Mark Reuss was there to drive a 1987 Buick Grand National, but somehow the conversation turned to the original Acura NSX.
GM’s executive vice president of global product development was eager to get behind the wheel of the Buick, which was a perfect, original-paint example with just 15,000 miles on its clock. Back in 1987, Reuss was a young powertrain engineer on the GNX team, and he’s a huge fan of Buick’s last rear-wheel drive muscle cars.
In the late 1980s, Reuss was so obsessed with the black, turbo-boosted Buicks that he even bought a GNX for himself—the 449th of 547 built. Although he regrets selling the car, he has held onto the scale model and the black leather jacket that each GNX buyer received.
So imagine my surprise when he expressed his love for Acura’s mid-engine supercar, which hit America back in 1991. “That car blew us away,” Ruess said of the first-gen NSX. As it does with many competitors’ vehicles, GM bought one of the first NSXs to reach the U.S. in order to study the car’s engineering, from its unique powertrain and packaging to its all-aluminum construction. “Even the hinges on that car are special,” Ruess said. “We learned a lot from it.” Some of those design and engineering lessons showed up in the C5 Corvette in 1997.
A rolling oxymoron of speed, comfort and reliability, the first-generation of the NSX was sold from 1991–2005, and it was considered the world’s first “everyday” mid-engine supercar. A Ferrari, Lotus, and Lambo fighter with the dependability of an Accord and real air conditioning. Plus it was cheaper than those finicky Europeans, like the Ferrari 348, with an MSRP of just $60,600.
The Acura’s transversely mounted 3.0-liter V-6 engine was all-aluminum and featured VTEC variable valve timing, titanium connecting rods, and an 8000-rpm redline, but it wasn’t a powerhouse, producing just 270 horsepower and 210 lb-ft of torque. Its specially engineered Bridgestones where small as well (15 inches in the front and 16 inches in the rear), and the 3000-pound two-seater didn’t have a true limited slip differential. But the performance was there and Honda let it be known that Formula 1 superstar Ayrton Senna, otherwise known as God, had helped develop the machine. Auto writers of the time were smitten.
“The near-exotic sports car universe will shift on its axis in early August when Acura delivers the first NSX,” Autoweek predicted in late June 1990. The review would go on to say, “For the NSX, like no other sports car, considers the driver’s comfort and sense of full control as important as its own mechanical needs in the quest for speed. It’s a team player that seeks not at all to dominate, but on to cooperate fully with the protoplasmic half of a man/machine duet.”
Car and Driver’s editors loved the NSX, as well, choosing the Acura over a Porsche 911 Carrera 4, Lotus Esprit Turbo, Corvette ZR-1, and Ferrari 348ts in a 1990 comparison test. The magazine called the NSX “the first Herocar with impeccable manners.” Then, four years later, Car and Driver wrote, “We C/D testers are unanimous: the NSX is our top choice for pure driving pleasure.”
Over the supercar’s 14-year run, more than 18,000 NSXs were hand assembled at a dedicated factory in Tochigi, Japan. It was sold around the world as the Honda NSX, except in the U.S., the largest single market for the supercar, where Acura dealers sold about 9000 examples.
NSX values are up sharply
That conversation with Reuss took place five years ago when NSXs were still relatively cheap. But prices had already begun to rise, triggered by the introduction of Acura’s Advanced Sports Car Concept at the 2012 Detroit Auto Show, which foreshadowed the second generation of the supercar. The debut of the production car three years later has only thrown race fuel on the fire.
Over the last five years, prices of first-gen NSXs have more than doubled. Five years ago the very best 1991 NSX could be bought for about $40,000. Today, according to the Hagerty Valuation Tool, the same car could sell for more than $100,000. The bottom of the market has risen sharply, as well, with #4 (fair) condition cars jumping from just over $15,000 to over 30 grand. A new 1991 NSX cost $60,600, and by the time production ended in 2005 the price had climbed to $89,765.
