Notes from the Road, A Personal Automotive History – Issue 8: “The Next Level”


After nearly three years the Vette scene was wearing a bit thin for me.  I was coming to the realization that, while I liked and respected the car and the culture, it just wasn’t me.  At each meet, and every “cars and coffee”, I found myself inevitably gravitating over to the imports and was increasingly spending time on their forums.  There was no doubt I was having an emotional affair.  As hot as my all American beauty was, I was feeling the need to step out on her and explore more exotic pastures.  Budgetary realities and the need to actually drive the car meant those pastures really couldn’t be too exotic (in other words, the famous redheads of Maranello and the fiery temptresses of Bologna were out).  So a reasonably affordable, livable exotic, an “every day exotic” if you will, was the challenge.  Easy right?  Well as it turns out, one automotive legend had already responded to this challenge with 3 simple letters that had made automotive history.  You guessed it…  That man was Soichiro Honda and the three letters were: N. S. X.

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A decade long affair with arguably the finest car ever produced by Japan begins…

Now for those who have only passing familiarity with the legendary NSX, it should be said that these are not plentiful cars.  Following a huge, world conquering, launch in 1990, sales (and production) quickly fell off.  By the time it exited the scene it was all a bit of a tragedy.  Honda had really failed to stay competitive (maybe Soichiro’s passing made this inevitable really) and at the end of the full production run only 8000 or so units had been sold in the US.  8000 units of one of the greatest automobiles ever made over the span of 15 years!  Sobering stuff.  In any event, NSX’s are rare and they hold their value very well, that’s the real take away here.  Back in February of 02 I discovered the phenomenal NSX Prime and was instantly hooked.  Lud, the admin, runs what I think is one of the best enthusiast forum sites out there and it is a treasure trove of knowledge for both fans and owners of the NSX.   I found myself devouring content steadily.  The more I learned, the more I knew I had to have one.  The car had made a huge impression on me when it was first released.  i was 20 years old and in college and had seen one of the very first shipped to the US parked on the street.  I had read with huge enthusiasm the glowing reviews from the motoring press and cheered Honda on as they gave a serious challenge to Japan and Germany.  This was a legend I needed to become a part of!  Unfortunately impatience, as always, got the better of me.  It is best to take a slow and patient approach when buying a car of this caliber, and almost always it is better to buy one from a private owner who knows the car well.  This was especially true by 2002 when the glory days had passed and the car was on the decline (with the original examples over a decade old).  I of course ignored that sage wisdom and dove right into the deep end.  Having located a car surprisingly close to me, at one of those horrible “high line used car dealers” in NJ, I headed out to take a look.

As an aside, (and this almost qualifies as its own entry honestly), I personally feel that these places should be avoided like the plague.  What I have learned over the years are that there are really only three ways to go when buying a pre-owned high end car.  The first is from premium primary dealers and preferably from their CPO inventory.  You absolutely pay more, but you have the assurance of a big dealer reputation being on the line and the manufacturer behind you.  Despite what anyone may say or think, you can complain to BMW about an official BMW dealer and actually see results.  You can’t complain to BMW about “Joe’s Germans”.  The second option, of course, is private sale.  This is, of course, a more challenging option potentially, but you can get a fantastic car at a great price going this route.  The third option is something entirely new really, that has been enabled by entrepreneurial minded folks and the power of the internet, and that is the “automotive consultant/broker” route.  Almost acting as a personal shopper, these folks live and die by their reputation and essentially hand pick specific cars (sometimes taking requests) that they then resell.  They can cherry pick what they want to deal with and have almost no overhead.  They can also be used as consignment brokers by private sellers who don’t want the hassle of dealing with marketing and selling their car.   So premier dealerships and solid reputation brokers are good, “high line” used car lots are almost always trouble.

In my case I have to say that, as shady as the place was (they ended up shutting down within a year or two, the owner involved in some tax scandal), the car was actually not horrible.  She was a 1998 NSX in Kaiser Silver with black interior and 42,000 miles on the clock, an automatic transmission (egads, again! wifely influence at work) and the 3.0L 270HP engine.  The automatic cars stayed paired with the 3.0L engine throughout the entire run even after the manual trans cars shifted to 3.2L, 290HP and 6 speed in 1997.  Where relevant, I will note what I learned of it’s history, but ultimately I ended up with a lot of NSX experience, so my observations will mainly be about the NSX in general and not my first one, pictured above, in particular.

