I have finally figured out what the new turbocharged, hybrid, all-wheel drive, 550 horsepower 2016 Acura NSX will really compete against: the original NSX. Not in sales, mind you, but in expectations. There is no way the new NSX will escape comparison with its famous father.
It was actually pretty ballsy for Honda to give this new car the same name as the world's first aluminum monocoque, Ayrton Senna-tested, Ferrari-fighting triumph of engineering that came out in 1990.
That NSX was one of the greatest driver's cars ever. It also served as a halo car not only for Honda, but for that whole golden era of 90s Japanese sports cars in general. It put Honda on the map in a way that no luxury sedan, sporty hatchback or even F1 team could ever do.
For an entire generation of enthusiasts raised on VTEC and affordable speed, the NSX is their Testarossa. It's so venerated today that Cool Pope Francis should give it its own holiday. I bet he would if we asked him.
I have long maintained that the NSX is the best Japanese car of all time. (Imma let you finish, Nissan GT-R, but...) I've made that claim without even driving one — until now. After having driven one very special NSX, I can tell you it deserves all the hype around it, and that I almost feel bad for the new NSX for having so much to live up to.
This red car is not an ordinary NSX, if there is such a thing. It's a 1999 Alex Zanardi Edition NSX, and only 50 of those were made. Named after the CART champion, F1 driver, paracyclist and all around toughest son of a bitch alive, this NSX boasts a raft of improvements over the standard car, including unique lighter wheels, a fixed roof, a titanium shift knob for the six-speed manual, a significantly stiffer suspension, and most notably, manual steering. Its weight comes in a bit over 2,900 pounds.
This NSX belongs to Ojas Patel, who like me lives in Austin. He's a diehard Honda enthusiast from way back, one more in a long list of fans who longs for their 90s glory days. I met Ojas through a mutual friend, and he was kind enough to let me drive his NSX on the road and the track, and so I bought him a burrito bowl to say thanks.
This is the third NSX he's owned. It has about 105,000 miles on the clock and it gets driven regularly and tracked occasionally.
"It's not a garage queen," Patel told me. "It has some battle scars."
It's also not a stock Zanardi NSX at all, which is what kept this story from being a straightforward numbered Jalopnik Classic Review. Its 3.2-liter V6 has a Comptech supercharger running 6 PSI of boost. It also has Comptech headers, a Taitec exhaust, and Comptech shocks and springs. (The roof has also been plasti-dipped black, in contrast with solid red Zanardi NSX-es.) Patel has never dyno'd it, but he thinks it's running something like 360 horsepower at the wheels.
You might think this setup makes it an unmanageable track monster or some mad tyte JDM drift car, yo; it doesn't. It's just more powerful and even sharper in the corners, and with a slightly stiffer ride.
These modifications amplify what makes the NSX great, but they don't change the character of the car. That's an impressive and rare feat. The supercharger noise doesn't even overwhelm the fine sound of the high-revving V6.
Twenty-five years on, the NSX is still a great-looking car. It's aged pretty well. Impossibly low and with a minuscule front end when viewed from the cockpit, it's shorter than it looks in photographs.
It looks like the 1980s Ferraris it was benchmarked against, just cleaned up a bit. I definitely prefer the pre-2002 facelift with the pop-up headlamps and all the character they bring.
Inside, it's definitely 80s Honda's idea of an exotic (and an F-16 fighter jet!) which is to say comfortable and ergonomic and practical, maybe to a fault.The HVAC and laughably dated stereo controls are given prominence, and many of the parts are lifted from other Hondas. It prioritizes logic over weirdness, but it definitely works.
Enough introduction; let's get down to how it drives. The short answer is that it's pretty amazing.
We started with some hot laps tagging along with a Longhorn Racing Academy track day down at the Jalopnik Texas Bureau's home away from home, Harris Hill Raceway in San Marcos. Out there the NSX proved to be a master class in chassis design, steering engineering and driver involvement.
