The Acura NSX was a sensational supercar when it was introduced in 1990, and it remains one of the most sophisticated sports car designs around. It's built a lot like a prototype racing car, made civilized for the street, with many interior fittings straight off the Acura shelf. But sophisticated and racy do not mean fussy and challenging to drive. In the NSX they mean mild-mannered when you need it to be, exciting when you want it to be. And always the focus of attention.
Once, my wife and I had to return two press cars from the driveway to the office: a Chevy pickup and an NSX. I put her in the NSX because it was easier for her to drive. Never mind that I then backed into it while behind the wheel of the truck, because it was so low it ducked under the pickup's rearview mirror.
3.2-liter with six-speed manual transmission; 3.0-liter with four-speed sequential automatic
After the first step away from the nose on your walk around the car, there isn't much new. The old halogen pop-up headlights have been replaced by exposed Xenon High Intensity Discharge units with integrated turn signals. Acura says they're twice as bright; we took a late-night spin on a twisty two-lane, and they were plenty potent for the job.
The front air dam, bumper and hoodline have been revised, reducing the coefficient of drag to a superslick 0.30. The side sills are smoother, and new mesh air intakes just forward of the rear wheels provide additional cooling of the transverse-mounted engine located just behind the seats. The rear bumper, spoiler and LED taillamps have also been tweaked a bit. Finally there are new alloy wheels, sharp seven-spokes painted a smooth silver.
None of these changes affect the silhouette of the car, which still makes the NSX look like it belongs on the track at Le Mans. The tail remains markedly huge; not exactly fat, just way out there. And it's a magnet for dust and spray; after any light drizzle, the rear end conspicuously needs washing.
The 12-year-old styling is dated but still spectacular; our yellow NSX got more stares and reactions along the Columbia River than any car we've driven since the PT Cruiser was new. (We got the same reaction driving an Imola Orange NSX in Richmond, Virginia.) The exclusive NSX is still unknown and therefore striking to people.
The removable aluminum roof panel, introduced in '95, is standard equipment this year. It clips out easily and is light enough for one person to handle. It's ingeniously stowed under a solid flap inside the hatched rear window, thus taking up no storage space.
Which is good, because there's very little. The trunk, behind the engine in the tail, is a surprisingly decent 5.0 cubic feet, but that's it. The nose of the NSX is used for locating the larger components, such as the battery, reservoirs, electric power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering and the space-saving spare tire. There's no room at all behind the seats, nor any useful compartments in the console. The glovebox is mostly filled by the manual, but it could go in the trunk.
The high cost of the NSX can be tied mostly to its technology and construction by hand. The expression similar to that of a Formula One car appears repeatedly in the press materials. The all-aluminum chassis has been designed by the best computer programs for rigidity and safety, and the largely aluminum double-wishbone independent suspension is state of the art. Only one pair of human hands touches the engine, which features everything from titanium connecting rods (unique in a road car) to a Direct Ignition system in which each spark plug gets its own coil. Everywhere you turn, there's an expensive design.
There's also impressive attention to detail. Fit and finish is of the highest priority, reflected in the fact that our test car, despite having more than 10,000 hard miles, was tight and rattle-free.
The interior might be the exception to no-compromise approach. It's high quality but relatively ordinary (until the optional Vivid colors climb aboard). Acura says it's intended to evoke the image of a jet fighter cockpit, but it evokes more the image of an Acura passenger car with low-slung seats. Touch-ups for 2002 include some chrome trim and use of black chrome on the elbow-high console.
The instrumentation is clean, simple and efficient with four analog gauges in addition to the big speedometer and tach. We question our own ambivalence about the simple switchgear, which should of course be praiseworthy, especially in a car that may be driven at high speeds and will often demand that the driver keep his mind on the road. With the climate and sound system, things actually happen with the push of one button, things you even expect to happen! The problem may be that we've been perverted by expensive German cars; for $90,000 shouldn't there be some high-tech electronic confusion, or magic problematic digital delivery? The fact that the operation is perfectly functional might be the biggest indication that it's dated. Ah, poor Acura, you can't win. But we're with you.
Standard equipment includes power windows and door locks, a tilt and telescopic steering column, alarm system with an immobilizer that prevents hot-wiring, and power seats. The bright banana flavor of the leather seats became less hard to swallow after awhile, but the matching carpet and floor mats were a bit much. At least the leather dash panel, steering wheel, console and top half of the door panels were black.
The hand-stitched, perforated leather seats are superb: racers' seats, body-clutching and comfortable. Long hours in the saddle didn't produce a single kink. Buyers probably expect power adjustment in a car of this level, however it does add weight, and this is a car that won't be shared by many drivers, so the worth of the convenience might be debatable, especially if the price could be lowered without it.
