Labels

Monday, 6 June 2011

The Everyday Supercar

Early '90s version
It was developed with help from none other than Ayrton Senna. It was a favourite of Gordon Murray, designer of the all-conquering McLaren F1, who actually used it as a benchmark for his ultimate driver's supercar. It had an illustrious career as a SUPER GT racer, and won its class at Le Mans in 1995. It remains a favourite among Gran Turismo addicts and Honda fans alike (so I really like it). It was the everyday supercar that never had the sales success it deserves. It's the Honda NSX.

Honda HP-X (1984)
The NSX first came out in 1990. It evolved from an '80s Pininfarina design study called the HP-X (Honda Pininfarina eXperimental) after Honda decided it wanted to make a supercar that showcased its latest technologies and featured F1-style engineering. The target was also to match or beat Ferrari with a car that cost significantly less. Thankfully, the evolution included a very different body design, as the HP-X looks incredibly dated...

Other changes from the HP-X included adding another 1000cc to the V6 engine mounted amidships, making it 3.0 litres. Mounted sideways to create a useable rear boot (if you take the spare wheel out of the front storage area, there is a small second boot as well), it was the first road car engine to feature conrods made of strong, lightweight Titanium to allow it to rev highly on a regular basis without blowing up, which is nice. It was also the first DOHC engine to feature Honda's VTEC valve timing system that improved efficiency as well as power output and delivery, and the first Honda to have Electronic Throttle Control, smoothing the application of the loud pedal. These innovations meant that the naturally aspirated V6 produced 270bhp and soared up to an 8000rpm redline, and yet it was just as reliable as Granny's Honda Civic 1.4, with some NSXs topping 100,000 miles without any serious mechanical failures, not to mention the complete lack of any vehicle recalls. Thus, it is arguably the most reliable supercar ever.

According to a vintage Top Gear review, the "Everyday Supercar" is even fairly ordinary to drive under normal circumstances, in that unlike a Ferrari or a Lamborghini, it's not hideously difficult to use. It's like being in a low-slung saloon with a slightly harder ride. When you want it to wake up, however, you simply go somewhere appropriate (track or countryside, generally), add lead to your right foot and get the VTEC to kick in, yo. Then it transforms into a racing car with its Senna-honed chassis and suspension giving pin-sharp handling and that C30A engine providing a truly sensational soundtrack unlike most or any other V6s. Once it's on the more aggressive cam profile it becomes a screamer of an engine. Then, when you've stopped, caught your breath and had a cup of tea while the brakes cool down, it goes back to being a normal, docile car. It seems like the second half of accelerator travel was a hidden sport mode.

In fact, the handling capabilities were so great that when Gordon Murray was designing his driver-focussed "Ultimate Supercar", the mighty McLaren F1, he was using cars such as the Ferrari 348, Porsche 911 and Lamborghini Diablo... right up until he drove an NSX. As he put it: "The moment I drove the NSX, all the benchmark cars I had been using as references in the development of my car vanished from my mind... the NSX's ride quality and handling would become our new design target". This is coming from the designer of some of the fastest and most successful Formula 1 cars of all time, as well as the father of the greatest supercar of a generation (or two). He loved it so much that not only was it his new benchmark, he actually owned one for seven years, so he would tell you just how much cheaper it is than any of its performance rivals to buy and run. Other famous owners include Rowan Atkinson (who, interestingly, also has a McLaren F1).

#100 Raybrig NSX ('07) and #16 Castrol Mugen NSX ('00)
To prove this brilliance to the world, Honda entered the NSX in the GT2 class at Le Mans in 1994-6. While the first effort was disappointing, it won its class in 1995, finishing 8th overall, and came 3rd in class the following year. Not bad going, considering it took Ford a damn sight more time than that to get the GT40 right. Its real on-track success was domestic though, as it competed in the All-Japan GT Championship (JGTC) - later known a SUPER GT - from 1996 to the end of 2009, it achieved 36 wins and 47 pole positions in seasons that are only 8 or 9 races long, which isn't half bad. In fact, both are record statistics. It took part in exactly 100 races, the last of which was a win at Honda's home circuit, Twin Ring Motegi. The car that won that race (#8 Team ARTA NSX) came 2nd in the championship that year. In 2010 Honda started fielding the "HSV-010 GT", a front-engined racer based on the proposed replacement for the NSX road car that was canned near the end of development due to the credit crunch, featuring a Formula Nippon 3.4-litre V8. It carried on the NSX's trend for success, with an HSV-010 winning the championship in its debut year.

