It's likely that Acura's 21-year-old NSX is most famous for things it never actually did.
1990, you might recall, wasn't a year when supercars covered themselves in the glory of either shocking performance or metronomic reliability. The stink of '80s automotive misery hadn't yet worn off and the glory of middleweight performers like the RX-7, 300Z and fourth-generation Supra was yet to take hold. When it came to supercars, it was the era of the Ferrari 348, a machine so awful to drive it couldn't even find a private investigator drama in which to hide.
Following, in no particular order, are some things most NSXs never did: leak, stall, stink, burn, ventilate their crankcase, cook their clutch, experience catastrophic electrical failure, overheat or simply strand their driver. The NSX, for all its hype, sprang from a time when mixing some mundane Honda Accord into the supercar stew, rolling it up in an aluminum body and dropping it into a market ripe for a real driver's car was a stupendously good idea. Good enough, in fact, to last for 15 years.
Next to Porsche's ubiquitous 911, the NSX might just be the most practical, reliable real-world supercar ever built. But in 1990 there was something more exotic about a low-slung, midengine, aluminum-bodied supercar than there was about any Porsche. And there's still truth in that statement today. Which is why we think Audi's R8 might be the best spiritual successor the NSX could have.
Here, then, is how they stack up.
It's the cab-forward, engine-behind-cockpit layout that's the defining similarity between the R8 and NSX. Following modern trends, the R8 is bigger in every dimension. It is 1.2 inches longer, 3.2 inches taller, 4.7 wider and its wheelbase is 4.7 inches longer than the NSX.
If raw output is all that matters, the NSX's transverse-mounted 3.0-liter, 270-horsepower V6 is no match for the Audi's longitudinally mounted 4.2-liter 430-hp V8. Gears are selected in the NSX via a five-speed manual transmission, while cogs are slotted home via a gated six-speed manual in the R8. And when it comes to powertrains, that's where the similarities stop.
The Audi, naturally, drives all four wheels through three differentials that produce a distinctly rear-drive balance. The NSX's rear-drive balance is more authentic thanks to a conventional transaxle and clutch-type limited-slip differential driving, well, the rear wheels.
The performance data in this test serve to demonstrate how far supercars have come in 21 years more so than to help determine a winner.
Accordingly, let's look first at one area where progress isn't so easy to gauge. At 3,010 pounds the NSX might be the only car we've ever rolled onto our scales that exactly matches its manufacturer's claimed weight. And because it's 611 pounds lighter than the R8 (3,621 pounds) it demonstrates one area where technology and cubic megadollars are yet to produce a positive impact in performance cars.
Fortunately, performance hasn't suffered the same decline.
Ripping to 60 in 4.5 seconds (4.3 with 1 foot of rollout as on a drag strip) gets the R8 there a solid 1.1 seconds quicker than the NSX (5.6 seconds, 5.3 with rollout). The 0.9-second gap at the quarter-mile demonstrates that it's the Audi's launch that produces its biggest advantage. Here, even the 21-year-old NSX holds its own by running a 13.7-second pass at 102 mph. The R8's 12.8-second pass at 110.1 mph is quicker, but not as much as its 21-year advantage might lead one to believe.
Handling, too, is beyond the NSX's years. It shimmied through the slalom at 69.3 mph on nine-year-old rubber, (we tested it on new tires, too, but the numbers were inexplicably worse) a feat the Audi handled at 72.1 mph. Lateral acceleration worked out to 0.88g and 0.98g for the Acura and Audi, respectively.
When it comes to stopping, the Audi's contemporary rubber and ABS technology are far superior. It required only 105 feet to come to a halt from 60 mph. The NSX needed an additional 26 feet.
Through the magic of the Edmunds.com time machine we were able to experience these two cars on the same piece of unoccupied driver's road at the same time. And the gap between them at the top of the road was nearly as substantial as the years between them. But, spiritually, there were ample parallels.
Perhaps the biggest of these is the compact, balanced sense of confidence that begins in each car's powertrain layout and culminates in confident, direct inputs from its driver. There's a deftness possessed by midengine cars that is distinctly absent in any other layout. Wood the throttle in either of these machines and its nose rises with an immediacy and directness that could never exist in a car with its mass centered farther forward.
Similarly, both cars demonstrate a willingness to change direction not available in a car with its engine placed outside the axles. Mass centralization. Don't discount it. Even when it's 21 years old.
But there are differences.
