Car and Drivers May 94

Acura NSX – Reigning King of The Hill

As Porsche readies a wicked new Carrera, we pay tribute to our personal reigning king of the hill.

By Patrick Bedard

 Car and Driver, May 1994  

Have you wondered: What sports car would the road testers keep poised behind their own garage doors, on 10-second alert, gassed and gleaming, ready to light the burner and blur the pavement on those occasional sorties of the utmost therapeutic importance?

Hey, road testers have fantasy lives, too. And if the automatic teller were ever to go Robin Hood on us, the great sucking sound you’d hear would be a heartwarming number of Acura NSXs being drawn toward Editorial Headquarters. The testers of this magazine are of one mind about the NSX, so much so that we can finish each other’s sentences.

"The low, forward, cockpit is exhilarating . . . like riding in the head of an arrow."

"It’s so precise in its responses . . . as if it were hard-wired into my cerebellum."

"It’s exotic and rare . . . but it doesn’t have to prove it by beating me up."

"A breakthrough sports car . . . now in its fourth year and still at the cutting edge."

We C/D testers are unanimous: the NSX is our top choice for pure driving pleasure. Yet despite our enjoyment of its moves and our admiration for the all-aluminum construction that puts it on the good side of the F=ma equation, the NSX remains widely misunderstood, neither coveted nor respected in fair proportion to the joy it delivers.

Why is that?

For one thing, there’s no other high-performance car on the planet that’s so poorly described by its test-track numbers. It’s fast–0 to 60 in 5.2 seconds, quarter-mile in 13.7 seconds at 104 mph, top end of 162 mph. It stops–170 feet from 70 mph, with very good control from its four-channel anti-lock brakes. It turns 0.93 g, with a mild understeering balance.

Fast, but not a record setter. Several other exotics have more power and put more rubber on the road. But remember that these are test-track numbers, limits-of-the-envelope readings obtained with the driver at full alert and plenty of runoff room to catch the histrionics.

Track numbers say nothing about usable performance. Exotics are notoriously tricky to drive, and street-usable performance is typically well below the track numbers. Except for the NSX. This machine is so honest and predictable in its responses that most of its track performance is also useful performance. Out in the world, the NSX’s no-sweat capabilities top the charts.

Also against the NSX is the perception that it lacks intensity. There’s a half-truth here. "For a quick blast, the Ferrari F40 is more fun. But in a half hour I’m done with it," says one of our crew. The NSX, on the other hand, is a splendid partner for a quickie and we’re never done with it. We would drive it every day. We’d happily commute in it. In the quest for perfection, Honda is used to playing in a tougher league. It holds itself to higher standards. One example: Despite the NSX’s speed, it’s not a gas guzzler, not even close. On one recent 713-mile trip, we logged 25.5 mpg. Another example: to reduce transmission noise, the 1994 NSX has recontoured gear teeth.

Uh, what noise? We never heard it.

Now, about this intensity deficit. How much intensity can you stand? Recall that a little bit of Clyde Barrow was all most folks could stand. The usual exotic-car intensity comes from noise–shrieks and whines that are briefly amusing but quickly fray the nerves–or recidivist behavior that requires the driver’s full attention just to complete ordinary moves. You may have noticed that every test of the red Italian in the last 30 years complains about the shifter. And if it didn’t, it should have. True, such idiosyncrasies make vivid cars, but vivid is not the same as precise and attuned. It’s not as satisfying either.

The NSX is the most precise and attuned mid-engined machine we’ve ever driven. No big deal. Just the everyday story of the Honda Motor Company playing in the tough league. Remember, Honda satisfies millions of customers every year who expect the seats to fit them, no matter their shape, expect to see the instruments without dodging their gaze around the wheel rim, expect the lever to snick into the next gear while they pay zero attention to the process.

Imagine a mid-engined sportster with every ergonomic detail as correct as in an Accord. It’s simply never been done before. The NSX starts from that level. Then it excels. The seats have only two adjustments, fore-and-aft and seatback angle. But they fit our long guys and our short guys, our wide guys and our lean guys, and they augment their lateral support with padding at the shoulders. So the side forces are broadly distributed.

The brakes are so unsquishy you’d think you stepped on a rock instead of a pedal. The clutch is Honda easy, thanks to twin-disc design.

