1991 Acura NSX: Not a Water Ski Boat
August 31, 2012
So he's been after us for like a year to drive the NSX and now things have finally come together so we decide to let him.
What's the worst that could happen? If he likes it, there's a good chance he'll buy it from us. If he crashes it, he'll have to buy it from us.
I practice holding my breath for a few minutes. Then I hand him the keys.
Just like everyone else he's taken with the driving position and the expansive field of view, and he notices that the relatively low beltline makes the view great to the sides as well as over the nose. It's just like the Formula 1 cars of the time, before drivers were buried in carbon fiber up to their ears.
The high-pitched cranking sound from the starter motor is a reminder that this is just a Honda, not a rocket ship. He's as surprised as anyone to discover that the V6 engine behind our heads is very quiet. Even though we're running with the windows down so we can hear what the engine has to offer, the sound of the exhaust is distant and unobtrusive.
That is, it's distant and unobtrusive before I tell him that you can drive the NSX all day before you remember to look down and then realize that there's 8,000 rpm to play with. And once he gets into the throttle and the tach needle swings around the dial, we both appreciate what a crisp and authoritative engine we have here.
"It's geared really tall," he says, and I remind him that this is the first iteration of the car, before the six-speed came on the scene.
"Really, all supercars are geared tall anyway, since they're made to go fast," he says. "Most six-speeds shift like crap because they just hang an extra gear in there, so you can give me a great shifting H-pattern for first through fourth with an overdrive fifth and I'm happy. Still, first gear is so tall here that you really don't have to shift until you're past 60 mph, so that's a little less fun."
As we climb into the Santa Monica Mountains on those narrow canyon roads, he's having a good time sliding the car through the hairpins, as the front washes out and then grips and then you carry the back through the rest of the corner. Though the NSX's wheelbase is rather short by modern standards at 99.6 inches, the car is long enough overall with its big overhangs at 173.4 inches so it responds predictably. The manual steering really isn't that communicative, he says, but the honest way that the effort builds up as you increase the lock through a corner represents a kind of honesty missing from current electric-assist steering systems.
"It's still kind of a big car," he says. "Too big for where I live, anyway. Every time I'd be driving into the city, there wouldn't be enough room on the way to let the car loose, and then parking would be an adventure with the manual steering and the low doors."
Predictably, we both realize that as practical as the Acura NSX is – the most practical exotic car ever, probably – it's still an exotic car, and that means it's best for running really fast where the road is basically straight and open. If you're hoping to drive it to the grocery store, you're fooling yourself, even though it can be done.
In the end, we finally figure out why the Acura NSX never sold in the numbers it deserved. Acura listened to people talk about mid-engine exotic cars and the way they would mystify things like technology and handling, so the Japanese engineers built this four-wheel science fair of lightness and innovation.
Trouble is, what people really want from a mid-engine car is a big engine that makes wicked noises and bodywork with outrageous styling. And that's all. "It's got to be outrageous," he says. "Otherwise no one cares. If it sounds like a Ferrari and goes 200 mph, then everybody understands in an instant. If it's aluminum and handling, then you have to explain."
What we decide is that really what people want in a mid-engine car is just a water ski boat. Big honking engine behind you, a hunk of plastic with a metalflake paint job, and maybe "Kelly Sue" painted on the back. They don't want an Acura NSX.
As it turns out, he doesn't want an NSX, either. "The nose is too low," he laughs. "I'd scrape off the chin spoiler just going into my driveway."
Michael Jordan, Executive Editor, Edmunds.com