Driving An Old Acura NSX Is A Wonderful Assault On Nearly All Of Your Senses

Hero

 

Last week I found myself behind the wheels of a trio of cars that relatively few people will ever get to touch, let alone drive. I had no idea what to expect when I buckled myself into Acura’s triplet of NSX, but what I got was an unforgettable experience that even changed how I see speed. I first drove the earliest known Acura NSX in America, and it was a car that didn’t just put a smile on my face, but was a relentless assault on my senses.

[Full Disclosure: Acura invited me out to Atlanta, Georgia to drive its entire line. Acura put me up in a nice hotel, fed me probably too much food, and let me giggle like a kid behind the wheels of expensive cars.]

Growing up, cars like the McLaren F1, Audi TT, and Dodge Viper lined my bedroom walls. In my racing games, my virtual car collection included everything from the Benz-Patent Motor Car to the humble Smart Roadster. Among the many cars that influenced my young self was the Acura NSX, a car known in the rest of the world as a Honda.

The NSX was birthed from Honda’s curiosity in finding a different drive layout for its vehicles. In 1984, Honda was known for its front-engine, front-wheel-drive cars. The layout worked great, but the marque’s engineers felt that they could take frame design further if the drivetrain layout were allowed to be different. They could perhaps design a more sporting vehicle.

This curiosity led to Honda’s engineers cutting up a City subcompact (yep, the car that had the option of the cute Motocompo scooter in back) and shoving its engine in the back, driving the rear wheels.

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Tamiya Corporation

Those who drove the Frankenstein monster of a City loved how such a simple change made the car so fun to drive. The project ultimately got shelved, but those who got to experience the car never stopped dreaming.

While this was happening, Honda was a year into its return to Formula 1 racing. There was a lot of talk about possibly getting into building a sports car to complement the program. And American Honda was sending word over that it wanted a halo car for the launch of its Acura brand. Finally, in 1985 Honda’s engineers got the green light to build the car.

Honda wanted to build more than just any sports car. The company wanted its halo car to buck the sports car trend of being uncomfortable and unsafe for the sake of speed. Its sports car would have features like automatic air-conditioning, antilock brakes, power windows, and traction control. Honda’s engineers initially thought to make the NSX out of steel, but not only would it have weighed too much, but steel was found to be too conventional for a car that was to be different. Thus, Honda decided to develop an aluminum monocoque. And its design was inspired by an F-16 fighter jet.

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Honda

Prototypes of the new car got trial by track at the Suzuka Circuit and on the Nürburgring. Famed racing driver Ayrton Senna got to take a spin in a prototype, too. Honda was aiming for Porsche or Ferrari levels of rigidity, but Senna wasn’t impressed, telling Honda that the car felt “a little fragile.” The engineers took his comment to heart and sought to make the car tighter.

Eventually, in 1989 the car rolled out for the world to see. The NS-X prototype stunned those who braved a Chicago winter to attend the 81st Chicago Auto Show. The NS-X name–applied to the prototypes–meant “New,” “Sportscar” and “unknown world.” The “X” was the mathematical symbol for variable. The lettering stuck, but the name changed to NSX, for “New Sports eXperimental.”

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Mercedes Streeter

Just a year later Honda began production of a car that remains so sought-after that good examples sell well into the six figures.

On Thursday morning a 1991 Acura NSX sat parked across a handicap parking space, just waiting to make this woman’s dreams come true.

Driving The Past

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Mercedes Streeter

 

Getting into the first-generation NSX actually felt really familiar. Its seat cupped me in place and the vehicle’s expansive greenhouse made me think of an aircraft’s cockpit. Honda certainly succeeded with giving you the feeling that you’re about to pilot a fighter jet. The only way that could be enhanced is with a transparent roof emulating the canopy of such a jet. As I sat in the “cockpit” of the NSX there was a distant hum behind my ears. Behind the cabin is the engine, mounted mid-rear. It’s a 3.0-liter V6 featuring VTEC and pumping out 270 horsepower and 210 lb-ft torque.

