Rediscovering Magic in the Original Acura NSX

After testing the new Acura NSX, we drive the original to see how far Japan’s mid-engine supercar has come.

byLawrence Ulrich|
Rediscovering Magic in the Original Acura NSX

As connoisseurs of chocolate or cocaine might say: Sometimes a taste is all you need. I’d have loved an all-day reunion with the original Acura NSX, but I gladly settled for a Palm Springs quickie. A leap back in time aboard Japan’s first true supercar, whose 1991 model arrival roused Ferrari, sending a message that still resonates: No more could we cling to heavenly performance as an excuse for hellacious reliability.

Straight from an impressive canyon shootout in the new NSX, I tumble into a 2005 model with just 48,000 miles on the clock. That philosophy of Honda-Acura invulnerability links this duo, which seems to share little aside from aluminum-intensive construction, six cylinders and a mid-engine layout. Even inflation can’t fully account for the new model’s $160,000 base price; it's a solid $100,000 beyond the original cost at debut in 1990, and $70,000 beyond the NSX’s price in its swan song of 2005.

A quarter-century after its debut, this NSX may be aging like a Fellini siren, but its Pininfarina-designed body still speaks sexy Italian. The new model grabs attention with its swinging hips, a stance that’s five inches wider than its slender predecessor’s. Yet, the 2017 car is a somewhat dispensable fashion model wearing too much lip liner, whose secondhand supercar fashions are a bit too T.J. Maxx.

On more objective measures, the new all-wheel drive Acura reminds her cousin that wrinkles are showing, along with some rear-drive slip. The 570 horsepower twin-turbo hybrid, with three electric propulsion motors and a nine-speed dual-clutch automatic, electronically launches to 60 mph in 3 seconds flat. The circa-2005 supercar takes 5.3 seconds. It tops out at barely 160 mph, versus 191 mph for the newbie. Track or street, it’s no contest.

But as ever, there’s something to be said for doing it the old-fashioned way. I roll from the Ritz-Carlton in Rancho Mirage in the vintage beauty, behaving until the last Acura engineer and valet disappears in my rear-view mirror. Then I’m off, tearing down Frank Sinatra Boulevard. “Fly Me to the Moon” seems about right: The NSX can’t out-drag a Honda Accord V6 Coupe, but it reminds you that the perception of speed can be better than the reality.

This NSX weighs just 3,000 pounds, some 800 fewer than its electric-boosted, battery-freighted successor. Its naturally aspirated V6 wails to 8,000-rpm like a Nineties hair-metal god, raunchier by far than the demure, turbo-muffled successor. That 270-horsepower, 3.0-liter engine is advanced as some modern iterations: VTEC variable valve timing, titanium connecting rods. The five-speed, short-throw manual shifter, appropriately glossed in Armor-All, jabs through gears like a young Ali. Timing a stoplight change and a 90-degree right, I heel-and-toe a brake and accelerator combo that snuggles closer than sleeping pups. Clutch, shifter, timing. Technique. Relics that future generations will view as curiously as 78-rpm vinyl. A thought emerges as redline peaks: Like a PGA golfer in Palm Springs, the latest NSX is a meticulous professional with a personality deficit. Put a classic Acura stick in its hands, deadly accurate as Jordan Spieth’s, and that personality would shoot through the roof. (New supercar with a manual? Wishful thinking, as Acura engineers are happy to remind me).

The sun pools into the horizon, streetlights glow, and like a prodigal son, I know it’s time to bring the Acura home. The Ritz-Carlton looms from the desert hillsides, its soldierly rows of palms suggesting it will tolerate no youthful foolishness. This may be my last chance to ever drop an NSX clutch, but I’d sure hate to break this pristine machine. On second thought, what the hell: It’s an Honda, after all.