Japan’s riposte to Ferrari was born into the era when McLaren (powered by Honda) dominated F1 and Ferrari, very much pre-Schumacher, was second best. And the NSX, Honda’s first supercar, wiped the floor with Ferrari’s 348 dynamically. It was the world’s first aluminium monocoque production car, honed by Ayrton Senna himself.
Honda did the smart thing and played to its strengths, combining a sensational, high-revving 3.0-litre V6 with a super-stiff and lightweight aluminium body, and ensuring it was reliable and easy to drive. The fact that, at the time, Ferrari was suffering with unreliability issues only helped the cause: Honda had the opportunity to repeat what it had done in F1 and beat the Italians at their own game.
The NSX had its own purpose-built production facility in Tochigi, Japan. The idea was to separate the supercar from its other cars, maintaining sterile manufacturing conditions to ensure perfect build quality. McLaren even let Senna loose in the NSX at a Suzuka test session in 1989. He drove the development mule and suggested that, among other things, the car’s body didn’t feel rigid enough.
With this in mind, Honda worked hard on reinforcing the NSX’s already strong aluminium shell and, in doing so, unlocked the key to better body control, ride quality and refinement.
When launched, the NSX proved supercars needn’t be the impractical, unreliable monsters of old. The same is true today – only now the bidding starts at very ordinary money.
Which one to buy?
The NSX was never a big seller, especially in the UK, but there is a healthy supply of 3.0-litre cars around. Imports are not uncommon, but generally don’t drastically differ in price. It remained in production for 15 years, and by 2005 the Japanese supercar was struggling to keep up with the competition.
Early cars, which are the most common and easiest to find, came with a 3.0-litre V6 engine producing 276bhp. An automatic version was offered, and proved surprisingly popular in Japan, although power was reduced to 242bhp.
Although no convertible NSX was offered, from 1995 a removable targa top roof panel was fitted to the NSX-T. Two hardcore models were built, the original NSX-R in 1992, and the later Type R in 2003. Both are incredibly rare and difficult to find, with only a very small number known to be in the UK.
Later examples, especially the facelift cars, are quite thin on the ground and are the best resolved. Although the official power output remained unchanged, it’s thought that these examples were producing well in excess of 320bhp.
• Although it is extremely reliable, the NSX does have a few areas that need to be carefully checked.
• Certain 1990-1992 models had a weakness in the transmission countershaft bearing, with a ring that could snap, leading to eventual catastrophic gearbox failure. It’s worth checking the transmission’s VIN number with a specialist to see if it will be affected, but warning signs include a howling noise on acceleration, or jumping out of gear.
• Coolant reservoirs are notoriously leaky, but surprisingly cheap to replace. Be sure that none of the 23 coolant hoses is cracked, brittle or hard, that there’s no hardened coolant near their ends. Also look for non-original hose clips. You have to ask why they weren’t changed properly and who carried out the work?
• While it may seem obvious, it’s absolutely vital to check the oil. It should be changed at 9000-mile intervals or every year, and if it’s not clean you should question the car’s maintenance schedule.
• Servicing isn’t expensive in supercar terms, but it must be done every year.
• The timing belt must be replaced every 90,000 miles or 72 months, so it’s something you probably only have to worry about once, although you should take that into account if you’re buying one that needs doing. It’s a good idea to do the water pump at the same time, which bumps the price up to about £1000.
• If the car has any engine or transmission leaks, it’s definitely cause for concern, and often points to neglect. Common points of leakage are the valve cover gaskets and VTEC solenoids.
• Because of the high percentage of aluminium used in the NSX, accident damage can be difficult to repair, so you should be careful to check the panel gaps and paint. It’s difficult to get a good finish when painting sheet aluminium, so it’s worth inspecting – although a respray isn’t always a bad thing.
• Buying an NSX and discovering that it’s been crashed is not a nice experience. Aluminium bodyshells are much harder to straighten out than steel ones, and they almost never seem right afterwards.
• The suspension is virtually all made from aluminium, and you should treat any knocks or misalignment suspiciously. The most amazing thing about the NSX is the handling. Clunks and rattles totally defeat the car’s purpose. Question anything that doesn’t track straight or isn’t properly aligned and make sure it’s sorted before you hand any money over.
• The electrical systems are well designed, but age-related problems can crop up. Sit in the car and check that the heater fan blows at each variable speed, and the digital display works. It’s quite common for NSX climate control to only blow on the fastest speed, and it isn’t cheap to fix.
1990: Honda NSX Coupe launched, featuring a 3.0-litre V6 producing 276bhp.
1992: Lightweight track-biased NSX-R released in Japan.
1993: Rear alignment changed to improve tyre wear; interior slightly redesigned.
1994: Wheels changed from five-spoke to a seven-spoke design, with wider tyres.
1995: Targa-top NSX-T arrives, while all the Coupe models now have a body-coloured roof, as opposed to the black roof of earlier cars. E-PAS steering fitted as standard.
1997: Big mechanical upgrade, with engine capacity increased to 3179cc (same claimed power, though nearer 300bhp in reality), coupled to a new six-speed manual gearbox. Bodyshell revised with increased-strength aluminium. Luxurious Type-S and more stripped-out Type-S Zero models offered in Japan.
2002: All NSX models receive a mid-life refresh, with new exposed HID headlamps in place of the distinctive pop-up units, as well as a huge number of minor mechanical improvements under the skin. New, even harder Type-R launched with the introduction of the facelift, which like the original was only offered in Japan.
2005: After more than 15 years, Honda ends NSX production.
Performance and specs
2002 Honda NSX
Engine 3179cc V6, DOHC, 24-valve
Power 276bhp @ 7300rpm
Torque 220lb ft @ 5300rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Top speed 168mph
Dimensions and weight
Kerb weight 1365kg
Summary and prices
Early high-mileage (over 100,000) cars can be found from less than £20,000, but healthier examples start around the £30,000 mark. An immaculate 1990-97 3.0-litre NSX with low mileage and a perfect service record is potentially worth upwards of £35,000 – but it would have to be special. Automatics are slightly less powerful, and aren’t quite as sought after, generally costing £2000-3000 less than a manual equivalent.
Post-1997 3.2 cars are considerably harder to find and command a premium, generally costing upwards of £40,000. The 2002 model-year facelifted cars are yet more difficult to source, with fewer than 74 sold in Europe between 2001 and 2005. Prepare to spend in excess of £55,000 – if you can find one.
Buying an NSX now might prove to be a good move. Later cars have already increased in value and, as earlier cars have now stabilised, the best examples will inevitably become more valuable as they become rarer.