I said that this interior felt familiar, and that’s because it reminded me a lot of my Honda Beat kei sports car. Like the NSX, the greenhouse in a Beat allows you to see everything, the dashboard is similarly swoopy, and the engine is placed behind your back.

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Mercedes Streeter

This particular NSX has some real history behind it. This NSX is VIN 00052, or the NSX that Acura believes to be the earliest in America. It’s believed that customer VINs didn’t start until 00060. So this car, a pre-sales demonstrator for American Honda, is something special.

This car was built in May 1990 for the 1991 model year then shipped over to America, where Acura used it as a marketing vehicle. What this job entailed is unknown, but the car managed to rack up about 50,000 miles doing it before it was loaned off to a university’s engineering program in the mid 1990s. The university kept the car for over a decade, at some point putting the car under a cover then just forgetting about it. Once it was discovered again it was given back to Acura, who did the same thing as the university and let it sit.

Thankfully, this NSX was given a third chance when Acura gave it a restoration in 2019. The vehicle was given bodywork and a repaint in its original color, its powertrain revived from years of sitting, and missing pieces replaced. But this wasn’t a total restoration and parts of the car were left as-is.

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Mercedes Streeter

When I drove the car I noticed that the air conditioner blew sort of lukewarm, one of the power windows wasn’t working, the driver seat was worn, and the radio didn’t work. Instead, there was Bluetooth cleverly hidden behind the factory controls. And the clutch was definitely on the tail end of its life. Many journalists before me weren’t gentle with the car. But it wore its nearly 65,000 miles with pride.

I like to think of this car as a museum piece. It isn’t perfect and it has signs of having lived an actual life, but it’s presented in good enough shape to still make your mouth water.

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Mercedes Streeter

 

Driving the NSX once again drew feelings of commanding my Beat. Each shift was accompanied with a satisfying tactile click. The throttle pedal was like a means of direct communication with the engine. And the steering wasn’t just direct–it didn’t even have power steering–but I felt what the tires and the suspension was doing through it. Driving the NSX is a sensory experience and everything but taste gets a workout. Driving the NSX feels like an extension of yourself, rather than operating a vehicle.

On the performance side, the old NSX is good for a zero to 60 mph sprint of about 5.2 seconds. That makes it less than a second faster than my Volkswagen Touareg V10 TDI (high 6 seconds) and right on the mark with my Saturn Sky Red Line (low 5 seconds). It was about as fast as I thought that fast cars were. And truth be told, 5.2 seconds is still decent today.

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Mercedes Streeter

Handling was similarly great, as the NSX feels like it pivots around your spine. It following curves without drama, headed right in the direction that you’re commanding it. I never felt the need to push this NSX harder. Weirdly, I felt that it never really asked me to push it harder, either. Some cars seemingly taunt you into pushing them past the limit. The original NSX is fine going your speed, whatever it is. And even my sense of smell got a treat, too. The car’s old leather and plastic made for an aroma that reminded me of riding around in the cars of my childhood.

At times I punched my flats into the floorboard and that engine responded with a V6 symphony. The NSX played its notes at just the right volume and right on key, delivering a raspy soundtrack directly into my ears.

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Mercedes Streeter

Couple it to the snappy acceleration, mechanical feel of the transmission, and the touch of the wheel and it’s an experience that might be the closest you could get to Valhalla without actually dying.

I sometimes like to say that an old analog vehicle is like taking control of a time machine. That’s not really the case here. This car is 31 years old but it actually didn’t feel all that old to me. Honda engineered a car that was ahead of its time and you feel it behind the wheel. It’s really just an infotainment screen, throttle-by-wire, and power steering away from being something that Acura could probably sell today.

Why This Old Car Is So Good

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Mercedes Streeter

Later in the day I drove this car’s successor and the final edition of that successor. They’re objectively better cars that have the ability to change everything that you think you know about speed. Those cars are like the nifty powered ratchets that you can buy today. But this car is like the old ratchet in your toolbox. It’s a little worn and not as handy as your zippy Milwaukee, but gripping it and busting some nuts with it is still a fantastic time.

