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Honda NSX review: how the people’s supercar humbled Ferrari

Honda NSX classic

After 1989, sports cars would never be the same. That year, the Mazda MX-5 reinvented the roadster – with added reliability – then Honda did the same for the supercar. Its NSX was, in essence, a Ferrari without the flaws.

The New Sportscar eXperimental reached UK showrooms in late 1990, priced at £55,000. Its lightweight aluminium body was shrink-wrapped around a mid-mounted 3.0-litre V6 with forged pistons, titanium conrods and a searing 8,000rpm redline. Suspension was by double wishbones all-round, and F1 hero Ayrton Senna (racing for McLaren Honda at the time) helped hone the handling. No doubt, the NSX was the real deal.

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Reviews at the time, though, were mixed. The NSX torpedoed the myth that supercars have to be hard work, but some thought it too sanitised – complaining it lacked the character of European rivals. Yet history would prove Honda right. Today, you don’t need the skills of Senna to drive a McLaren Senna, and we have the NSX to thank. Equally, what seemed sensible 30 years ago now feels like a glorious throwback to an analogue age.

Honda NSX classic

It’s 6:30am as we board the Channel Tunnel. Two days and 478 miles of driving lie ahead, including stop-offs at historic racetracks in Reims and Rouen, plus a detour into central Paris for an overnight stay. Classic road tests are rarely so rigorous, but I’m hopeful the NSX will rise to the challenge. Me? I’ll need a double espresso first.

Honda’s heritage car hails from 2005, the last year of original NSX production. By this point, engine capacity had risen to 3.2 litres and pop-up headlights had fallen victim to US safety legislation. Metallic orangey-gold paint aside, it looks subtle for a supercar. The plasticky dashboard and parts-bin switches haven’t aged well, but its low-slung driving position is superb. The view ahead, all wraparound windscreen and plunging bonnet, is pure Le Mans racer.

With plenty of motorway miles to Reims, I’m dismayed to discover ‘infotainment’ is limited to a cassette player. Fortunately, the 280hp V6 makes its own music: a sultry snarl that swells to a rabid mechanical shriek. Beyond 5,500rpm (where many engines would shortly run out of revs), Honda’s VTEC variable valve timing kicks in like a nitrous boost, piling on speed with insatiable intensity.

We pause for photos in the evocative pitlane of Reims-Gueux – which hosted the French Grand Prix until 1966 – then drive what remains of the former circuit. The back straight is now a busy dual-carriageway, passing a retail park and drive-thru McDonald’s. The magic seems long gone.

The NSX is busy casting its spell, though. Its power steering feels light but lucid, its stubby gearlever moves with rifle-bolt precision and its pedals are just-so for heel-and-toe downshifts. Panoramic visibility and modest dimensions also mean we cope calmly with rush-hour Paris. Unlike, seemingly, every other driver on the infamous Périphérique ring road.

Honda NSX classic

If the ‘road to Rouen’ sounds like a stand-up comedy tour, the reality – 80 miles on Autoroute 13 – is less amusing. But while the old Rouen-Les-Essarts circuit has vanished almost without trace, the surrounding hills form a perfect playground for the NSX. It flows between apices like a parkour athlete, its pliant suspension and progressive chassis delivering the raw, seat-of-pants feedback that’s so often smothered in modern cars. Here, on rural roads more accustomed to tractors and decrepit Clios, the Honda feels transcendent.

This purity still appeals, some 30 years after launch. The current NSX is an altogether different beast, a futuristic hybrid with nigh-on twice the power, yet I wonder if it will ever inspire the same reverence. If driving is your drug, the original NSX is a Class A hit. After a road-trip to remember, I think I’m addicted.

Price: from £45,000

0-62mph: 5.5sec

Top speed: 168mph

Horsepower: 280

MPG combined: 22.8

Honda NSX: in pictures

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Honda NSX 2020 review: exotic, exhilarating… and easygoing

Honda NSX

There’s a feeling among some petrolheads that cars peaked in the early 1990s. It’s been downhill ever since. Writing for Autocar, Colin Goodwin went further, declaring 1994 ‘the greatest year in the history of the car’. I wasn’t old enough to drive back then, but I wonder if Colin is right.

Yes, cars today are better built, safer and more sophisticated. But as driving machines, they’re also more homogenised, sanitised and mundane. To quote Colin: ‘[1994] marks a point in time when cars were simpler, less cluttered with technology and, most importantly, had realistic performance’. One example he uses to illustrate this is the Honda NSX.

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The original NSX was no dinosaur: it was the first mass-produced car with an all-aluminium body, while its 274hp V6 used VTEC variable valve timing to boost power and economy. At heart, however, this was a straightforward sports car, with its engine in the middle, rear-wheel drive and virtually no electronic aids. Its superb steering, balletic handling – honed by Ayrton Senna – and high-revving howl left journalists in raptures and Ferrari red-faced. How the NSX felt to drive was what mattered.

Honda NSX

For the second-generation NSX, launched in 2016, Honda could have refreshed the same formula. Instead, perhaps inspired by hybrid hypercars like the LaFerrari and McLaren P1, it created something far more futuristic. The slightly by-numbers styling of the Mk1 made way for a riot of aggressive angles. And while there was still a V6 behind the seats, it was complemented by two turbos, three electric motors and a nine-speed gearbox driving all four wheels. On paper, this looked like progress.

On the road, many were less convinced. The NSX was heavy (1,759kg) and didn’t feel as raw and exciting as rivals. So Honda has obliged with a mid-life makeover, focused on righting these wrongs. Thermal Orange pearlescent paint aside, there are few visual changes – and no extra power for the 581hp hybrid drivetrain. But new anti-roll bars and rear-wheel hubs, plus tweaked settings for the steering, dampers, transmission and four-wheel-drive systems, promise a much sharper drive.

They deliver, too. Spin the Dynamic Mode dial to Sport+ and the NSX leaps to its toes: energised and agile. It turns in sharply, poised and playful mid-corner before Velcro-like grip rockets it onwards. The light steering jostles with incessant feedback and the huge carbon-ceramic brakes are easy to modulate. The suspension is also supple enough for British B-roads, transmitting every ripple and bump without making the car feel skittish. I’m not in the same universe in terms of driving skill, but I suspect Ayrton would approve.

Honda NSX

The NSX is ferociously fast, combining a wallop of electric torque with frenzied petrol power at the top end. Zero to 62mph takes 3.3 seconds, with urgent response at any speed. Being able to cruise silently around town in Quiet mode, using electric power only, feels very right-on, and helps towards impressive 26.4mpg economy. At times, I wished it sounded more special – its cultivated snarl won’t startle onlookers like a Lamborghini V10 – but mostly I was glad for its relative decorum. The novelty of constant barks and bangs soon wears thin.

It still isn’t perfect. The boot is tiny, the plastic paddle-shifters feel naff and the media system, shared with the Civic hatchback, is woeful. A price tag of £170,000, swollen by the weak pound, also makes it notably more expensive. Even so, only the more-commonplace Porsche 911 Turbo offers such easygoing usability in a supercar package. The new NSX might lack the simple charm of the original, but as the car industry rushes towards electrification, it feels forward-thinking and right for its time. The future is orange.

Price: £170,000

0-62mph: 3.3sec

Top speed: 191mph

CO2 G/KM: 242

MPG combined: 26.4

Honda NSX: in pictures

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