Non-Italian Exotics: Honda/Acura NSX

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This is the supercar that forced both Ferrari and Lamborghini to build their cars with interiors that weren't made out of cardboard.

The NSX had an interesting role in the automotive world. It pioneered the extensive use of aluminum construction and variable valve timing. It served as a flagship for the Acura brand in the US. And it helped to change the way people viewed Japanese cars in general. But it was never a big commercial success, competing as it did with the champion workingman's exotic, the Dodge Viper. The wheels of the NSX project were set in motion all the way back in 1984, when Honda commissioned a design study for a mid-engine sports car from Pininfarina.

Known as the HP-X, the car was powered by a 2.0-liter V6. This engine was replaced by 3.0-liter unit when Honda began working to evolve the design into a more feasible road car. This was done because Honda wanted the car's performance to match that of the Ferrari 328, while simultaneously significantly undercutting the price. The concept was first shown to the public in 1989 with the name NS-X, later being changed to NSX for the production car. Final testing was done at Honda's test facility and GP race track at Suzuka, at the hands of no less than F1 legend Ayrton Senna.

Senna's notes on the car's handling is said to be directly responsible for last-minute changes in the suspension setup which gave the car such excellent handling capabilities. Before his death in 1994, Honda had given Senna two NSXs. Aluminum was used extensively in the car's construction, including an all-aluminum monocoque, suspension components, wheels and the engine. This is said to have saved as much as 440lbs versus a similar steel construction. The NSX was certainly light, and nearly all versions of the car weighed in at less than 3,000lbs.

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The NSX also boasted 4-channel ABS brakes, electric power steering and was the first Honda sold in the US to have either VTEC variable valve timing or throttle-by-wire. The engine also used titanium connecting rods which allowed for an 8,000rpm redline, uncommonly high in 1990. It produced 270 horsepower when it debuted, and this was enough to get it 60mph in 5 seconds even. This was indeed faster than the Ferrari 328, but more importantly, it was also faster than the 348 which had replaced the 328 by the time the NSX went on sale. The design of the cabin was influenced by the cockpit of the F-16 fighter jet, chosen because it offered excellent visibility.

The NSX was raced extensively all over the world, including three appearances at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the mid-Nineties. The car's uncannily good handling would serve as the design target for the McLaren F1 hyper car, according to the F1's designer Gordon Murray. Though the F1 was obviously quite a bit faster than the NSX, it was Murray's view than nothing in the world handled better than an NSX. Its handling was not only superb, but it was also much more accessible than in other exotics. The NSX was as easy to drive as an Integra, and good visibility meant that it was also less dangerous than its competitors when it came to driving in heavy traffic.

The NSX evolved very little over the years, and it was in production all the way from 1990 to 2005. The most significant changes were the introduction of a targa top in 1995, an upgrade to a 290hp 3.2-liter engine in 1997 and a mostly cosmetic refresh in 2002, replacing outdated interior pieces and the flip-up headlights. But as an increasingly unfavorable exchange rate drove up the US price over the years without any corresponding increase in performance, the NSX became more and more irrelevant. The NSX never had been able to boast big power figures, but by 2005, the idea of an exotic car with less than 300hp seemed outright bizarre.

So the NSX was discontinued, and by the end, Honda had sold less than 9,000 units, far less the number of Corvettes which Chevy sells each year. For all its exoticism and handling prowess, the NSX just didn't have the power to compete with the likes of the Corvette and Viper. This is not the end of the NSX though. Honda began working on V10-powered successor back in 2007, with plans for it to go on sale in 2010. This project was mostly killed off by poor economic conditions, but was salvaged somewhat to build a race car for the Japanese SuperGT Series. Honda began working on the project again last year, and a new NSX concept debuted in January.

The production version isn't expected until 2015, although all questions about power remain unanswered. We're looking forward to a new NSX, although it will have quite a legacy to live up to. Even if the original never sold in large numbers, its legacy as the world leader in handling is known by many, and it's unlikely that people would forgive the new version if it proved to be anything less.

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