And best of all, when this car was new it smoked the Porsche and Ferrari sports car establishment for a price tens of thousands of dollars less.

Earlier, I noted that this car felt a lot like my Beat, and it does. That little drop-top kei sports car hands you a similar experience, but on a much smaller, slower, and cheaper scale. But that actually makes sense. Honda was only one of a number of manufacturers building performance cars in the kei category. The Beat even launched in the same year as the original NSX.

Still, after the event I found myself searching for an old NSX to buy. I briefly lied to myself, telling myself that I could find one for cheap. Such a car could not be found. I even searched Japanese auction statistics and even beater NSX sell for $25,000 out there. Thus, the NSX will remain a car that is inaccessible for many enthusiasts. And that’s sad, because a car like this deserves to be experienced by the masses.

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34 Responses

  1. I have a 2000 NSX in silver as well. I believe that all NSX’s (but maybe not the first gen?) where the first cars that were fly by wire on the throttle. At least my example is. As for the comment which seemed way too detailed about how “horrific” the quality of Honda’s are. I guess at some point Honda shot your dog. My NSX after 22 years has had nothing replaced or broken other than typical time items like the coolant hoses which were replaced for fun at 17 years in. Not a light bulb, a stitch, leak or creak. The most perfect car ever made.

  2. I’m not much of a Honda guy but I always admired the early NSXs, I’m pretty jealous of your experience driving one! I wish I could get excited about the new one but it just doesn’t grab my attention at all..

  3. Somehow I don’t think Honda took you to Atlanta and wined and dined you to write about how great the original NSX was. I kinda think they were hoping you’d write about how great the new NSX is. I’m really glad you did the former, though.

  4. When Acura handed me an NSX not long after its North American introduction, I was initially a bit put off by the angularity of the styling, and felt the car cast entirely too large a shadow to house a mere V6 and two passengers. That was the only criticism I could make of it. It was, as Mercedes implies, a haptic machine: everything the driver touched seemed directly connected (in the best possible way) to whatever it was supposed to operate. After a week, I didn’t care how it looked; it was as close to flawless as any high-performance car I ever drove.

    Also like Mercedes, I drove (but have not owned — yet) a Beat. Now that she mentions it, I can see the similarities. The Beat was much slower, obviously, but dynamically was something of a scaled-down NSX. And maybe even a bit more fun to chuck around….

    Honda — IIRC, the rest of the world got a Honda NSX — consistently cranked out winners in those days. I’d say their current crop of designers and engineers would benefit from giving their 1990s products some intensive study to understand just what made them timeless and desirable.

    1. You recall correctly, it was the Honda NSX everywhere, only North America called it an Acura.
      Still, this is a US based website, so I’m used to translating ‘Acura’ to ‘Honda’, or ‘Miata’ to ‘MX-5’, or ‘mid-sized truck” to “approximately the same size and mpg as a Main Battle Tank”.

  5. Baby, look at me and tell me what you see
    You ain’t seen the best of me yet
    Give me time, I’ll make you forget the rest
    I got more in me and you can set it free
    I can catch the moon in my hand
    Don’t you know who I am?
    Remember my name
    I’m gonna live forever
    I’m gonna learn how to fly
    (High)
    I feel it coming together
    People will see me and cry
    I’m gonna make it to heaven
    Light up the sky like a flame
    (Fame)
    I’m gonna live forever
    Baby, remember my name
    (Remember, remember, remember, remember)
    (Remember, remember, remember, remember)

  6. Did you wear Loafers? No Flats

    Did you wear cool Sunglasses?

    Light up the tires from Pitlane?

    Stab the throttle to get it to Rotate?

    Satoru Nakajima had more to do with the development of the NSX than Senna did. However he was World Champion and from the visual standpoint his video was way better than Nakajima could hope for. Cooler look, lots of smoke and sliding and car control etc etc etc

  7. Look, it’s damn hard for me to exist being named after the famed Ayrton Senna without having a huge love and lust for the first gen NSX experience. I didn’t need you to come out here and throw it in my face like this, but I’m glad you did. I just wish I could have been so lucky myself.