Like all wide-tired cars without power steering, turning effort is high. Until the tires begin to roll. Then the workout fades to amazing precision. You get feedback without kickback. Most staffers mention the steering in their first paragraph of NSX superlatives.

They exclaim over the view out the windshield too. Honda designers worked to a very specific motif when they drew up this car–the F-16 fighter jet. They imagined the panorama that opens to the pilot, out through the bubble canopy and over the drooping nose. They tried for that same sensation in the NSX. Oh, yes; oh, yes. An F-16 for the road.

The black roof is part of the theme. All NSXs, except for some of the dark green ones starting this model year, have black roofs. Most mid-engined coupes have the roof integrated into the basic architecture: they look like coupes. But F-16s show you a fuselage trailing into an empennage. The canopy is transparent and not obvious at first glance. The NSX has a short roof far forward, with narrow, sloping pillars. And it’s painted black. It hides from your eyes. The canopy look. Inside, you get the canopy feeling too, with an unmatched view in all directions. It’s uplifting, exhilarating, liberating.

Liberating. Uh, not a term we’d use for other exotics, yet it applies perfectly to the NSX. Most exotics are blind toward the rear quarters, a source of unease in traffic. And most force the driver into an uneasy position, with awkward reaches and disadvantageous leverages on the controls. Not so the NSX. It simply fits, snugly, intimately, appropriately, from the hips on down, yet it seems to widen above the tunnel, above the armrests, to give plenty of elbowroom, a sense of spaciousness, room to work.

And it gives you the tools to work, to perform surgery on the road. The steering cuts so accurately. The torque comes in so broadly, accompanied by the sound of precision sewing machinery, turning to a growl in the midrange, revealing itself to be a grizzly as the VTEC switches to the high-speed cam profiles at full-throttle 5800 rpm. Talk about liberation. Allowed is 8000; enjoyed is 8000. Those titanium connecting rods aren’t back there for the weight distribution.

Still, power is not the centerpiece of this car. We’re back to liberation again. This car is about motion, about translating driver talent directly into g-forces. You guide the steering. You caress the pedals. You do the right things. And it does the right things. Yes, you can throw it around and end up throwing it away. But it’s more tolerant of uneducated inputs–of abrupt lifts off the power or stabs of the brake–than any other exotic we’ve met.

How, exactly, does it handle? Great. Braking into turns very late, and very deep, is a move for the postgraduate. It puts the nose down, loads the outside front, and makes the tail light. Do it wrong and you’ll spin bigger than the Supercollider. The NSX will go deeper than we will.

Early NSXs earned a reputation for rapid tire wear, particularly at the rear. Honda specified lots of rear-wheel toe-in to keep the tail from stepping out, 6mm total. That was reduced to 4mm starting with the 1993 models. Stability is still fine, we think. But tire wear is probably a tradeoff in the design of this car. The Treadwear Grade number on the sidewall is 120, the lowest we’ve seen on an original-equipment tire, and suggests a tire life two-thirds that of a Corvette tire labeled 180.

The only significant visual change for 1994 is wheels one inch taller and a half-inch wider at all corners–7.0 by 16 inches in front, 8.5 by 17 in back–with 215/45 and 245/40 Z-rated tires. Red, black, and white exterior colors are continued, a new dark green replaces silver.

Price is up, to $77,265 for the base car including destination charge and luxury tax. An awkward place–too expensive for most buyers, too cheap to be regarded as truly precious. On the usual exotic-car scale that equates preciousness with rarity, the NSX is a terrible misfit. Honda built a special factory for this car. It wants to push out 25 a day to recoup its investment. What the NSX offers, instead of rarity, is the detail refinement in both engineering and manufacturing that only a large, top-line carmaker can bring. Consider: In the Initial Quality Survey from J.D. Power & Associates, the NSX was found to have 71 defects per 100 cars in 1991, 57 in 1992 (although the sample size was too small this year to be statistically certain). For the same years, Lexus scored 55 and 73, Mercedes scored 91 and 127. Industry average in 1992 was 125. Clearly the NSX is well built in a way that expensive sports cars usually aren’t.

The NSX will never be rare. But it works beautifully, which is more precious to us.

The Verdict

Highs: The jet-fighter view, the engine’s grizzly growl, the way the controls turn small motions of your feet and hands into large g-forces.

Lows: At night, the green traction control "on" idiot light reflects in the windshield.

The Verdict: The highest and best use of aluminum for civilian purposes.

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