Modern Classic Review – the CarAdvice team take time away from Australia’s new car landscape to look at machines we consider true modern classics.
What’s more, we’ll try to turn our focus to cars that haven’t quite fallen out of reach in terms of scarcity and affordability. Is there something on your radar? Let us know what modern classics you would like to see the team review.
New Sports eXperiment.
I'm going to stick my neck out and say Honda's NSX is the best automotive product Japan has given us. Big statement, but I'm not alone in my sentiment. Lauded automotive designer and engineer, Gordon Murray, also appears to feel the same way.
Whilst working for McLaren in the 1980s, Murray visited Honda's Tochigi research centre with none-other than Ayrton Senna. The reason for the visit was related to the fact Honda was the powertrain supplier to McLaren F1. Murray recalls spotting an NSX prototype parked aside the track.
He comes to understand that Senna is heavily involved in its development, and that the brand was busy scheming the "friendly supercar". Why this piqued interest is because Murray, at the time, was tasked with building McLaren's first road car.
He had yet to find a benchmark that aligned to his ethos, until now. To quote Murray, "I started by driving the cars known then as 'supercars.' The Porsche 959, Bugatti EB110, Ferrari F40, Jaguar XJ220. Unfortunately, none of these fit the pattern of the supercar we were trying to build."
"We drove the prototype on the Tochigi Research Center test course. I remember being moved, thinking, 'It is remarkable how our vision comes through in this car'.”
Honda deeply inspired what came with McLaren's first-ever road car. Murray owned an NSX himself, and covered 75,000km in seven years of ownership. His anecdotes can be read here, in an English translation of the love-letter he wrote titled "a car dear to my heart".
Ayrton Senna and Gordon Murray are just two of the many legends who believed in the iconoclastic supercar. The one built to flip the bird at Europe, who'd become lazy and stale with their latest and greatest wares.
|1993 Honda NSX Type R (NA1)|
|Engine configuration||Naturally aspirated V6|
|Power||201kW @ 7100rpm|
|Torque||284Nm @ 5300rpm|
|Transmission||Five-speed manual with Torsen LSD|
|Price when new (MSRP)||$206,790 (1995)|
|Colour||Kaiser Silver Metallic|
The car we'd be driving belonged to Sydney-based vehicle importer Go Garage. Part owner of the shop, Jerry Yam, is an old friend of mine. We first met after I plonked myself at the desk of my first publishing gig some 12 years ago. He sat opposite me.
Those motoring titles were a school of education, which both managing editor Trent Nikolic and national motoring editor Josh Dowling contributed to. Here, we talked cars, with conversations centering around Japanese ones, given the titles we worked on.
Not much has changed, really.
Jerry, Malaysian in heritage, had a soft-spot for Hondas. His dream was to always procure interesting meta from reaches of the globe and offer them to customers in Australia. Some time later, he, and his two business partners Mark and Albert, realised that dream.
Alongside sourcing vehicles for customers, they also keep a few in stock. As Honda fanatics, all three wanted an NSX.
"This car has a fascinating story," recounted Jerry. "It had actually sat in a Japanese confiscated vehicle facility for more than 10 years. When it was released for sale, we quickly snapped it up."
Turns out the car had a dubious past, having been registered in the name of a prominent Yakuza – the Mafioso of Japan. Given its time in isolation, this 'Kaiser Silver Metallic' example has just 35,000 kilometres on the clock. It was optioned with a five-speed manual transmission, arguably the enthusiast's choice.
Commentary at the time praised Honda's efforts in producing an all-aluminium body, which was a world-first. The panels themselves feature subtle definitions and lack trinkety creases. Instead, its lines are led by functional elements, like it's high-sided belt line spawning directly from a pair of huge, functional air ducts on its sides.
Its glasshouse is actually quite tall and dorky; a product of sound internal visibility coming home to roost. In order to reduce the impact of its dome-like roof, all of the structure above its doors was painted black. An optical illusion, but a great one.
From the rear, a vast, single plane of red plastic covers all. Behind the panel you'll find brake lights, reverse lights, and indicators, as well as a three-dimensional transparent section that allows the Honda badge to cast a shadow behind. The LED brake light also runs the whole length of the spoiler.
As many car brands come back to this cycloptic treatment, it's clear Honda was amongst the first. It's a wonderfully pure design, that's aligned to the car's philosophy of applying complex design to create simplicity behind the wheel.
Underneath the skin lies an even-more impressive use of aluminium. All the NSX's suspension components are made from the same lightweight material and were fashioned in an extraordinary way. Without going too deep, the NSX's footwork is able to articulate up and down whilst pivoting left to right, as to prevent the wheel's alignment from changing under compression. It impressed the experts (and Murray) so much that it inspired what featured underneath the McLaren F1 road car.
If you ever get the chance to just sit in a Honda NSX – take it. Especially if you've sat in some period and more modern supercars. Despite falling in, the seating position feels high initially. It's another illusion cast, this time by a low door line, an aggressively raked dashboard, and large front window. Honda propagates a 'cab-forward' ethos in press material of the time, and a cabin experience inspired by an F-16 fighter jet.
Proximity to the front window and how it travels deep into the dashboard both give the PR-speak clout. Other than the compulsory Bose stereo, its interior is free from the detritus found in modern cars. The gauge cluster displays that classic Honda typeface, and features a extra performance meters such as oil pressure.