Old vs. Bold
Performance car engineers — at least those developing contemporary cars like the R8 — are obsessed with reactions. Every input should be answered with an immediate and rewarding reaction, right? That's what they say.
The result is a mixed blessing.
Twenty-odd years ago the guys making these decisions on the NSX either had different goals or different expectations. Nowhere is this dissimilarity more apparent than in the way these two cars steer. The NSX's variable-ratio steering rack (18.2:1 to 20.8:1) is slower than the R8's fixed 17.3:1 ratio, but the numbers hardly tell the story.
Predictably, the effort required to corner both cars plays heavily into the experience. The Audi's hydraulically assisted steering makes nearly no demand on its driver and still supplies enough information to attack the road confidently. The NSX's weighty wheel is better than many full manual racks we've experienced, but leaves little reason to do anything but surrender to the car's relatively low limits once understeer is achieved.
Largely, this is because we fear finding ourselves in a situation that requires "fixing" any kind of oversteer without the benefit of modern assisted steering. Call us wimps, but not before you correct oversteer in a midengine manual-steering car yourself.
Still, this limitation doesn't diminish the reward of the NSX experience. It's just one element that makes it slower than its modern counterpart.
The R8's reaction to throttle input is insanely rapid by 1990 standards. Partially, this is due to the blunt honesty of the first-generation NSX's simple, cable-actuated throttle. The control provided by electronic throttles has supplied engineers with undue command over a car's character. The resulting eagerness has reached the point of absurdity in some cars. Fortunately, it's not so much a problem in the R8 as it is motivation to start paying attention.
Snap the Audi's throttle open and the chassis responds instantly and intuitively. Somehow, despite driving all four wheels, the Audi reacts like a rear-driver, offering a rewarding ability to balance power against steering without the need for heavily calculated metering. Its approachable limits are a blessing in a car that could easily have overlooked such details. Vorsprung durch Technik, indeed.
Not so in the NSX.
The Acura's response to throttle input carries far less consequence. Measured against the snap-to-it reactions of the more powerful R8, the NSX's response to big, aggressive movements of the throttle doesn't demand as much attention or reward as heavily. This, we'll admit, is in large part due to a significantly lower power-to-weight ratio (8.4:1 Audi vs. 11.1:1 NSX).
It's here that the NSX, when measured against the wildly involving R8, begins to show itself for what it is: old.
Oldie but Goodie
Still, there are genuinely striking qualities in this aged sports car that are distinctly absent in the R8. Like, for example, the simple, authentic way the NSX gets down the road. Forget about radical urgency. Forget about breakneck reactions. All of the NSX's controls perform their duty resolutely but without the Audi's pressing haste. It's like comparing Mother Love Bone to Mother Theresa. One screams its intent in your face and the other is content to let its actions do the talking over the whole of the experience.
The NSX's shifter slots into the selected cog with a fidelity lacking in most modern car/driver interfaces. It's especially striking considering this car's age. That's to take nothing from the R8, whose manual shifter might be the best in the world today.
Reality says that any car as old as the NSX is going to lack the speed and confidence provided by a modern supercar like the R8. But that doesn't mean the experience is bereft of passion. Perhaps the most potent bit of character is an intake note that tunnels down its driver's ear canal, shoots through his brain stem and penetrates his soul. Truly, there are few cars before or since the NSX that offer the audible reward produced by its 8,000-rpm anthem.
Also, we'd never have thought 21 years ago that we'd look back on Honda's '90s design ethos as soulful. But viewing modern cars through the lens of small pillars, a low waistline and simple controls makes us yearn for such unvarnished honesty in design. The R8 has a similar feel, but can't match the NSX's original brilliance.
The Final Calculus
There's no way to handily summarize the best car here. And that's not what we're trying to do anyway. The point is to capture each car's spirit. The NSX, 21 years ago, was ahead of its time — both in its construction and its attitude. It wasn't the fastest or most powerful car built, but it made a strong case for combining quality, durability and everyday drivability with engaging at-the-limit character. It's an enduring formula that's built into the most successful supercars made today — including the R8.
We're not picking a winner. Rather, we're answering this question: Which car would we want in our garage? Judged on the experience alone, the answer is easy. The R8's ability to engage, its outright speed, its sound and the reward it provides during hard driving easily outshines the 21-year-old NSX.
But experience tells us those qualities aren't all that will matter in 20-plus years. The Audi supercar's place in history will be also determined by its ability to endure time both mechanically and visually. And those are much, much larger demands.
We'll be keeping the NSX around just in case.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds the Audi for the purposes of evaluation.