Popularity rose with the 1997 model, when Acura increased the size of the engine to 3.2 liters, and power jumped to 290 hp and 224 lb-ft. The NSX also upgraded from a five-speed manual to a six-speed and added an LSD. Other upgrades over the years include larger wheels and tires in 1994, the introduction of the NSX-T with a removable Targa-top in 1995, and no pop-up headlamps beginning in 2002. The market also loves the 1999 NSX Alex Zanardi editions. Acura built just 49 that year to celebrate the driver’s back-to-back Indycar championships with Honda engines. The best examples of this model are fast approaching $150,000.
This, of course, is following the price trends of other Japanese performance cars from the 1990s, including the Nissan Skyline GT-R , Toyota Supra, Mazda RX-7, and Nissan 300ZX Twin-Turbo. These cars are beloved by Gen Xers who lusted after them in their youth, and today they are putting them in their garages.
Interestingly, sales of the second-generation NSX, which debuted in 2017 model year and is built in Ohio, have been disappointing. Acura sold just 581 in the 2017 calendar year, and sales have plummeted during 2018 to just 93 units through June. In fact, during the month of April Americans bought only five new NSXs.
Driving the Acura NSX
Spend time behind the wheel of a first- or second-generation NSX and the similarities are unmistakable. Yet the two machines, separated by nearly 30 years of engineering, government regulations, and market expectations, could not be more different.
The new car is only a few inches longer than the 1991 model, but it’s 16-inches wider. The old car feels small and light, and the feedback through its manual steering and gearbox is completely analog. What felt complex and go-kartish when new has mellowed and simplified with age. By 2018 standards, the suspension of the 1991 NSX is softly sprung and its steering is painfully slow. Its chassis feels remarkable sturdy considering its vintage, and the traction is there, when new these cars could pull over 1.0g on the skidpad, but it rolls in corners more than any new supercar, and its ride is more compliant than many modern performance sedans.
There’s also a surprising amount of bottom end torque from the 3.0-liter, which comes alive at 5800 rpm when the VTEC switches cam profiles and races for its 8300-rpm fuel cutoff, pumping out a guttural moan and mechanical melody that has never been matched. Its five speed is tightly geared to keep that engine churning and the NSX’s shifter may also be the greatest of all time, with a machined accuracy and precision of a fine firearm. It’s so satisfying you’d swear Honda carved the mechanism from billet.
Of course the second-generation NSX will blow the aluminum doors off its older sibling. Back in 1991, Acura claimed the rear-wheel-drive NSX could sprint from 0–60 mph in 5.9 seconds, which was quick for the day. Today the new NSX, with all-wheel drive traction, a hybrid-powertrain making 573 hp, and launch control, completes the run in 3.1 seconds. The gearbox is now a nine-speed dual-clutch automatic that you manipulate with paddle shifters. Response is quick, and the mid-engine Acura’s longitudinally-mounted twin-turbo V-6 sounds like an NSX should, but there is a quiet mode so the supercar can creep through parking lots on electric power alone.
As you would expect, the modern car also offers more grip and braking performance, and its speed through a twisty canyon pass is so severe it takes on a video game quality, especially in Sport+ and Track modes. The steering is race car quick and although assisted electrically it offers plenty of feel.
So where are the similarities between the two? Inside. Jump from the old NSX to the new and the driving positions are extremely similar. The new car has perfectly emulated the original’s low cowl, thin A-pillars, and large windscreen, as well as its low seating position and the relationship to its upright steering wheel. Even the slope of its dash and the cascade of its center stack reminds you of the old car.
Surely, General Motors wasn’t the only automaker to dissect the Acura NSX back in 1991. The machine, which has been credited with waking Ferrari and other exotic brands from a decade of engineering hibernation, was nothing short of groundbreaking. Considering GM is presently deep in the development of its first production mid-engine Corvette, it also wouldn’t surprise us to learn that it now owns a second-generation NSX.
Has anyone seen Mr. Ruess cruising through downtown Grosse Point in Quiet Mode?