1999 Acura NSX review

The NSX has been praised as the “perfect” sports car. Read other reviews and “perfect” ends up being described as some combination of “easy to drive”, “exotic car performance”, “fuel efficient” (for a sports car), “affordable” (for an exotic anyway), “reliable enough for a daily driver”. All of those superlatives, and more, have been hurled at the NSX.

Honda /Acura couldn’t have picked a better time to launch this car. In the early ‘90’s, the exotic class leader, Ferrari, was in trouble. Sales were down to a trickle. Their then-new V8 model, the 348, was receiving lackluster reviews. Early tests showed spooky handling traits, a sorry gearbox, and performance numbers that while ok, were being matched (on paper at least) by other makes at far lower prices. On top of that, quality problems plagued the Italian automaker even more so than usual. Honda and Acura have enjoyed a reputation for dependable, quality machines. Now, here was their interpretation of what a supercar should be – and the crosshairs were aimed squarely at Maranello.

Honda certainly pulled out all the stops in creating this machine. The chassis and monocoque was crafted from all aluminum – the first production car to boast this type of build. Honda also threw in a number of things that they had learned from F1 racing – titanium connecting rods, all aluminum suspension pieces, and other assorted bits. But the engineers didn’t stop with emulating race cars. Even the F-16 fighter plane was examined – specifically the 360 degree view outside that the pilot of that plane enjoys while piloting that marvel of engineering. This same concept was worked into the NSX to make piloting it that much easier. The fact that they were able to capture that feeling in a car that stood only 46” high is a true testament to what is possible when an accomplished engineers’ mind is set free.

Thanks to the aluminum construction, a V6 was all the powerplant that the NSX needed to shine. First edition models came with a mid-mounted DOHC 3.0L V6 with Honda’s VTEC variable valve timing system. During the one and only major update in 1997, engine displacement grew to 3.2L which added about 20HP. Along with that, the 5 speed manual transmission spawned a 6th forward cog.

Approaching the NSX, you first notice the hunkered down shape that certainly screams exotic car. The shape is simple but stunning. Purposeful, even. Reach down to the lower part of the
B-pillar to find the door latch, and you’ll find the door opens wide enough to make getting in as easy as possible. Well, as easy as possible for something that stands less than four feet tall and has a wide sill between you and the seat that you’re trying to get to. Once you get settled in the seat, you find a lot to like. Everything falls readily to hand. The seats are quite comfortable and at the same time supportive for the kind of driving that you’ll no doubt be doing. Two big gauges stare back at you from the instrument panel. The tach promises fun times up to 8000RPM, and the speedometer doesn’t stop counting until 180 MPH. These are not overly optimistic figures either. Auxiliary gauges flank the large speedo and tach to keep you informed of all of the NSX’s vital systems.

Stare at the gearshift for a second and you’d swear something is wrong. The gate that the shifter travels in looks narrower and more compact than an Accord’s automatic that only ever sees action from P to D. Yet, at least in the sample reviewed here, Acura has put 6 forward speeds AND reverse in the smallest blueprint imaginable. Shifts are a simple wrist-flick away. You’d expect to constantly miss shifts with such a small area to work with - especially in the heat of battle - but you’d be surprisingly wrong. Let the shifter guide you as much as you guide it and you’ll be banging off 2-3 and 4-5 shifts with amazing accuracy. Coming back down the range is no more eventful either.

Usually when a car boasts being handmade, you envision a life of headaches and unusual problems that your everyday Civic fails to entertain you with. Build quality, though, is above reproach, even with the NSX being entirely handmade. There are no dangling pieces that someone forgot to fasten. Nothing is mislabeled. All the pieces actually work. Everywhere you look and everything you touch screams quality and care. The leather on the seats is soft, and the gathered leather on the doors is a nice touch. Visibility is as promised – unobstructed, commanding even. Pedal placement is exactly as it should be. All three are close enough to work if you know what you are doing, but spaced enough to be comfortable so you could focus on the task at hand without tripping over yourself. No wonder Ferrari was a nervous wreck when this car was first introduced. Honda had addressed every complaint of every exotic car customer – and did it at a price far lower than the Italian benchmark. Here I was, examining an NSX 9 years after it had been first released, and other than an analog odometer, it still felt fresh.

