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Classic: Acura – Honda NSX

By Ronan Glon / May 16, 2014

Honda started toying around with the idea of building a supercar in the early 1980s when it teamed up with famed Italian design house Pininfarina to present a concept called Honda Pininfarina Xperimental (HP-X) at the 1984 edition of the Turin Motor Show. Powered by a 2.0-liter V6 engine, the HP-X was merely a futuristic-looking design study that was never seriously considered for mass production but it showed Honda was already thinking beyond economy cars.

At about the same time, Honda’s Wako, Japan, research and development center was experimenting with ways to shift from the traditional front-engined, front-wheel drive layout that the company’s cars had used for years. Engineers chose to focus on a mid-engined, rear-wheel drive layout because they believed it created a sportier driving experience and they liked the fact that it freed up space on both ends of the car. Interestingly, Honda initially tested the layout by building a mid-engined version of the first-generation City, a tiny, boxy car that was primarily designed for crowded urban centers.

Engineers found that mid-mounted engines were promising but they concluded the layout was best adapted to sports cars. Honda executives liked the idea so they told engineers to move forward with the development of a range-topping sports car powered by a mid-mounted engine.

“I think the company wanted a car that could bridge the gap between its mass production front-wheel drive models and its Formula 1 cars,” explained Shigeru Uehara, the NSX’s chief development engineer. “They needed a car that would become the new face of Honda. Plus, we’d been contacted several times by those who were planning the Acura Division at American Honda concerning similar requests.”

The Early Stages

Early on in the project, Honda debated whether to build its upcoming sports car from steel or from aluminum. Although it is more difficult to work with, aluminum was ultimately chosen because it promised to lower the car’s weight and consequently make it possible for Honda to offer the NSX with high-tech features like ABS brakes, power steering, an airbag, power seats and so forth without sacrificing performance or resorting to a fuel-thirsty eight-cylinder engine.

Honda started the development process by drafting a graph that compared the power-to-weight ratio and the wheelbase-to-weight ratio of the NSX’s projected competitors with the ratios of a Formula 1 car. The graph became known as the “Milky Way diagram” because the bulk of the cars that the NSX was designed to compete against fell in the same general area that was shaped like the Milky Way. Using the graph, engineers penned the NSX to be as close to a Formula 1 car as possible without sacrificing comfort.

Honda built the first fully-functional NSX prototypes in 1986. That same year, the automaker also crafted an aluminum-bodied CR-X in its Suzaka, Japan, factory in order to gather knowledge on how to mass-produce a car with an aluminum body. The lightweight material had been used for decades on race cars but the NSX project marked the first time an automaker tried to build an entire car out of aluminum.

The NSX prototypes underwent rigorous testing in Japan over the course of the late 1980s. In 1989, Honda gave Formula 1 pilot Ayrton Senna the keys to a prototype and asked him for feedback on how the car performed on the track. Senna reportedly said the engine was wonderful but he warned the car was not rigid enough in extreme driving conditions The pilot’s advice was taken seriously and Honda shipped the car to the Nürburgring track in Germany where testing continued. Working out of a small warehouse located several miles away from the Green Hell, Honda gradually made the body about 50 percent more rigid.

The NSX Goes Public

Honda proudly presented its coupe as a close-to-production concept at the 1989 edition of the Chicago Motor Show. The car was called NS-X, a name stood for New Sportscar Unknown world but the letter X was chosen because it has historically represented an unknown factor in mathematics. The car was remarkably well-received by both the show-going public and the press, and the regular-production version of it went on sale in 1990 as a 1991 model. It was nearly identical to the prototype that Honda had spent years fine-tuning but the name lost its hyphen and the car was christened simply NSX.

Sold under the Acura banner in the United States, the NSX was powered by a 3.0-liter V6 engine equipped with dual overhead cams and Honda’s VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control) system. The engine made 270 horsepower at 7,100 rpms and 210 lb-ft. of torque at 5,300 rpms when linked to a five-speed manual transmission, enough to send the 3000 pound NSX from zero to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds. Peak power dropped to 252 horsepower at 6,600 rpms when the optional four-speed automatic unit was ordered.

In its first year on the market, the NSX cost $62,000 with a manual transmission and $66,000 with an automatic gearbox. That same year, a 247-horsepower Porsche 911 Carrera started at $60,700. In spite of its high price tag, the NSX was an instant hit and buyers in Japan had to wait up to three years to get their car.

Honda has never been one to rest on its laurels and it regularly updated the NSX over the course of the 1990s. In 1992 it launched a track-focused version of the car called NSX-R that shed 264 pounds by losing most of the sound deadening equipment, the radio, the A/C and the power windows. A limited number of NSX-Rs were built, and all of them were sold in Japan<.

Another important NSX model was a topless version equipped with a Targa-style roof appropriately dubbed NSX-T. The removable targa top added about 100 pounds to the NSX’s weight and it lowered its rigidity, but it became highly (and somewhat unexpectedly) popular in the United States.

In 1997, the NSX gained a 3.2-liter engine linked to a six-speed manual transmission. Designed for track use, the mill featured strengthened internal components and a dual-mass flywheel, while a stainless steel exhaust manifold helped bump output to 290 horsepower and 224 lb-ft. of torque. A stiffer suspension setup and beefier brakes on all four corners kept the power in check. The 1997 update also brought HID headlights and an in-car navigation system, a real novelty in the late-1990s.

The last major update came in 2002 when the NSX was given a facelift consisting largely of fixed headlights in lieu of pop-up units and new bumpers on both ends. The coupe soldiered on with only minor changes until Honda stopped production in 2005.

When the NSX was axed, Honda promised to quickly develop a successor but the project was put on the backburner until a show car called NSX Concept was finally presented at the 2012 edition of the Detroit Motor Show. Honda is keeping precise details about the next NSX under wraps until its official debut but the automaker has hinted the Acura-badged coupe will hit the market in 2015 with an all-wheel drive gasoline-electric hybrid drivetrain consisting of a potent V6 engine and no less than three electric motors.