Over the 15 years that it existed - a very long time for a supercar - Honda would keep updating the NSX to keep it fresh. In 1992 there was the first lightened, track-honed Type-R version. In 1997 they revised the suspension, added a close-ratio 6-speed manual transmission and bigger brakes, and replaced the 'C30A' with a new and improved 'C32B' engine, featuring thinner Fibre-Reinforced Metal cylinder liners, an extra 200cc - making it 3.2 litres - and an extra 20bhp and 15lb/ft (the mix of extra grunt and shorter gears dropped the 0-60 from 5.2 to 4.5 seconds). They added a targa top version called the NSX-T and made various limited editions in different markets. As the styling started to look dated, they tweaked that too, in 2001, changing the pop-up headlights for snake eyes, refining the tail lights and changing the bumpers. In the same year, they also updated the suspension again and widened the rear tyres... and then came the final Type-R version.

Ten years after the first NSX-R, the second one came along, featuring a carbon fibre bonnet, boot lid and rear wing, as well as a huge 100kg weight loss compared to the regular 2002 NSX (1270kg compared to 1370kg). This was achieved in the usual ways - no stereo, no air conditioning, little or no sound-proofing, thinner glass - as well as bespoke carbon-kevlar bucket seats made by Recaro, lightweight alloy wheels, a single-pane partition between cabin and engine and even getting rid of the power steering. The engine was also handmade like a race engine, and with incredibly minute precision to make sure it was absolutely perfect. Honda say that it still produced 290bhp, but very few people are prepared to believe that. It's probably more like 300-305bhp in reality. However much it was though, it was enough. In capable hands, an '02 NSX-R can lap the Nürburgring in just 7:56, the same time that a Ferrari F360 Challenge Stradale can do even though that has a much higher 420bhp and only weighs an extra 20kg over the Honda.

When you think about all this, the Honda NSX truly is a remarkable car, and surely a supercar great in a slightly odd way, because it had supercar performance for Honda money, and with legendary Honda reliability. For a relatively reasonable price, you could buy a car that could keep up with a track-focused Ferrari. This raises a question with a depressing answer: why did almost nobody buy one?

I mean, what's not to like? It still looks good today, it was a hell of a lot cheaper than something like a Porsche or a Ferrari and just as fast (or even faster), it has racing heritage, it sounds excellent, drives better than nearly everything and has almost none of the traditional supercar drawbacks. It's bulletproof and had a 3-year warranty, yet global sales had dropped into the hundreds by the turn of the century, and in Europe they were even lower than that. What's the deal breaker? Annoyingly, it was the badge. A lot of people who had supercars didn't want to be seen spending £60,000+ on a Honda. Even their Acura luxury badge they used in the US wasn't enough to save it from having an image deficiency. It also lived in a time when people in Europe and the US generally struggled to take any Japanese car that wasn't an econobox seriously, although it likely helped to change that a little by the time it was finally deemed too expensive to build and put to rest in 2005. It's a terrible shame, really. If it said Ferrari on it, it would have lived a few less years before being replaced, but sold in the thousands annually...

The upside of this is that buying one isn't just a good idea, it'll also prove to be an investment, as its rarity and future-classic status should see value rise over time. Still, if there were more of them around, more Honda fans could get their hands on them. As it stands, I guess £20-30k isn't bad. I don't have that much, but I would absolutely love to own one. I can only imagine what it's like to drive. Because it's not as high-maintenance as an Italian (which reminds me of a great Tatsuru Ichishima quote), I could drive it in the rain, or when it's cold, or even in snow with the right tyres/snow chains, and even if poseurs in 911 Turbos and F430s may scoff, I would know what I had, and what I would have is the best supercar you've never heard of. Unless you've got a Play Station.

No comments:

Post a Comment