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Driving the original Acura NSX, and falling in love again

May 9, 2014

When, exactly, does a new car become an old car? Is it when the next model year comes around? When the next model generation comes around? When the tech inside, or the stuff under the hood, is rendered obsolete?

I’ve been pondering this question the entire magical week I’ve spent driving a nine-year-old Acura NSX-T around as a refresher course in awesomeness. The impending arrival of Acura’s hyped-to-the-heavens successor, due later this year as a 2015 model, has made me nostalgic for the first-generation model. Upon learning that Acura had a 2005 model with just 41,000 miles in its press fleet, I jumped at the chance to rekindle an old flame.

Acura’s mid-engine NSX, of course, was designed in the late 1980s, introduced in late 1990 as a 1991 model, then sold with only minor enhancements for the next 15 years — an eternity for any car, but especially sports cars. Yet the NSX was way ahead of its time in 1990, and in many respects, remains completely relevant today. Thanks to its aluminum construction, its body weighed only 462 pounds in 1990, and we’re seeing more and more vehicles (including the next-generation Ford F-150) embrace the lightweight material for both improved performance and fuel efficiency. It had a racecar-like, four-wheel double-wishbone suspension and four-wheel anti-lock vented disc brakes. The mid-mounted engine contained sophisticated technology like variable valve timing and titanium connecting rods. Furthermore, it proved to be — are you sitting down, Ferrari 328 owners? — reliable.

Just as significant, the NSX was the first mid-engine exotic to take ergonomics seriously. It brought Honda-like sensibility to the interior controls at a time when Ferrari would have put the radio in your lap if it would make the car go faster. It was low—really low—but nonetheless was an exotic you could drive every day, not just on weekends or the racetrack. It also featured a small but usable trunk behind the engine and, after 1995, was available with a removable roof panel that stowed beneath a carpeted panel above the engine. Needless to say, that’s where that panel of this car has spent most of its week with me.

The particular NSX I’m driving was already an old car when it was brand new in 2005. As I stare at the dashboard, I see not just the NSXs I tested before, but I also see my college ride, the 1992 Honda Accord that I owned for most of the Clinton era. Most of the stuff with which one interfaces in the NSX—the fat-hubbed steering wheel, little horn buttons, window toggles, cassette player (!) — was shared with other Honda products of the time. Big round gauges — again, right out of my old Accord — are front-lit at night in a dim orange, and the analog odometer is positively quaint.

The only things conspiculously bespoke inside the NSX were its chunky appendages sprouting from the steering column containing the cruise control, wiper, and hazard switches, as well as the headlamps, rear defroster button, and turn signal stalks. That and the snug, supportive seats, which only slide and recline—no heated and cooled massaging barcaloungers in here.

However impeccably maintained by Acura itself, this particular car nonetheless has an endearing patina throughout. The steering wheel rim has been rubbed shiny after years of clipping apexes; the outboard seat bolsters are a bit cracked but the upholstery remains firm and un-torn; the dashboard stitching and padding have held up remarkably well, pulling up a touch at the base of the instrument cowl but with no visible tears. This NSX is rolling proof that exotic style and durability are not mutually exclusive.

How’s it drive? In a word, gloriously. The NSX is now and always has been all about feel: feel from the suspension, feel from the steering, feel from the pedals, feel from everything. By the time I’d driven a block, I was already griping like an old man about how little one feels in today’s newfangled sports cars—and this came immediately after testing a Porsche Boxster, one of the most engaging cars available today. It's the definition of viscerality.

This is especially evident in the steering. At 3.2 turns lock-to-lock, the steering is quick but never darty, and between the lack of body roll and the fact that your ass is pretty much hovering about three inches off the ground, all inputs are felt right now. The electric power steering provides only enough assistance to help you steer around mall parking lots, evaporating long before you achieve highway speeds.

All together, this creates the sensation that the NSX can read your mind. An afternoon jaunt along the high speed sweepers of scenic San Francisquito Canyon Road, which connects Valencia, Calif., to the Mojave Desert, gave me plenty of opportunities to explore the NSX’s reserves of lateral grip, which, despite its skinny (by today’s standards) tires, are quite vast. Credit the 40/60 front/rear distribution of its 3,123 lbs., stiff anti-roll bars, and fresh Dunlop Direzza Sport Z1 rubber. Meanwhile, the ride quality is certainly sporty, but not spleen-punishingly stiff.

What the NSX doesn’t have a lot of is power, and what power it does make is accessed quite high in the rev range. Peak power for manual transmission models like this one is just 290 hp at 7,100 rpm, and a now-wimpy 224 lb-ft of torque at 5,500 rpm (less than a modern Toyota Camry's V-6). Redline is a lofty 8,000 rpm. In other words, it doesn’t feel not overtly fast until about 5,000 rpm, but if you keep it in low gears and aren’t afraid of the delicious, high-pitched wail of a race-bred 3.2-liter V-6 emanating from the side air intakes, it’s on, brutha. Car and Driver recently test this exact same car and found it capable of sprinting from 0-60 in 5 seconds flat — a remarkable feat considering its lack of low-end twist.

And then there’s the six-speed manual transmission: notchy, short-of-throw, beautifully broken in (but certainly not broken), and complimented by a progressive, communicative, light clutch. Compared to its contemporaries, such as the C3 Corvette, Ferrari 348, and Lotus Turbo Esprit, the NSX was as benign as a daisy, and even by today’s standards, such a light and precise manual tranny is nearly impossible to find.

I pined for the opportunity to take it to the track myself, but alas, most of my seat time has been spent duking it out in L.A. traffic, where one realizes just how small the NSX really is. Its super-low seating position renders occupants about eye-level with the rub strips on adjacent cars’ doors and the exhaust tips of pickup trucks. In some cases, it’s easier to look under the car in front of you than around it. And since no one can see you, either, one must always always drive defensively…which can be hard to do in a car like this. The upside? Being this low and exposed makes 30 mph feel like 60 mph, so you don’t have to achieve warp speed to get a thrill.

Apparently, I’m not the only person that gets nostalgic at the sight of an NSX. If I had a dime for every person that ran towards me at a gas station, chased me down the street, or ambushed me in a parking lot, all with something to say about it, I could afford one myself (which, incidentally, would probably set me back somewhere between $50,000 and $60,000 for an example of this caliber). Alas, whenever that happened, I found myself talking a lot about the incredible steering, the sense of feathery lightness, the airy openness of the cabin, excellent outward visibility, and the sensation of going fast even when you're not—sadly, aspects of the car that will probably not make it to the 2015 NSX.

With all-wheel drive, a twin-turbocharged V-6/hybrid powertrain with over 500 hp and wildly futuristic styling, the new NSX will certainly be the better car by most measures, but I’m skeptical that it will have the same charm. Prove me wrong, Acura.