it had cemented its position in the automotive hall of fame.
“Anyone who owns a late model Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin or even Porsche should be eternally grateful to Honda for producing the NSX,” said CarsGuide in its 2009 retrospective review of the supercar.
“Without it their cars wouldn’t be anywhere near as well built and reliable as they are.”
The NSX legend continues today with the second-generation supercar that, just like the original, sets new benchmarks with its human-centred cabin, innovative construction and a highly advanced hybrid drivetrain.
As the world’s first supercar to utilise hybrid electric motors to enhance and elevate every element of its dynamic performance – acceleration, braking and cornering – it has received widespread acclaim for being a technological innovator in the supercar category.