August 8 1999 – MOTORING
The Honda NSX should have ruled the world. Andrew Frankel hails Japan’s forgotten supercar
Rising sun: Honda NSX
The dark horse
THERE was a time, ten years ago, when we thought the Japanese car industry was going to take over the world.
After years of marketing mediocrity, suddenly Japan got serious. First came the Mazda MX-5, the finest affordable sportscar of its era, then the Nissan 300ZX, the first Japanese car truly to earn itself the title "supercar". Then Toyota created a new brand called Lexus, created the most refined and comfortable limousine the world had seen and proceeded to rub Europe’s nose in it with the off-hand suggestion that, with the LS400, they were "just practising".
But the one that made the blood of Europe’s cosy supercar industry truly ice over was the Honda NSX. When we first saw pictures of it we were broadly impressed — it looked like a Ferrari, but would it go like a Ferrari? When we discovered that Ayrton Senna was doing the development work, we thought it probably might.
And then we drove it: it was massively better than any Ferrari on general sale at the time and, what’s more, it was as reliable and easy to live with as a Honda Civic, not something that could be said for any Ferrari, then or now. No wonder we predicted that it would tear the hearts out of the traditional supercar constructors.
But it didn’t happen. Today the NSX is a considerably rarer sight than a Ferrari. Honda failed to provide the marketing push to match its superstar’s abilities, and innate snobbery about the badge on the front did the rest; never mind the fact that Honda has won more world championship grands prix than Porsche and that its Formula One engines were the most
successful ever built by anyone.
A decade on, it’s time someone stood up and reminded those who plump for the more obvious choices exactly what they are missing. The NSX has evolved slowly over the years, but it’s fair to say the best are either the earliest, without power steering, or the very latest, with a six-speed gearbox and more gutsy 3.2 litre engine. Those with automatic transmission and removeable roof panels should appeal only to those interested in merely looking like they’re driving hard.
The basic and best NSX is the �69,590 manual coup� . On paper it’s impressive enough, reaching 60mph in around 5sec and possessing a top speed of about 170mph, but really doing little more than certain TVRs will for half the price.
But it’s out there in the real world that the car comes alive. A new Porsche 911 is a little cheaper (�64,805) and, with vestigial rear seats, perhaps more practical, but for the sheer thrill of driving it doesn’t come close.
The NSX is one of those rare cars you wear. The seating position is so low that the next time you climb aboard a more conventional car you feel perched upon it. It wraps itself around you until you are cocooned within its midst.
The 276bhp V6 motor sits directly behind your left ear and sounds — from idling to its 8,000rpm red line — like a race-car refugee. Point it at a corner and the car turns with a precision that suggests your wrists are laser-guided, while providing you with the kind of feedback to make the helm of a Jaguar XKR, an undoubtedly fine car, seem entirely lifeless by comparison.
Best of all, it’s a real driver’s car. It’s not a machine that provides a veneer of excitement on top of layers of self-preserving stodge. Drive an NSX well and it will reward like few others; drive one badly and the time will come when it will repay your lack of respect.
Rivals are thin on the ground and it can no longer be compared to Ferraris, the cheapest of which is now 50 per cent more expensive. A Chrysler Viper GTS is similarly expensive, but I can imagine nobody deciding between the two: if you need a scalpel, you don’t ask for a sledgehammer.
The venerable Lotus Esprit V8 can rival the Honda for handling fluency and outright performance, but little else, while the new Maserati 3200GT, Aston Martin DB7 and Jaguar XKR are all more oriented towards touring pleasure than driving thrills; I’d rather an NSX than any of them.
This, then, is its real talent. There’s no supercar for the money I’d rather drive and few in which I’d rather idle away a few motorway hours or sit in heavy traffic. For all its dynamic ability, it is also a car that knows there is a time when a decent stereo and air-conditioning is massively more important than neck-snapping performance and telepathic handling.
For ten years the NSX has satisfied these seemingly irreconcilable interests, and for ten years the British supercar-buying public has ignored it. It’s time to wake up and realise what’s being missed.