Driving the Original Acura NSX at 25: Even Better Than You Remember
A drive to the world’s largest gathering of the Acura NSX.
Palm Springs, California -- It starts with a flicker in the outside mirror. I can see a dozen cars or so back there in the No. 1 lane, not speeding exactly but moving purposefully through traffic. And then they come past looking sleek and futuristic, some stock and also some winged ones apparently newly escaped from "Gran Turismo 5." Can the Acura NSX really be 25 years old?
We're all headed to Palm Springs, so I latch on to the rear of the line in this 2005 Acura NSX, a car with only 45,000 miles on the odometer that's fresh from the American Honda museum. I remember driving the brand new Acura NSX back in the summer of 1990; I later drove the model many times for many miles over the years before it disappeared from America after 2005. Back then, the NSX never felt very magical to me, and yet now this car is feeling pretty darn cool.
The right crowd and no crowding
It's called NSXPO (NSX exposition, get it?), and this evening the NSX Club of America has taken over the hangar at the Palm Springs Air Museum. This is a usefully spacious place to begin the weekend of club activities because there are some 165 examples of the NSX here (as well as 250 owners) to celebrate the model's first appearance on the street in the summer of 1990. It's the largest gathering of NSXs in recent history, certainly more than the 82 cars that got together just last week at the annual NSX Fiesta at Suzuka Circuit in Japan. The sun is setting behind the mountains above Palm Springs and the light catches the sleek windshields, and right in front of the group is an example of the forthcoming 2017 Acura NSX.
These are not the people you were expecting. There is a real shortage of doddering old guys talking about heritage. These are drivers, not preservationists. (One guy drove all the way from Manhattan in New York City.) This crowd is pretty young, very multicultural, female as well as male, and utterly unpretentious. Some bought a car when it was new, yet most were fulfilling a long-standing dream with a pre-owned car.
Michael Cao, the lead Honda R&D engineer in the execution of the interior of the new 2017 Acura NSX, is one of these owners, and he remembers that buying a used NSX was the first thing he did after joining Honda. "I had just graduated from school and had no money in the bank -- none at all," he says. "I got a loan with my new job at Honda R&D, found a car in Nashville, rented the cheapest car in Ohio and drove to Tennessee, and then drove the NSX back." Cao looks at me and says, "You have to remember, a lot of us were Acura or Honda street racers in the 1990s, and the NSX is the poster we had on the wall."
It's about the technology, Stupid
The NSX began in 1984 as some design drawings that Honda had commissioned from Pininfarina. Back then Honda's stunning sales success in America had made it the envy of the automotive industry, and General Motors was so impressed that the Detroit company had decided to reinvent itself with a new, Honda-style car division -- Saturn. For Honda, a mid-engine super car was the logical next step for the luxury division it was planning, Acura.
Yet when the Acura NSX arrived in America in 1990, it found plenty of skepticism. Much of it had to do with prejudice against Japanese cars, since they got the blame for the decline of Detroit in the 1980s. Also the NSX didn't look that great. The little trunk that had been grafted on to accommodate the requisite two bags of golf clubs seemed to stretch the car's profile uncomfortably rearward compared to the mid-engine Italian cars to which we had grown accustomed.
Yet the closer we looked at the 1991 Acura NSX, the more we realized that its technology broke new ground in every respect. First of all, there was the all-aluminum chassis, a rigid structure that helped keep the car's weight at just 3,010 pounds. Then there was the transverse-mounted, all-aluminum, 3.0-liter DOHC V6 with titanium connecting rods, and it included not only variable valve timing but also variable valve lift. The V-6 made 270 hp @ 7,100 rpm and 210 lb-ft of torque @ 5,300 rpm when matched with the five-speed manual transmission (the version matched with the four-speed automatic produced less power), and it would spin to a redline of 8,000 rpm. A sophisticated limited-slip differential was part of the program, as were aluminum suspension arms and brakes with four-channel ABS. Forged wheels carried 15-inch tires in front and 16-inch tires in the rear. Even better, F1 driving champion Ayrton Senna had spent a day tuning the NSX's track behavior at the Honda-owned Suzuka Circuit.
The 1991 Acura NSX apparently introduced 20 items of new automotive technology. It made contemporary mid-engine rivals such as the Ferrari 348 and Lamborghini Diablo seem like farm machinery.
What's on the agenda, shopping or racing?
No surprise, most of the cars in Palm Springs for NSXPO are here this morning at the Thermal Club. Some are roaring around the two road racing tracks that have been built (a third extension is under construction), and others are doing an autocross that's been set up in the vast paddock. This $100 million private club on 344 acres in Thermal, California, is like other motorsport clubs you've seen, only on a far more glamorous scale. The facilities include a dedicated administrative building with operations tower, garage space with attached car wash, and a big, self-contained area for hospitality. Did we mention the array of gas pumps?
No road-racing track in America has such facilities as the Thermal Club (well, maybe the COTA F1 track in Austin, Texas). And yet we think that you won't have to be an owner of one of the club's 249 garage villas on site to be a part of what's going on. This is exactly the kind of place at which both car clubs and carmakers will be hosting future driving experience events for people like you. As roads everywhere become more crowded in the future, it will be places like the Thermal Club where drivers with fast cars can breathe free.
