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Retro Review: Acura NSX

The first generation of the Acura NSX took on Ferrari and Porsche at their own game. Honda’s take on the mid-engine supercar is a legend of the 1990s.

The Everyday Exotic Car

Acura NS-X concept car - hondanews.com

Acura NS-X concept car – hondanews.com |  Shop Acura NSX on Carsforsale.com

The mid-1980s were a heady time for supercars. European exotics like the Ferrari Testarossa and Lamborghini Countach were as ferocious as they were beautiful. They were the automotive embodiments of a decade defined by excess. As impressive as they were, all that style and power came at the expense of daily drivability. Interiors were cramped, rides were rough, and sightlines basically non-existent. Common wisdom said that such deficiencies were simply the inevitable trade-offs of supercar greatness. Honda, then still a young company making its bones on well-built, affordable commuter cars, felt they had the chops to make a supercar without all the compromises. The first-generation Acura NSX proved them right.

From Concept to Reality

HP-X Concept Car - Big Car on YouTube.com
HP-X Concept Car - Big Car on YouTube.com

The genesis of the Acura NSX began in 1984 to coincide with the company’s Formula 1 successes. The goal was to produce a supercar that could do it all. Rather than make the typical concessions to comfort and practicality, the new Honda supercar would corner like a Porsche, keep pace with a Ferrari in a straight line, and deliver a ride worthy of a Mercedes, and all while costing considerably less and with markedly better reliability.

Initial experiments on a mid-engine design involved dropping a 2.0L V6 into the back of a Honda City. Test drivers and engineers were impressed with the results, and a request was sent off to Pininfarina for a full design treatment. The resulting concept car, the HP-X debuted at the Turin Motor Show in 1984 to wide acclaim. With the concept’s positive reception, the new Honda supercar project was given the greenlight by 1985 along with $140 million dollar development budget.

eXperimental Designs

Original NSX Sketch - hondanews.com
Original NSX Sketch - hondanews.com

It would take Honda four years to incubate the NSX from concept to showroom floor. Myriad of choices made in those years would not only deliver on the projects premise of an everyday supercar but also make the NSX compellingly unique. First among them was the choice of a name. The X in the original NS-X had originally been intended to reference the x or unknown quantity in algebra, but some worried that would prove abstract for prospective customers. The name was simplified to NSX or New Sportscar eXperimental, which, for the record, isn’t exactly straightforward either.

Perhaps more impactful was the choice of engines. The mid-ship design was already set in stone, but the actual powerplant was not. Honda looked at both a turbocharged V6 or a V8 before rejecting them, the former as too laggy, the latter as too heavy. A brand new, clean-sheet naturally aspirated V6 was designed specifically for the car. Significantly, the engine would employ Honda’s then new VTEC variable value timing technology with the NSX being its first use in a US bound car.

Acura NSX 3.0L V6 - hondanews.com
Acura NSX 3.0L V6 - hondanews.com

The resulting engine was a naturally aspirated 3.0L V6 making 270 horsepower and 210 lb.-ft. of torque and paired with either the standard five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. This translated to a 0-60 sprint of just 5.4 seconds and a top speed of 163 mph. Not bad for 1989. Double wishbone suspension on all four wheels meant that the NSX was both competent in cornering and comfortable around town.

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Another significant decision was the use of an all-aluminum semi-monocoque chassis. Steel was too heavy and Kevlar and carbon fiber too expensive and difficult to work with. And while the aluminum chassis was both stiff and light, Brazilian F1 legend and test driver for the NSX Ayrton Senna commented that the car could be stiffer. Engineers went back to work, stiffening the chassis by an additional 50% from the original design.

1991 Acura NSX - hondanews.com
1991 Acura NSX - hondanews.com

Even the position and shape of the cabin was innovative. Taking their design cues from the F-16 fighter jet, engineers positioned the driver’s seat well forward in the NSX, providing excellent sightlines fore and aft, something sorely lacking in supercars then and today. The long rear deck allowed for the mid-engine car to even sport a sizable trunk. And of course, the NSX received that most quintessential of early ‘90s automotive flair, a pair of pop-up headlights.

In all, the NSX was delivered on its promise of a no-compromise supercar with an original MSRP of $60,000, half that of a comparable Ferrari of its day. Since Honda’s Acura brand was fairly new, debuting in 1986, the company decided to market the car under that make rather than the Honda badge it carried in the rest of the world.

Acura NSX Evolutions

1995 Acura NSX-T - acuranews.com
1995 Acura NSX-T - acuranews.com

Over the next few years, the Acura NSX would gain additional features and upgrades. In 1995, the NSX-T introduced a targa top variant to the mix. A new more powerful 3.2L V6 arrived in 1997 with 290 horsepower and 225 lb.-ft. of torque along with a new six-speed manual transmission. Those ultra-cool pop-up headlights had seen their day by 2002 and were discontinued, along with non-targa versions. By the mid-aughts, sales were flagging and the Acura NSX was canceled in 2005.

Reboots and Reimaginings

2019 Acura NSX - acuranews.com

2019 Acura NSX – acuranews.com |  Shop Acura NSX on Carsforsale.com

This wasn’t the end of the NSX badge, however. In 2016, a new Acura NSX debuted with a new design and a new engine. The modern NSX carries a twin-turbocharged 3.5L V6 working in tandem with three electric motors resulting in 573 horsepower and 476 lb.-ft. of torque. And while that’s competitive, it’s far from the top of the current supercar set. A final send-off is planned for the second generation NSX in the form of the 2022 NSX-Type S which ups the output to some 600 horsepower.

2022 Acura NSX Type S - acuranews.com
2022 Acura NSX Type S - acuranews.com

But even then, the Acura NSX will likely see a third generation before too long. Rumors abound that Honda plans to resurrect their halo car again, this time as a full EV supercar. Just as the prior generations of the NSX were as much about flexing R&D muscle as making the company money, so too a full-EV version would serve as fertile ground in developing the next generation of Honda’s powertrains.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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