The car's limits are very high. It's extremely composed and flat in the corners; it's never scary or overwhelming to drive. If you get close to its limits, or yours, it does a fantastic job of letting you know, perhaps better than any car I've ever driven before.
Like any mid-engined, rear-wheel drive car, it's quite capable of rotating, but the beauty of the NSX's chassis and steering is that you are made aware of this well before it happens, and you can easily correct it with a bit of countersteer if it's what you don't want. It doesn't have the snap oversteer that made the MR2 so infamous; here, handling is much more linear.
Driving a car with a manual steering rack is a lost art, even more so than driving stick. But the Zanardi's steering is among the easiest I've encountered, thanks largely to the car's light weight and small size. Sure, it doesn't move at all unless you're giving it power, but it's really not hard to use at all, even at low speeds like in a parking lot.
Once it gets moving, the NSX's steering system puts damn near everything else I've ever driven to shame. Modern electric racks are a joke to this, a joke that would be hilarious if it wasn't so sad. It's incredibly communicative, offering both miles of road feel and sensitivity to the most minute of inputs.
It's a car that values precision, finesse and balance over brute force. Getting the most out of an NSX means getting the most out of yourself as a driver.
Patel left the NSX's six-speed manual gearbox stock. That's good because I don't see how you can improve upon a shifter that's basically perfect. Perfect heft, perfect shift length, no hunting around for gears. Honda has always made some of the best gearboxes in the business and this is among their finest work.
Like most Hondas, or the E30 M3, you have to teach yourself not to shift at reasonable levels but to wring it out as much as you can all the way up to its 8,000 RPM redline. The supercharger just adds more thrust and more noise.
It's like this: You're going 80 mph in fourth gear at 4,000 RPM. Then you look down at the tach and realize you still have another 4,000 RPM to go in that gear before you need to upshift. Think of all the fun you'll have getting there! Even with this blower, the NSX doesn't have a ton of down-low power, so getting the revs up is also a necessary endeavor.
It's a huge part of the car's character, though. As I swept through some the corners at H2R at 6,000 RPM, it was hard not to feel like Zanardi, or Senna, or even Gordon Murray wondering how he could top the car he was driving.
VTEC glory and blissful handling aren't the only things that make the NSX great. Then there's the day-to-day livability of the car, and its mechanical sturdiness. It may just be unsurpassed in that department.
It's kind of a hybrid, but not a "hybrid" like a Prius or even the new NSX; it's sort of like a hybrid between an Accord and a Ferrari. Daily driving at normal, low speeds? Accord. An engine howling behind your ears at high RPMs? Ferrari. Reliability and ease of upkeep? Accord. Unbelievable handling at the track or a country road? Ferrari. Pragmatic interior? Accord. It has both of their strengths and none of their weaknesses.
At the track, we chatted with another NSX driver who in 19 years of ownership has only spent $200 on repairs. That's just repairs, not maintenance, but still, it's amazing. Isn't this kind of the ultimate "have your cake and eat it too" car? All the exotic goodness without the headaches.
This is, without a doubt, one of the finest machines I have ever driven. If you enjoy cars on any level, driving an NSX will be to you what playing a Stradivarius is to a concert violinist.
It also made me realize that the new NSX won't be like the old one. It can't be. The original is too low, too analog, too dependent on the inputs from its driver over technological wizardry. There aren't many cars like that anymore.
But the old NSX will always be here for us on the used market, even if it's creeping up in value. Part of me thinks that while it will always stand the test of time as a great car, its era — its place in the performance world — has kind of passed. Everything is hybrid electric, turbocharged and all-wheel drive now. You have to commend Honda for making a new NSX that's on the forefront of all that.
Could they have made a new NSX that was just a lightweight, naturally aspirated, high-revving midship sports car like it used to be? Probably, but that isn't what pushes the envelope these days. And why retread something you already did so well? It's like making a bad sequel to a great movie.
The 2016 NSX won't live up to the original. Instead, it had better be good enough to where it stands on its own and creates a new legacy for itself. Here's hoping it can step out of its father's shadow.
All photos credit Kurt Bradley