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Retro drive: 2005 Honda NSX. Image by Keith WR Jones.

Retro drive: 2005 Honda NSX
Honda's new NSX has a lot to live up to, as we revel in the original Japanese supercar.


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2005 Honda NSX

5 5 5 5 5

Our man finally gets behind the wheel of a classic Honda NSX and lives out his motoring dreams. Turns out the reality is, unbelievably, even better than expected...

Key Facts

Model tested: Honda NSX Coupé 3.2 manual
Price: £60,000 when new in 2005; used NSXs start from around £28,000 now, this car c.£75,000
Engine: 3.2-litre V6 petrol
Transmission: rear-wheel drive, six-speed manual
Body style: two-door, two-seat coupe
Combined economy: 22mpg
Top speed: 168mph
0-62mph: 5.7 seconds
Power: 280hp at 7,300rpm
Torque 298Nm at 5,300rpm
Weight: 1,430kg
Power-to-weight: 196hp-per-tonne
Number built: 18,700 units

This is a huge moment for me. As the Imola Orange Pearl Honda NSX (a late, 3.2-litre manual model, no less, bearing the registration MY05 NSX; oh, how I wish that sentiment were true) rolls to a halt in front of the company's heritage garage just outside the M25, I can feel my heart rate spike. They're about to give me the keys to it and I'll be its custodian for five glorious days. I feel giddy with excitement about the precious time ahead, as this is the fulfilment of a near-lifelong ambition.

You see, for a lot of people, the 'lottery car' would be something like a Ferrari, or a Lamborghini, or a Porsche, or an Aston Martin, or a Bentley. And while I can definitely see the appeal of such motors, it's the NSX that has long been my dream car.

I was 11 years old when the NSX first appeared and 26 (and the owner of a 2004 Honda S2000 GT, which my wife now possesses) by the time it slipped quietly out of production in 2005. And it never lost its fascination for me during those 15 years when it was on sale. It did so many things that we'd never seen before: it was the first production road car with an all-aluminium monocoque, and it also used the lightweight metal in its 3.0-litre V6 engine and suspension componentry, saving an estimated 220kg over using steel instead; it was the first genuine supercar from Japan, with the correct mid-engined, rear-wheel drive layout and enough firepower to trouble the Porsche 911 and Ferrari 348; although not quite the first Honda to feature Variable Valve Timing and Electronic Lift Control (VTEC), it was still among the very first pioneers of such technology, which is an idea that all other car companies employ today; and Honda designed the thing to be as easy to drive as a Civic at slow speeds, despite its dynamic prowess at pace.

Despite all this, sales were underwhelming. Around 18,700 NSXs were shifted across its lifetime, equating to little more than 1,000 a year on average globally, and in the UK it was a flop; people just didn't want to pay 60 or 70 grand for a Honda, no matter how advanced nor brilliant to drive it was. Not even the involvement of F1 legend Ayrton Senna during the car's development could save it from customer apathy.

Thing is, time is a great healer and like so many things where we don't know what we've got until it's gone, the NSX has assumed classic status among petrolheads today. Used prices are going through the roof, as even early 3.0-litre F-Matics command around 30 grand - and late 3.2 manuals like this? They're impossible to find, and therefore borderline priceless. I'm driving this heritage car because a new NSX is on the way and in the 10 years since the ground-breaking original went out of production, all we Honda fans have had is disappointment after disappointment. The 3.5-litre HSC was shown in 2003 and was 'going to be the next NSX'. It wasn't. The HSV-010, with a screaming V10 engine, was built seven years later and although it was primarily for the Japanese GT Championship (JGTC), a road-going version was 'definitely in the pipeline and would be the NSX's successor'. It wasn't.

Thus, an NSX-less decade has drifted by and Hondamentalists like me have watched sadly as the company killed off its other performance motors, including the Civic Type R (thankfully, recently resurrected in 310hp turbocharged nutter form) and the S2000 (no replacement on the horizon as yet). With three electric motors, a 3.5-litre mid-mounted V6, four-wheel drive and nine-speed dual-clutch transmission, plus Honda's engineering genius, the 2016 NSX promises to be epic. But can it possibly hope to match up to the original?

I've hyped myself up about the NSX for 25 years, so in order to try and get some level-headed objectivity to make this retro drive road test worthwhile and not just some gibbering paean to a machine, I take a few moments drinking in details. The look of the car is simply stunning. Contemporary road tests never asserted that the NSX was beautiful, but its cab-forward look, modelled on an F16 Falcon fighter jet and designed to give all-round good visibility, has aged to perfection. That long tail is another gorgeous characteristic and as a sign of how proportional car design used to be, the 17s in its wheel arches look precisely the right size. OK, I'm a pop-ups man myself, as the faired-in headlights and rear clusters with the odd oval indicators in them aren't quite as pure as the appearance of the original 1990 car, but this is just the best colour to have. Love that full-width high-level brake light in the rear spoiler, as well.

Did you know - and forgive the mix of metric and imperial that's coming your way - that the 1,170mm-tall NSX is just 5.56 inches higher than the Le Mans-winning Ford GT40 (so named for its loftiness in inches)? So getting into the Honda means sitting on the floor. Odd, then, that even an average height person like me has their head brushing the roof lining. The steering wheel doesn't adjust for rake, just reach, so it means you can either have it perched on your knees or sat in your lap. And the interior is... well, it's... oh, come on, it's rubbish, isn't it? Remember that even this last-of-the-line 2005 model has the same basic architecture as an NSX from the year Thatcher was ousted from power. So we have a big, flat, angular centre console, dials that look like they're from a Civic Aerodeck, great carbuncular switchgear on the steering column and a dearth of toys; air conditioning, electric leather seats, cruise control and a Bose tape deck are the luxuries in here. I also can't believe that gear knob is original equipment.

