Once in a blue moon, a car comes along that changes the way we look at the company responsible for its production. This was certainly true for the classic 1961 Lincoln Continental and the groundbreaking 1989 Lexus LS, and it also holds true for the first Acura NSX. Penned in Japan by Honda’s Masahito Nakano, the NSX was designed to be a Ferrari killer, as it cost half as much and was twice as reliable. In the summer of 1989, a select group of journalists were invited to Japan to test drive the first prototypes. What they experienced would become reality the following year when the first NSXs rolled into Acura showrooms.
Acura Creates a Legend
Offered in 1990 as a 1991 model, the first NSX sent shock waves through the supercar industry. It was the first production automobile to offer an all-aluminum chassis and body. Powered by a 270-horsepower 3.0-liter midmounted V6 connected to a 5-speed manual transmission, the NSX was able to sprint to 60 miles per hour in less than 6 seconds. Cars equipped with the 4-speed automatic produced slightly less power, rated at 252 hp. Redline on the NSX was an impressive 8,000 revolutions per minute. Adding to the car’s uniqueness were features such as titanium connecting rods, a 10.2:1 compression ratio and direct injection. Each car was hand-built by a special team in Honda’s Tochigi assembly plant and carried a $65,000 price tag, the highest price ever asked for a Japanese production vehicle. The NSX was also unique among supercars, offering such features as contoured leather seats, a tilt-telescopic steering wheel, a Bose audio system and a driver’s-side airbag.
Among the more notable names associated with the NSX’s development was Brazilian Formula 1 world champion Ayrton Senna, who worked closely with Acura to fine-tune the NSX’s suspension and steering. Gordon Murray would later say in an interview that after driving the NSX, it became the benchmark car for what would later become his McLaren F1 design.
Winning Over the Press and Public
Upon its debut, the NSX garnered a plethora of awards, including Automobile magazine’s Automobile of the Year and Popular Science’s Best of What’s New. It also made Road & Track’s Ten Best Cars in the World list. In 1991, Motor Trend called the NSX “the best sports car ever built.” The NSX also began winning on the race circuit, including championships three years running at the International Motor Sports Association GTP Lights series. Sales reached 1,940 units the first year. The 1993 model year saw only minor tweaks, including the addition of a cupholder, a passenger-side airbag and improved warranty coverage. Sales slid to just 652 units.
In 1994, the NSX made its first appearance at 24 Hours of Le Mans. New features included 16-inch wheels and tires up front and 17-in wheels and tires in the rear. A tan leather interior was offered for the first time, but sales continued to fall to a mere 533 units. In 1995, the NSX-T debuted and featured a removable targa top. Power steering was made standard on both manual and automatic cars (it was previously available only on automatics). Changes to the car’s body structure were needed to accommodate the targa top, adding about 100 pounds to the NSX’s overall weight.
New for 1996 was a Formula-One-inspired Sequential SportShift 4-speed automatic transmission, complete with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The public apparently liked the new changes, as combined sales of coupes and targa-top cars rose to 884 units.
More Power Can’t Save Acura’s Supercar
1997 saw the NSX’s first major overhaul. The 3.0-liter V6 was replaced by a 290-hp 3.2-liter engine, and the transmission was upgraded to a 6-speed manual. Cars fitted with the 4-speed automatic retained the old 3.0-liter V6. In 1999, Acura released the Alex Zanardi Edition NSX. Named for the 2-time CART open-wheel racing champion, the car was sold only as a fixed-roof coupe and featured a revised suspension and interior/exterior styling cues. Weighing 150 pounds less than a standard NSX, only 49 copies were produced, all wearing Formula Red paint.
In 2000, perforated leather was added to the NSX’s interior, and improvements were made to the brakes and manual transmission. The NSX qualified this model as a Low-Emission Vehicle under California’s strict Air Resources Board standards. 2002 brought a more visual statement to the NSX line, with matching interior colors in yellow, blue, orange, silver, white and red. The front fascia was redesigned with fixed HID headlights, and the rear taillights also received a modest redo. 17-in wheels were used at all four corners, and the rear track was increased by .5 inches. Alas, a ballooning price tag and a lack of sales would doom the NSX, with the final models rolling off the line in 2005.
The Legend Is Reborn
At the 2016 North American International Auto Show, Acura revived the NSX name. Forged in the tradition of the first NSX, the 2017 Acura NSX showcases new thinking and new technology, creating a 21st-century supercar designed to make hearts race and tongues wag. Conceived at Honda’s studio in Ohio, the 2017 NSX is powered by a twin-turbocharged V6 backed up by three electric motors (two at the front axle and one in between the V6 and the 9-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission) for a total combined output of 573 hp. Although the new NSX is expected to sell for around $150,000, the very first unit produced just sold at the Barrett-Jackson auction for $1.2 million dollars. It looks like history is about to repeat itself.