Lying behind the simplistic cabin is a double-overhead cam V6 engine, technically known as the 'C30A'. Like the chassis it powers, it's also full of exotic metals, with titanium being used to forge the parts required to join its pistons to its crankshaft.
Like every good Honda engine, it also features VTEC - Honda's proprietary Variable Valve Timing & Electronic Lift Control System. I've given a simple explanation of how this technology works in another piece, so have a read if you're interested in understanding the technology. The NSX was the second Honda car to feature the system, behind the Honda Integra.
Interestingly, the Honda NSX prototype never featured a VTEC cylinder head until the 11th hour. Many engines were used throughout its prototype life, including an initial 2.0-litre V6 as per the original Honda HP-X concept, and another 2.7-litre single-overhead cam V6.
Engineers finalised plans with a 3.0-litre V6 as per the production car, but initially devoid of VTEC technology. This was because the NSX engine program ran separately to the one responsible for the Honda B-series engine (the first to receive VTEC).
It wasn't until the end of development, just prior to the launch of the B-series engine, that chief Honda engineer Shigeru Uehara questioned the logic of applying such ground-breaking technology to a cookie-cutter car and not the brand's utmost performance offering. Right, he was, and retrospectively added was VTEC. A few more changes were made to accommodate, including the addition of extra fasteners to handle higher RPMs.
A quick side note on Uehara. Legendary NSX engineer and close-friend of Senna, he later went on to develop the legendary 'DC2R' Integra Type R, and S2000 models. He refers to the high-performance S2000 CR as his "final gift before retirement". It apparently wore Bridgestone RE070 tyres specifically because Uehara had helped design the tread pattern during development of the NSX-R.
His prowess can be felt in three clicks on the key, as our silver NSX comes to live on the second starter motor pulse. I always love firing up a mid-engine car, as hearing a fuel pump prime is usually behind the head experience, but hearing an engine gasping isn't.
Door closed, first gear picked, we set off. As our car was a pre-1995 factory-manual model, it featured manual steering. All automatics and post-1995 cars featured an Electronic Power Steering (EPS) system. As a result, low speed effort is bloody heavy, but at pace weight washes away.
It's beautifully clear and transparent, communicating vital information back to the driver in a way that modern cars are simply unable to. Given EPS is seen as the main culprit responsible for robbing modern-day steering, I now understand why the educated prefer, and also tell me, that earlier cars with the old-school manual rack are the better buy.
Throttle response is crisp, even though the NSX debuted the world's first drive-by-wire throttle system. What this means is there's a sensor connected to the pedal, and not a cable and linkage. Inputs are relayed over wire to a stepper motor on the throttle body, which opens and closes it accordingly. It also means the NSX features a throttle-controlling traction control system.
Despite being electronic, it feels incredibly connected, and so accurately calibrated as to feel genuine. If you'd told me otherwise, I'd have believed you. What's more exciting is the willingness from the powertrain, and how immediately its torque comes. It feels like it's everywhere.
The sound is as good as a V6 gets. Whilst front-engine V6 cars have the tendency to generate awful resonance with long pipes, the short, curly header and simple exhaust path found in this mid-engine layout changes the format's tonality. Stacks of rasp comes out instead and over-running the engine reminds of an old race car.
Snatching third from deep into the tacho is an awfully visceral experience. Once the higher camshaft profile is engaged, the melody introduces more bass. There's a razor-sharpness until just under 8000rpm, where you prod the clutch, meet the metal stopper at the end of its travel, and snick third. Shifter action is classic 1990s JDM, which is precise, short, and tactile.
Having owned and driven many classics, predominantly Japanese, I didn't expect to be so thrilled by the NSX. it appears I had my wires crossed big-time.
Driving further brings clarity to the cockpit's design. The sheer amount of visibility you have is 100 per cent unlike anything else related, and unlike much else in general. You do feel as if you're sitting on-top something, as the rest of the dash surfaces lay raked, with buttons facing more upward, than flat. Combine that with a deeply set front window and low door line creates an advantageous viewpoint, without feeling awkwardly high or reminiscent of milk-crate thrown.
As you approach a speed bump and realise, you're almost level with it, your mind resets. Acknowledging that road lines from this angle look longer and flatter than usual does the same trick too. It's rare to feel in line with cats-eyes reflectors that are a few metres from the car.
After a quick admiring session with our resident photographer Salvatore, we ended back, trying all things electronic in the cabin. Everything worked, including the air conditioning. This is the service you receive when you offer a modern Japanese classic into your garage. Always working, always starting, never any headache.
Is this modern classic for you?
Buying a 1990–2005 Honda NSX...
Shopping overseas for an automatic begins around the $70,000 mark, with silver cars being the cheapest, and white, red and yellow commanding the most. The same story goes for a manual, but prices begin in the low $100,000s, and rise sharply depending on kilometres and overall condition.
If you're a fussy buyer after right colour and transmission, budget $150,000, and expect change. Surprisingly, many have been kept by single owners. Don't go expecting original paint all-round, as with most old cars from Japan, its bumpers are likely to have been repainted given the tight parking situations.
The key is to find an expert to inspect the car before you buy. If an Aussie-delivered car is a must for you, add at least $30,000 to those prices mentioned above.
After returning it, I enquired as to how much it was.
"More than you can afford, pal" was the answer I received.