  8. Before I bought the Porsche, one of the cars I cross-shopped was the NSX.
    Both of them. New and old. (You could buy a brand new NSX for $25k below sticker without negotiating, the sales were that atrociously bad.)
    I knew within 60 seconds the new NSX was a terrible car for car lovers. It is and remains a car that is undeserving of the name. It actively treats the driver like an idiot incapable of managing gear changes, understanding vehicle dynamics, or controlling grip. Every inch of the car screams with absolute contempt for the driver; “it goes 0-60 in under 3 seconds because it’s smarter than you, and don’t even think about poking around the engine or suspension.” It exists solely to be an also-ran in the hypercar wars; it never could have been and never was a sports car.
    It was quick, sure. Stupidly quick. Gobs of adhesion. And about as engaging as watching paint dry. You never, ever feel fully in control of it – always a fraction of a second away from some module snatching control, an animation of a wagging finger on the infotainment saying hooliganism is not acceptable in an NSX.

    And then a green over tan 1998 NSX came up in my searches.
    They didn’t want to let me test drive it at first, because I’d arrived in an automatic. With all the kids shopping them, they didn’t want what little was left of the original clutch torn up. We agreed that I’d demonstrate on a test drive of a Lotus that I had as a much lower rung pick. (Was an Exige S 260 FE in a color I didn’t like but could have lived with if nothing else panned out or I fell in love. I didn’t.) When we got back, they just tossed me the keys to the NSX.
    I won’t claim I liked the clutch – I hated it. But I’m very picky because I’m used to true mechanical; I just don’t like hydraulics. Also the engagement point is way too high. You’ll never convince me the C32B’s exhaust note stock is anything special, even excluding the Porsche 9A1 and small overlap high compression Hemis. It just tries too hard. Nor was it particularly quick or even nimble by my standards and experience.
    But it responds like very few cars ever have. It does have ABS and stability control. But the NSX does what you tell it to – and not one millimeter more. That’s it. The only real technology in it is one of the worst stereos known to man and an automatic climate control that’s guaranteed to fail.
    So if you fuck up, it is entirely on you. It feels like some mythic ‘super-agile’ ‘supercar’ simply because it doesn’t have the power to get you into real trouble. Whine all you want, it doesn’t change a fact. The NSX weighed about 3300lbs with driver, with 290HP and 224ft/lbs of torque. For comparison, a 1993 Dodge Daytona IROC R/T weighs 2900lbs with driver, and produces over 225HP and 225ft/lbs of torque. To put it another way: the NSX weighs 250lbs more than a 997.2 GTS and has a more than 120HP and 90ft/lbs deficit.
    This doesn’t mean the handling and ride quality isn’t excellent – it unequivocally and objectively is. But it has far more handling capability than it could ever hope to utilize without a much more powerful engine. Which it never received. Unless you’re Ayrton Senna (you aren’t,) driving it at or near the limits only occurs due to driver error. I am very good at pushing cars without losing it (the NSX is known to be snap-happy too,) and I know I got nowhere near it.

    I ended up passing because the NSX is a car worth driving at least once in your life, but on the balance of things, it’s the last damn car you want to own. There is no ‘legendary Honda reliability’ to begin with, and the NSX completely decimates the illusion. Typical clutch life is under 60k miles with no slipping, and that also applies to the timing belt kit. The only thing regulated about the windows is how frequently they break. The A/C underperforms. It destroys the rear tires due to inherent alignment and it’s staggered. The digital HVAC always fails. And you won’t ever be able to enjoy it in peace – no matter where you go, you will be mobbed, tailed, asked for photos, asked to take people for rides, and have people asking to drive it. Don’t even ask about insurance.