However, the driving position is oddly comfortable and visibility truly is excellent. So let's go. Turn the fixed-blade key in the Honda's ignition and the starter motor churns with an industrial coughing, before the 3.2 flares into life and settles into a pleasing, if muted idle. Slot first in another of Honda's unbeatable manual transmissions (although I'm happy, and just a little bit smug, to report that, along with cabin design, this is the only other area where our S2000 edges out the NSX) and ease out the light clutch... and the Honda simply glides into action.

And yes, it really is just like a Civic. It potters about town on a clean, linear throttle in a completely docile display, riding bumps and undulations well and offering up nicely weighted steering. The controls might not look pretty but they're right where you want them, so after the first few nervous minutes of unconsciously breathing in when threading the NSX through narrow gaps, it soon becomes a breeze to pilot it confidently in urban areas.

Then we come on to more open roads and can extend the throttle a bit further; not to the gate of VTEC, at 5,000rpm, but through 2,000- to 4,500rpm. And already the potency of the V6 becomes apparent. Where previously it was hushed in operation, at around 3,000rpm its voice hardens into a more metallic timbre, and it sounds goooood. The car's also quick 'off-cam' and at this point I feel it my duty to point out the ridiculousness of the NSX's stats. Look at the power, 0-62mph time and top speed, and they're hot hatch numbers; a SEAT Leon Cupra 280 would theoretically be all over it. But the 280hp figure was part of a weird Japanese gentleman's agreement that mean the manufacturers could only quote such a number as a maximum. As Honda was getting 100hp-per-litre out of 1.6-litre VTEC engines by 1989 with the Integra XSi, and the 1999 S2000 unit had 120hp-per-litre, to think the company could only eke 87.5hp per litre out of a V6 like this is a joke. Anecdotal evidence from owners suggests as much, as NSXs on rolling roads comfortably recorded outputs that mean you can roundly ignore the 280hp figure.

Finally, there's a bit of deserted dual carriageway ahead. The Honda's oils are all thoroughly warmed through, and the surface is dry and smooth. Second gear, floor it, hold the pedal in. At 5,000rpm, nirvana. Oil pressure slots home the high-profile cam and the NSX goes full banzai on you. And it's so utterly, utterly wonderful. The all-encompassing noise is just incredible, the revs soaring to the 7,300rpm peak output and on to the 8,000rpm redline beyond in a scintillating, symphonic frenzy. Bang in third and the Honda hauls very, very hard again, and before you know it you're in fourth and still accelerating at an alarming rate - 280hp? Ha! I reckon even 330- to 340hp would be a conservative estimate.

Luckily, of course, it is a beautifully balanced machine. The steering, so light and easy-going in town, weights up at speed and offers real, unfiltered feedback. The brakes, so often a weak point on modern classics, are monster, offering superb progression and mammoth bite when required. Body control is faultless and yet the damping is judged so perfectly that the NSX keeps as much of its rubber possible in contact with the road at all times, meaning the car goes exactly where you point it. OK, I've heard tales that once out of shape, the NSX requires Senna-like skills to bring it all back into line, but it never feels spiky. More to the point, nor does it feel boringly safe; committed drivers will get more from the Honda than those who treat it with deference.

Over the course of the next few days, the Honda NSX proceeded to ruin all other cars for me. Aside from driving the ultra-rare NSX-R, I don't think anything will ever match up to it again. All too soon, I am pointing its low prow back down the M1 and then I'm back in Slough, handing it back with another 430 miles on its odometer and - the first time I've ever felt like this - climbing reluctantly back into the S2000. It's not often you meet your heroes and often they can let you down. The NSX, incredibly, did exactly the opposite and surpassed my exalted expectations. If you ever fancy selling MY05 NSX, Honda UK, do let me know, eh?

So, having driven the legend, what do we think for the future? Maybe the new NSX will get an easier time of it, because the arrival of other Japanese high-performance motors since - think the R35 Nissan GT-R and Lexus' automotive unicorn, the LFA - means people no longer baulk at paying £80,000 for a Nissan or £330,000 for a Lexus. So the 580hp hybrid NSX of 2016, despite its price tag in the £130,000 ballpark, should hopefully meet a more willing public.

But it'll have to be engineered to within an inch of its life to match the original for sheer, unadulterated brilliance. Don't mistake this eulogy to the Mk1 NSX as a fanboy ignoring all its faults; it has a few, not least that interior. If you get the chance to drive one, though, please take it without hesitation. Because this could be the very best car I've ever driven. Absolutely everything on the NSX is machined to work in perfect harmony with everything else; there is no one facet of the Honda that is out of kilter with the balanced whole. And the result is a motor that makes every journey transcend driving to become an utterly joyful experience. Yes, there are faster cars. Yes, there are prettier cars. Yes, there are more lavishly equipped, spacious, economical and comfortable cars. But better cars? I'm struggling to think of any.

Matt Robinson - 24 Jun 2016    - Honda road tests
- Honda news
- NSX images

2005 Honda NSX. Image by Honda.2005 Honda NSX. Image by Honda.2005 Honda NSX. Image by Honda.2005 Honda NSX. Image by Honda.2005 Honda NSX. Image by Honda.

2005 Honda NSX. Image by Honda.2005 Honda NSX. Image by Honda.2005 Honda NSX. Image by Honda.2005 Honda NSX. Image by Matt Robinson.2005 Honda NSX. Image by Matt Robinson.


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