Build Quality, Design and Ergonomics

The NSX is a hand made, aluminum monocoque, masterpiece.  Full stop.  Everything about the car oozes quality and attention to detail.  That said, hand made cars are not perfect.  You will find variance in panel gaps, paint depth, trim fittings and the like.  Of course with the Japanese obsession for detail and perfection you will be hard pressed to find them (and you may wonder if the hands that made the NSX were robotic hands!), but if you study the car closely enough you can find them.  And that is part of the charm really.  The NSX is quite likely the most perfectly assembled, hand made, work of automotive art ever produced.  The first time you settle into the cabin you know you are someplace special.  I have been lucky to have sat behind a lot of great steering wheels, some of them attached to cars whose price looks more like a home value than a vehicle cost, and I still feel the view from the drivers seat of an NSX is nearly without peer.  Panoramic is the word for it.  The windshield fills your visual horizon and the cars low stance, and the superb position of the drivers seat, puts you on the road.  The old anecdote is that an F16 cockpit was used as a design target and as trite as that sounds, the comparison is accurate.  Flowing from the perfect seating position are the equally perfectly positioned controls.  Everything is intuitive and in comfortable reach of the driver.  As noted earlier this car was actually an automatic, but having eventually owned the 6 speed variety I can say that the clutch and gear shift are fantastic with short, tightly grouped throws on the effortless shifter and high, but communicative action on the mid-weight clutch.  A car that would make Goldilocks happy, everything in the NSX is “just right”.  The steering weight and feedback is the best I’ve felt short of a 911 (which takes my personal “best steering” award) and the entire driving experience is incredibly intimate.  More on that later though.  Sticking with the design and build quality, the cabin does take some minor dings.  It is very clearly a product of 80s design and by 2002 felt a bit dated.  The materials were good, but not fantastic.  In short, the materials were a lot like any other Acura which were all arguably too close to any other Honda.  This isn’t bad necessarily, Honda being who they are, but it is something which definitely deflates the “exotic balloon” just a bit once reality sets in.  Of course these qualities are also what make the NSX the livable, and more importantly somewhat affordable exotic, and the tradeoff is more than worth it.   Over time I learned that the cabin wears very well and, while not fancy, the vinyls and plastics (and their finishes) were built to last.  The leather bits were equally solid with good quality and gentle wear over time when properly cared for.  Like everything else with a direct impact on driving, the seats were supremely designed and incredibly supportive; some of the best sport seats I’ve ever experienced.  The NSX t-top, unlike the Vette, did not leak, but it did creak just a bit on this example.  Other than the roof the cabin was creak and rattle free and, while lacking that bank vault solidity of a premium German, was still reassuringly solid.  Outside the mid-engine layout, and Pininfarina inspired lines, made for an aesthetically lovely design.  More conservative than a Ferrari, it still displayed solid exotic character.  The same quality and attention to detail inside the cabin was in evidence outside, and the only real downside was the paint quality.  It should be noted, though, that I ultimately learned my 98 had had extensive paintwork due to an undisclosed accident history and so most of the paint was not original.  It wouldn’t be long before I had first hand experience with original NSX paint and it was far better than this example suggested.  Overall Honda did an amazing job of balancing exotic character with Japanese quality and consistency and blending commodity components with enthusiast focused design.

Driving Impressions

Whatever negatives might be said for the somewhat dated cabin design and standard equipment, starting the car and stepping on the gas makes it all just fade away.  The high strung 6 revs to 9000RPM just inches behind the drivers head unleashing an exhaust note closer to a Ferrari 8 than to anything else that has ever come out of Suzuka.  The steering, even the electric power assisted version that came with the later models (introduced in 1995), reaches the near telepathic levels of a 911 or an M3.  While not quite as perfect and communicative as a 996 or 997 911, it is an incredible accomplishment in an electric power assist configuration and one I feel is still unmatched.  In fact I find the addition of EPS to the latest iterations of the 911 (991), 3 series (F30) and the Audi S line to actually be quite a step backwards.  In the NSX you never even think about what might be assisting the experience.  Everything from the weight, to the size of the wheel to the feedback from the road is spot on.  Power delivery is excellent with decent performance on tap off the line (at least for the 3000lb weight) and fantastic top end once VTEC kicks in the high RPM cam profile.  For those familiar with the S2000, the NSX is like an S2000, on steroids, with respectable low-end grunt.  The 3.2L 6 speed variant is noticeably quicker than the 3.0L 5 speed, and much quicker than the 3.0L automatic, but none of them are blisteringly quick in a straight line with 60 coming in 4.8, 5.2 and 5.7 seconds respectively.  The NSX isn’t a straight line car though, it is a full sensory experience.  As soon as the road curves, its brilliant chassis and finely tuned suspension come alive.  At the limits, the mid-engine can bite though, and that point can come without warning.  Powerful mid-engine cars are a brilliant tool in the steady hand of an experienced driver, but can get an overzealous novice in trouble.  It is important to learn the car gradually before trying to find those limits.  Having experienced the understeer to oversteer transition I can say it is an interesting sensation.  Going too hot into a curve you lose the nose a bit, correct in the usual way by holding the line and peeling off speed, then resume course and start accelerating.  At that point the unexpected happens and oversteer kicks in without much warning due to the physics of the weight distribution of a mid-engine layout.  Of course the normal oversteer correction applies; apply measured opposite steering input and power out of the slide.  It happens quickly though and can turn you around fast on any over correction.  As far as stopping goes the stock brakes are great with firm, responsive, pedal feel and minimal fade in any condition short of a hot day at the track. In summary the NSX provides a sublime driving experience that lives up to the hype.  Time may have marched on, and other vehicles may have risen to a similar level or have played to their own strengths and created new mind blowing experiences of their own, but the NSX will always have a unique brand of magic for folks who can appreciate it.  It is a bonafide classic that every enthusiast should experience at least once and among the absolute best of the 90’s.

Issues

Despite its checkered past, the 98 gave me no issues at all.  It’s a testament to Honda reliability and quality that even a used exotic with a questionable background can deliver trouble-free driving.  I didn’t own her long though as this first one turned out to be a kind of gateway drug!

Conclusion

There isn’t much left to say in conclusion other than the NSX makes you a true believer from the very first drive and manages to stand the test of time, and deliver on it’s original lofty promises, even 20 years on.  I can’t think of a more fitting testament to Soichiro’s achievement than that!

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