    And don’t take my word for it; ask Edmunds. They bought a 1991 Acura NSX with just 46k on the odometer that had already racked up over $6,000 in maintenance plus over a grand to upgrade the stereo. In 12 months of ownership, they experienced broken trunk shocks, a leaking trunk that persisted through multiple repairs, failed O2 sensor, a broken door handle, failure of the stereo backlights, water in the tail lights, the tape deck failed in a ‘destroys tapes’ mode and then completely died, broken trim clips, failed trip odometer (which wasn’t repaired,) delamination of the driver’s mirror, a failed ACM ($1,713,) coolant leaks, A/C leaks, complete failure of the HVAC, another broken door handle (which is metal, BTW,) and at 12 months and 12,000 miles? It failed smog. In 12 months of ownership, it cost them over $5,400 while doing oil changes and minor repairs themselves.

    Meet your heroes – but stick someone else with the bill.

    1. Man, I do find some faults in some of your thoughts.

      “Don’t even ask about insurance” – I think you are wrong there. I have had mine for 4 wonderful years. The insurance rate is $402 for the year. Agreed value. Limits of 250/500/100, comp & collision.

      “You will be mobbed” – Bwaaahaaahaaa, most people never look your way. Those that know what the car is will definitely give you a thumbs up, pay you a compliment and want to talk for bit. That is generally welcomed because they are car fans. I enjoy letting folks get in it and share it with them because I know how much I love it. I actively choose to not be a douche in life. But I promise you, you are not going to be “mobbed”.

      Mechanically, the car is solid. I did send recently send off my A/C module to get repaired ($400), and I have had both window regulators replaced ($500 both times), but other than that it has been great. I have put 20,000 miles on it. But the car is 31 years old. Any car will likely need to have a window regulator replaced.

      If you go to BringATrailer.com and look in the comments section of any of the sales, you will see the owners gush over the car. There are plenty of high mile examples of this car. I have seen plenty that have over 200,000 miles. Go to BringATrailer.com and look in the comments section of any of the sales, you will see the owners gush over the car. There are plenty of high mile examples of this car. I have seen plenty that have over 200,000 miles.

      I know two guys who sold theirs, and after a couple of years repurchased the NSX because they absolutely missed the engagement of the car.

      The weight of the stock NSX is 3010 lbs. I don’t know why you are providing the weight of the vehicle with driver. The weight of the car can stand on its own when being compared to the weight of other cars on their own. It feels like stating the car is “3300lbs with driver” is being thrown around to overinflate the number. I don’t know why the driver that you are using in your example is 300 pounds.

      The weight of the stock NSX is 3010 lbs. I don’t know why you are providing the weight of the vehicle with driver. The weight of the car can stand on its own when being compared to the weight of other cars on their own. It feels like stating the car is “3300lbs with driver” is being thrown around to overinflate the number. I don’t know why the driver that you are using in your example is 300 pounds.

      The price for a set of tires, in the stock size, is $480.

      5Fifty0

  9. Articles like this always bum me out. My ’92 was a daily driver till Covid and I always made sure to stop and talk with anybody who showed an interest. Pretty sure I’m taking it to the GRM 2k challenge this year-free rides in Gainesville to anybody who buys me a beer and says they’re from Autopian!

    Mercedes is 100% right about the NSX feeling similar to other Honda products of that era. The design language, materials, and philosophy are similar. If an NSX is out of reach I would encourage somebody to look at the s2000, GS-R, or type R.

  10. This was my hero car in high school and I met one when they were moderately affordable and I had cash to burn! Only to find out that I don’t fit, no way no how. One of the worst days of my life.

    I’m 6’4″ with an even ratio of legs to torso and my head was craned over at a slightly painful 45 degrees against the roof of an NA1. I played with the seat as best I could and tried all manner of slouching. Absolutely no go. That night I read on the forums about tall-guy options to no avail… the factory seat rails are already ultra low and bolt right to the floor. The seats are already thin. The seat padding is thin but can be thinned more.. but you only gain about a half an inch. The targa on the NA2 would allow my head some open air space on nice driving days.. but I’d get a view full of roof (there’s actually less space in NSX-Ts) and bad rollover safety.

    Just a sad, bad day. But I’m glad to read that you got to enjoy one, you deserve it.

    PS. This was my third attempt to leave a reply; my first two getting foiled by the absolutely atrociously clunky login system.