Go time. Twist the titanium-colored key (no, it’s really not ti) and the V6 barks to life before settling down to a normal-toned level. Select first, feather the clutch out, and you find that take-off contains no more drama than setting off in an Accord. No revving to bizarre heights, no popping the clutch and hoping for the best – just smooth and progressive clutch take-up and you’re on your way. Idling through downtown traffic showed absolutely no vices in the NSX. In fact it felt like most any other Honda product. The ride was comfortable when you remembered what you were in, the engine was smooth as silk when puttering around, visibility showed no hidden 'gotcha!' spots, and the shifter – well there just aren’t enough adjectives in the world to describe how easy it is to conduct proper gear changes.

Bury the pedal that matters though, and the low mass powertrain slings the NSX to felonious speeds quicker than you can believe. Is this thing really just a V6? Best of all, thanks to the VTEC system, power is smooth and progressive all the way through the rev-range. There are no flat spots, dead zones, or waiting to get on with it. You don’t have to keep the engine above 3 or 4k RPM all day out of necessity to extract drivability out of the NSX. You can just do it because you want to. Cross 5800RPM and the NSX’s lungs open completely to unleash its full potential. It also unleashes a screaming sound that could only have been inspired from the F1 track. Gears are spaced to keep you above this crossover point at all times when executing redline shifts. As mentioned before, the interaction of the controls and the driver inputs is done so perfectly (there’s that word again), you can focus on whatever it is that you are fast approaching rather than wonder if you’ll be able to find the next gear. Even running at hyper-legal speeds, the NSX never loses its composure. It feels as planted at 20 as it does at 120; at idle as it does at redline. In fact it's almost frightening how tossable and in control this car feels at speed. You find yourself doing things that any other level-headed person would question - and worse rationalizing it because you know the car will do it. As expected the brakes are firm and true, and ready to repeatedly panic stop you from any speed. Handling likewise shows no vices or surprises. Even if you manage to exceed the adhesion limits and find oversteer, a wrist-flick of opposite lock will return you to the straight and narrow.

This truly is a car that you could use everyday. Naturally though, there are trade-offs, but not nearly as many as you get from a ‘normal’ exotic. It is low to the ground, so extra time will be needed to negotiate driveways. It doesn’t handle like it does for no reason – the tire angles are aggressive. This translates into supremely fast tirewear – before you decide to demonstrate burnouts and 9/10th cornering to your friends. In fact it was deemed bad enough at first that Acura toned down the settings in response to customer complaints. Time has shown the NSX to be quite reliable if maintained on schedule. And that maintenance schedule, while not cheap, looks downright reasonable if you’re used to the world of Italian machines and their out of warranty repair bills. Documented cars showing well over 100k miles are not uncommon, and are not used up enough to be retired. The NSX seems to have accomplished its mission of being able to be used everyday. Many have seen frequent use. Compare the miles on NSX's that are offered for sale to those on any other comparably aged exotic and that story will tell itself. Only one problem is considered catastrophic, and that was on a handful of early models – many of which have been corrected. (Google “NSX and snap ring” so I don't have to bore you with those details) Driven relatively conservatively, the gas mileage will make any SUV blush. It's a triumph of engineering, and a showpiece of dedicated vision that has few peers. Of course there’s no such thing as a “perfect” car but I’ll have to agree and put the NSX at the top of my list to describe automotive perfection.

So why don’t I want one?

The answer is simpler than you can imagine. Perfection does not equal passion. In fact, I would argue the opposite - that passion equals perfection. Wrap your mind around that for a second. Think about that equation in other areas of life and I dare you to disagree. Why else can you get a Patek Phillipe when a Seiko will do the same job more reliably and with less fuss? So here’s my one sentence conclusion: the best thing that the NSX gave to the world was reigniting the fire at Ferrari – who promptly answered back with the F355 and never looked back. (for that review click here) In fact I’ll go out on a limb and say that if the NSX hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t even see Ferrari today in their current form (racing and roadcars included). So for that, as a passionate automotive enthusiast, I say heartily to Honda, Acura, and the NSX “THANK YOU for all you’ve given us”.