The three-spoke steering wheel is good, although not particularly racy, and holds just a couple buttons: horn on the left, and a simple-to-operate cruise control on the right. The cruise control is made more precise by the drive-by-wire throttle system. We especially liked the wheel's two grip bumps, which were ergonomically intelligent. They were useful without getting in the way: small, and located at 2:30 and 9:30.
There's plenty of arm and legroom. Our right knee came in contact with the leather console, left knee with the leather door panel, but it wasn't uncomfortable. However the footwell isn't very roomy; a small deadpedal is squeezed in, and it requires some awareness to find without stumbling on the clutch pedal, which we noticed when driving hard through some country curves in second and third gears.
For such a low car, the NSX is not difficult to climb in and out of. The low cowl allows for a low dash, which allows for low seats providing a low center of gravity; but forward visibility on the highway is still good. However you can't see the front corners over the bulging fenders, or the tip of the nose, so parking is problematic, as it's difficult to judge the distance to an object. At least the bumpers are federally rated at 6 mph.
With the top on, Acura engineers have succeeded in their goal to make the NSX quiet inside; and with the panel removed, there is very little buffeting from the wind, even at high speeds. So the four-speaker Bose sound system is fully and wonderfully usable.
We found ourselves frequently using cruise control to keep from speeding, sometimes even in 45-mph zones. Boring, unfortunately, but almost necessary. A vivid yellow NSX is a ticket magnet. With the cruise control set at 69 on a 60-mph freeway (and getting run over in the fast lane, so add irony and humiliation to the boredom), we were stopped by a State Trooper with radar, who issued a polite verbal warning. Paranoia kind of takes the fun out of driving. The supercar dilemma. But isn't it good to know that the top speed of the NSX has been increased from 168 to 175 mph in 2002, thanks to the improved aerodynamics?
The lowered front air dam and revised trunk lip spoiler are intended to reduce lift at high speeds, and this might be true in the wind tunnel. But we still felt the front end get light at very high speeds, over any slight rise. And with the roof panel removed, not surprisingly, the lift increased; it wasn't unstable, just a clear message from the car. We were on a very remote road, perfectly straight, shared only by tractors that were visible for miles, gorgeous sunny day, speedo showing numbers that were well below maximum but still unwise to print.
In horsepower and acceleration, the NSX gets blown off by its competitors, and when you weigh power against price, it gets worse. The Dodge Viper, Corvette Z06 and Porsche 911 put up 450, 405 and 315 ponies against the NSX's 290, which hasn't been increased since 1997. And you could almost buy two Corvettes for the price of the NSX. So you have to appreciate the NSX for its mid-engine, transverse-mounted design, and its resulting beautiful chassis balance. We've had all of these cars on the track at one time or another, and have found the NSX to be the most enjoyable, at least on a track with a lot of corners and only short straights. At 3153 pounds it's also the lightest of the bunch.
Because this V6 is such an extremely smooth and high-revving engine, with its best power around 7000 rpm and redline at 8000, the NSX is in its element at high speeds, which is not terribly convenient. The most legal fun you can have is accelerating to redline in second gear. It's a cheap thrill, unfortunately followed by the disappointment of having to quickly back off when you hit third. You might even have to dab the brakes, which are big vented discs with dual-piston calipers in front. They look cool through the spokes in the wheels.
The NSX is as easy to drive fast as it is to drive slow. It's enormously stable, predictable and forgiving. It doesn't have an electronic stability system, with less need than other supercars. The biggest challenge to spirited driving comes in keeping the engine in the relatively narrow powerband; if you want the most out of it, you have to keep it above 5500 rpm, where the modest torque peaks. The acceleration is still bearable at 4500, although it's way more effective in its optimum range. Sixty mph equals about 3800 rpm in fourth gear, so double downshifting may be in order when passing on two-lanes. It's an opportunity, not a chore.
The gearbox ratios are naturally close, with six of them, but second gear might be notchy. Our test car had signs of over-use elsewhere (the brakes), so it's possible our notchy second gear was a result of abuse. Casual upshifts from first to second without a pause often resulted in a light crunch, although downshifts from third, if the blip and timing were right, were less problematic. Heel-and-toe downshifting didn't come easy however, as the throttle and brake pedals felt too close for comfort.
The engine revs to its 8000-rpm redline almost too easily. It doesn't feel stretched at the rev limiter, which is soft: a firm reminder, not a harsh slap. But because the horsepower peaks at 7100 rpm, it's pointless to shift at anything much past 7500. Unless your point is simply to listen to the lovely howl of the engine, which, at full throttle, is as throaty as a V6 gets, thanks to that variable volume
The Acura NSX succeeds as an engineering exercise, with its sophistication, balance, comfort and remarkably good manners. After 12 years it still conveys a supercar image and offers classy performance. But because its competitors deliver bigger horsepower for a lower price, the NSX may be more for the elite.