There's a lot of heavy breathing going on right now as the NSX club members do timed laps. NSX drivers apparently really like the motorsport thing, and we're told that a thriving array of NSX aftermarket suppliers reflects this. (For example, Science of Speed has a client list with 2,000 names.)
When the NSX was new, the Honda engineers were quite concerned about the car's straightline stability, as the combination of a 58 percent rearward weight distribution and a relatively short 99.6-inch wheelbase (the 1997 Corvette C5 with its 104.5-inch wheelbase had not yet made a long wheelbase respectable for sports cars) seemed to promise lots of excitement in the corners. Yet everyone is keeping it together, particularly professional racing driver Peter Cunningham, who is giving rides in the 2017 Acura NSX. Cunningham is like a god to NSX people thanks to his feats of speed while racing the original NSX, not to mention subsequent victories and championships in Acura and Honda machinery with his team, RealTime Racing.
Lots of great driving and great fun, plus a great catered lunch. But what's most impressive to me is the 45 minutes that the cars spend creeping around the track at low speed in order to take a souvenir picture. All the cars are running air-conditioning as they sit there, idling in the blistering 110-degree heat. And not one NSX overheats. Not one.
All driving, no drama
The next day, the NSXs form up in the parking lot of NSXPO's host hotel, the Aqua Caliente Resort, and then depart in three well-organized groups for the Palms-to-Pines Highway, a loop of tremendous driving that takes you from the desert floor in Palm Springs to the winding roads among the pines at 5,377 feet in the San Jacinto Mountains above the city. Over the years I've done this drive a couple dozen times, so I have no problems handing over the 2005 NSX to someone new to the road, who happens to be Ted Klaus, the program leader and development chief of the 2017 Acura NSX.
First Klaus regales me with tales of a recent development drive of the 2017 NSX in the Alps, where the foremost challenge on the narrow mountain passes proved to be pavement slick with cow manure, as the farmers were busy bringing their cattle to new pastures at lower elevations before the onset of winter. But what's slightly more relevant is the way Klaus says this NSX from 25 years ago framed the development program for the new NSX.
"You feel the mass of the car behind you," Klaus says, "while in front there's nothing in the way of your view of the road. Chief engineer Shigeru Uehara wanted the driver to feel like he was in an F-16 fighter plane, so the cowl is low and the field of view is wide. But this also meant that the car itself would not get in the way. The NSX would be about driving, and the easier and more usable the car could be, the more you could concentrate on the driving."
If you've got engineering, styling is just a bonus
As the Japanese economy cratered in the mid-1990s and the power output of competing cars blossomed, the Acura NSX seemed to fall by the wayside. It acquired a 290-hp 3.2-liter engine, a targa top, and exposed headlights, yet it no longer dominated the conversation among car enthusiasts. Even so, 18,685 were built before the end came, and some 8,997 were sold by Acura in the U.S. between 1991 and 2005.
And yet this NSX now seems even more unique to me than it did 25 years ago. After a recent decade of mid-engine cars built for blockheads more interested in thumping their chests in a testosterone-fueled fury than in actual driving, the NSX's ability to actually travel long distances is pretty charming. (That trunk looks better now, eh?) This is a lightweight, right-size car in a world of very fast but very large (and very expensive) playthings. The NSX is the kind of mid-engine car we were promised, one powered by engineering, not personal vanity.
I fall into a conversation about this subject with Jon Ikeda, the former director of the Acura design studio who recently became the vice president of the Acura Division. As we agree, Honda is a different kind of company, one that depends on pure engineering creativity for its economic sustenance. It has no other car company as a partner, no bank as a financing backup. It sells 28 million engines each year in various forms, whether in automobiles, all-terrain vehicles, motorcycles, watercraft or plain old power generators. It's about innovation, not marketing.
As Ikeda says, "This year during Monterey week, the 2017 Acura NSX, the McLaren MP4-30 Honda F1 car, and our new Hondajet HA-420 business jet were all shown together. How cool is it to be a part of a company like that?"
1991 Acura NSX Specifications
- On Sale: September 1990
- Price: $60,600 (base)
- Engines: 3.0L DOHC 24-valve V-6/270 hp @ 7,100 rpm, 210 lb-ft @ 5,300 rpm; 3.0L DOHC 24-valve V-6/252 hp @ 5,600 rpm, 210 lb-ft @ 5,300 rpm
- Transmissions: 5-speed manual, 4-speed automatic
- Layout: 2-door, 2-passenger mid-engine, RWD coupe
- EPA Mileage: 19/24 mpg (city/hwy)
- Suspension F/R: Wishbones, coil springs/wishbones, coil springs
- Brakes: Vented discs/vented discs
- Tires F/R: 205/50ZR-15, 225/50ZR-16 Yokohama A-022
- L x W x H: 173.4 x 71.3 x 46.1 in
- Wheelbase: 99.6 in
- Headroom F: 36.3 in
- Legroom F: 44.3 in
- Shoulder Room F: 52.5 in
- Cargo Room: 5.0 cu ft
- Weight: 3,010-3,098 lb
- Weight Dist. F/R: 42/58%
- 5.5 sec
- Â¼-Mile: 13.9 sec @ 104.2 mph
- Top Speed: 167 mph