  11. I love the OG NSX. Cars like this, when everyone else is putting more and more frosting on the same cake they come along with a new batter and suddenly cake is better. F1 McLaren, LFA, too many other hero cars. Mold breakers. Those always hold my attention far longer than the ones that surpass them by borrowing what the heroes create and adding more frosting.

  12. My first impression of an NSX was from Pulp Fiction. My reaction was ‘Acura made that?! wow!’

    I think the S2000 took everything Honda learned from the NSX and made it better.

    It’s A/C is frigid, it’s clutch lasts a good long while (my 200k ’01 is on it’s third clutch, and I think it has about 20-30k left).

    While it’s still mid-engined, it is in the front and tiny compared to the bay, so working on it is lovely!

  13. My current daily is the third vehicle I’ve had extensive miles in powered by a Honda V6. It’s an Accord and I adore how all three have delivered the power. I love the old NSX, but I kind of wish Honda would have dropped one of their V6s in a front engine, RWD direct competitor to the Supra and Z cars.

  14. While the original NSX featured a breathtaking and futuristic industrial design for a Japanese automotive product, above all else Honda products have always been about the engine. After toiling as a teen age mechanic for Toyota for six years and later starting his own auto repair business, in 1937 company founder Soichiro Honda upped his game and began manufacturing and selling piston rings to Toyota. In 1947 he began producing the first motor-driven bicycle to carry the Honda name on an engine, the 50cc Honda Type A, one of 240 Landmarks of Japanese Automotive Technology. Therefore, it should be no surprise that the original NSX was fitted with TITANIUM connecting rods. A cursory look at the internet today finds one for sale with a MSRP of $1213.58 (Part Number 13220-PR7-A00 Rod Assembly, Front Connecting). (Automotive Value Translator: 1 NSX Connecting Rod = 1.73 DT Chevy Tracker.) You have to admire an automotive company that with the hubris to tell the cost accountants to go f*ck themselves, and ‘hell yes’ we are going to use titanium connecting rods because we can. As an epilogue, the great Mr. Honda died on August 5, 1991 (the same year as the NSX featured in this article) surely knowing he had created an engineering masterpiece. Days later, Ayrton Senna paid homage to this engineering genius by dedicating his win at the Hungarian Grand Prix to Mr. Honda.

  15. I see a black, original NSX from time to time near where I live in PHL. Oddly enough, I also see a white Honda City Turbo with some vintage turbo fan style wheels every day on my drive to work. A little auto shop on my drive to work has a lot filled with odd and unique cars has had one out front for the past 3 months.

  16. Is this NSX week at the Autopian? Never had the good fortune to drive one myself, but in the mid-90s I did sell my mid-engine 914 to get a used ’90 Integra. The Integra was the better car in every way (except the seats, which were awful), but never gave me any of the pleasure I got from the under-powered and temperamental Porsche. I do wonder where the NSX would have fit on that spectrum.

  17. I wanted a NSX back in the day. I still want one, more so than even the current crop of exotics. Me thinks it’s a beautiful car. And for a road car, plenty of performance.

    Maybe someday.

  18. It’s funny how timeless the exterior is (other than the pop-up headlights, I wouldn’t blink an eye if it was put back on sale in 2022 looking exactly the same), and how perfectly ’90s the interior is. I wonder if contemporary autowriters were as obsessed with ripping on “hard plastics” in 1991 as they are now.

    1. It makes sense to compare current cars to current cars though, yeah? I have a box of old cassette tapes in the closet I can’t even listen to, but if I drove a 2023 and it came with a tape deck and no bluetooth, I’d 100% complain about it.

      1. No doubt, I just find it funny that here we have a car with basically a 100% approval rating among writers and enthusiasts, and yet it suffers from their nemesis, the accursed sin of “hard plastics” and “cheap interior”.

    2. “It’s funny how timeless the exterior is ”
      With all of the creases on modern cars, this looks nice and clean. Not as curvy as a Ferrari of that era, but smooth and purposeful.

      I’m not a huge popup headlight guy, but that 1st gen NSX made it work! They look good raised, as well.

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