Photos property of Honda

1 comment:

Boz said...

My counterpoint:

On all technical counts I can only echo Chris’s review. The engineering, the styling, even the timing of the release can all be considered “perfect” in one way or another.

I also agree with Chris on the drive. As has been noted, the NSX can easily handle any challenge it is given, and the challenges started early in my drive. Test #1 was not 50 feet in front of me in the form of a steep driveway exiting onto a busy 4-lane avenue. But once I had a comfortable gap in traffic to negotiate the steep drive, the NSX perfectly (though very carefully) cleared the road without a scrape, crunch, or any other horrendous aluminum-to-asphalt sound. Test 1 passed. Test 2 came in the form of city traffic. As Chris has testified (and I agree), no problems there. It took me no time at all to master smooth shifts or modest throttle to keep me comfortably in the middle of minivans, sedans, and lesser Mustangs. Much as I wanted to be in front of and away from lesser Mustangs, the NSX seemed more patient than I to wait for the best opportunity to assert its authority. Test 2 passed. Test 3 was a no-brainer. Once the opportunity presented itself, a test of the NSX’s true power was needed. As Chris noted, the VTEC engine offers readily available power with the tach needle pointing in any direction. I found myself holding second gear longer and longer as “the opportunity” approached. 3000 RPM, 4000, 5000, then bury the throttle. Turns out I had 3000 RPM left in second gear – more than enough to pass test 3 (as well as anything else that may have been in the way). Dropping it into third only made things that much more exciting. Hitting fourth means that you are likely running out of road.

To this point, the NSX behaved as calmly as a GT and as aggressive as an exotic. I had waited 4 years to get a drive in this car, and it had been worth the wait. So having passed every test thus far, I decided to create one of my own. At some point between my going and coming, there was a spot rain shower in town. So test 4 came in the form of seeing how well the NSX could maintain traction. As you would expect, cutting the wheel and burying the throttle in first gear causes some amount of wheelspin. What you may not expect is that after a couple of seconds, the tires would grip – with no change in throttle and on a damp road. Hitting second caused another second of wheelspin, but again, the NSX caught. That sealed the deal for me. The NSX is perfect enough to make stupid people look intelligent.

But where I don’t agree with Chris is in the conclusion. He mentions that perfection does not equal passion, while passion yields true perfection. Now before going further, let us all throw away the notion that the word “perfection” is absolute – as we all have mentioned, no car achieves that. However, minute engineering to create the ‘perfect’ supercar does not at all suggest to me a lack of passion – this is just a different type of passion. The stroke of Pininfarina’s or Marek Reichman’s pen, while a discernible sign of passion, is not the extent of it. Passion can be found in every aspect of a car – inside, outside, topside, bottomside. Chris is absolutely right about the powerful effect the NSX had on the exotic car industry. But this landmark automobile did not shock the world only through cold engineering, else I would argue that Porsche would be igniting the industry with every rendition of the 911, or that Ferrari should be following hot on the heels of the Bugatti Veyron. There is more to the NSX than engineering perfection, and I probably cannot adequately describe what that “more” is. But while I nod to the person buying a 911 Turbo, I want to personally congratulate the NSX buyer. While I glance with appreciation at the 911 turbo on the road, I turn and stare at the NSX – and the Ferraris. The Ferraris (and other exotics) spawned from the ‘NSX wake up call’ have boasted some of the latest racing tech, material marvels, and aerodynamic engineering. They have also boasted a much higher standard of reliability – things that were present in the NSX from day one. So the way I see it, what one would say is “passion” in a modern Ferrari he should also say is “passion” in the NSX.

So would I buy one? Absolutely. Would I buy it in place of my coveted Aston Martin DB9 (see my review click here)? Likely not, nor would I buy any of the Ferraris I’ve driven in place of the DB9. But the memories of my one drive in the NSX come flooding back every time I see one; it remains one of my top 5 drives to this day. If that’s not passion, I don’t know what is.


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