Honda NSX: retro road test

Tyler Heatley

27 Sep 2021

1/5
Honda's Ferrari-killer is a living legend. We hit the road to find out why.

The automotive landscape can be rather tribal at times with waring factions proclaiming their chosen car to be far superior to anything else on the road. From hot hatchbacks to supercars, everyone has an opinion, but there is seemingly one car that receives universal respect from all camps… The Honda NSX.



Back in the 1980s, Honda was known for building your mother’s Civic – a well-engineered car, but nothing to set the world ablaze. The Japanese firm wanted to highlight its engineering talents, and its rise as a Formula 1 engine supplier was certainly boosting that profile. At this point in time the world of supercars was full of machines that looked great on a bedroom wall, but in reality were unreliable, difficult to use, and if we’re honest, coined the phrase ’never meet your heroes.’ This is where Honda engineers decided to plant their flag. What if you could have a supercar that delivered on the promised performance but was as dependable and drivable as anything else in its range? In 1989 that vision of the ‘perfect’ supercar became a reality.


Honda’s New Sports car eXperimental concept drew quite the crowd at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show. Here was a V6-powered supercar that you were able to daily drive, something the likes of Ferrari and Lamborghini owners of the period could only dream of. The NSX featured an F-16 fighter jet-inspired cockpit that allowed for impressive all-round visibility, a respectable boot, a surprisingly spacious cabin, and the promise of Honda’s bulletproof reliability. This concept went into production, and thanks to the performance on offer and a little help from a certain Ayrton Senna, the NSX confidently beat Ferraris of the era in group tests – quite the scalp and something that cemented this car’s reputation as a living legend.



This NSX is a ‘facelifted’ car, meaning that it features an extensive series of revisions over the initial pop-up light original. In fact, this is one of the very last NSX produced and came into being right at the end of the model’s 15-year production run. The evolutionary approach Honda adopted had some critics noting the NSX’s age by the time it had its day, but it’s these late cars that are the best expression of what the formula had to offer.


The first thing that strikes you is how small the NSX is sat next to today’s supercar talent. Its actually narrower than some rather average family cars you find roaming the roads. Proportions aside, it still looks great. This immaculate Imola Orange car turns plenty of heads with its unfussy design and typical Japanese functional focus. It might lack the ever-cool pop-up lights of the pre-facelifted cars, but its strong beltline, shoulder-mounted intakes, and domed rear glass create a handsome visage.



It’s the cabin that really dates this 2005 car thanks to a cassette deck and basic switchgear. That said, everything feels durable and the interior is a masterclass in ergonomics. Everything falls to hand with ease, and the seating position has you raked low in the chassis. Visibility in mid-engined supercars is frequently terrible due to the nature of their packaging, but the boffins at Honda worked some magic here. Thin pillars and plenty of glass creates a canopy-like bubble that allows for near-perfect visibility all around. This not only prevents you from going viral by reversing into a lamppost but also allows you to feel confident when placing the NSX on the road.


Sadly hidden from view is this car’s naturally aspirated 3.2-litre V6 VTEC engine that produces a healthy 280bhp. Early cars had a 3.0-litre unit, but this larger engine complete with an involving 6-speed manual gearbox remains one of the greatest motors of its kind. Why? Not only is it beautifully balanced and smooth, not only is it exceptionally reliable, not only does it sound incredible, but it’s also a VTEC. For those who don’t speak Honda, VTEC is a means for this engine to change its cam profile, allowing for optimum performance throughout the rev range and to ultimately rev out to 8,000rpm.


When setting off, unlike other VTEC engines, there’s actually some torque lower in the rev range, and as that needle races onwards, there’s a physical kick as VTEC goes to work and the acceleration surges on. There’s a strong sense of urgency from the engine as it frantically builds, creating an intoxicating soundtrack in the process. Revving up to the stratosphere, the whole process starts all over again as you snatch another gear. Despite being over 15 years old, this car still feels fast with its 0-62mph sprint of 5.7 seconds.



Better than simply being good in a straight line, the NSX positively dances through the bends with a wonderful balance. You can really feel what the chassis is up to, and while the steering is a little over-assisted in this example, the whole package puts you at the heart of the action. There’s a predictability to the way it moves with its initial bit of body movement there to narrate weight transferring through the vehicle. Driven aggressively the NSX will start to move around, but never in a way that’s surprising, however, a smooth and flowing driving style far better compliments how this car naturally wants to go down the road. The brakes are easy to modulate, and fast winding roads sees the driver intuitively tailoring the car’s trajectory. Its ease of use and good manners means that you can really focus on the nuances of driving this supercar at a pace. It’s also a good size for our often narrow British roads, something that regularly has modern Ferrari owners wincing at oncoming traffic.


Many people regard the Audi R8 as the world’s first truly usable supercar, but really the NSX delivered that back in 1990. The quality of this car’s engineering still shines through today, and while taken for granted by collectors for years, values are very much on the rise. Regardless of fluctuating prices, one thing that has never changed is the universal appreciation the Honda NSX enjoys.


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Tyler Heatley

27 Sep 2021