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Sports cars have always meant performance - lots of braking, acceleration and handling wrapped up in a swoopy 2-seater body. But until the Acura NSX came along, no sports car had ever offered such a finely honed balance of all the widely varying parameters of performance, and done so in such a civilized and intelligent fashion.
There are those, in fact, who argue that the NSX is the best sports car the world has ever produced. Not the most powerful, though its power-to-weight ratio places it within the realm of supercars. Not the fastest, though its top speed capability is almost triple most state speed limits. But the best.
And although opinions will obviously vary, there can be no doubt about the NSX's wonderful blend of refinement, performance and all-around brilliance.
Honda - the parent company of Acura - has made a few changes to the NSX for 1995, most notably the option of a removable roof panel. This wasn't available in time for our test drive, so we based our impressions on the standard hardtop coupe. At $73,300, our NSX certainly wasn't a cheap ride.
Honda engineers have used the Acura NSX to try several new technologies on a limited-production basis, perhaps the most important being the wide use of aluminum. As a result, the NSX's entire chassis and all of its body are made of aluminum, as are the suspension components and numerous other significant parts.
The aluminum body is light and won't rust. And through an innovative metallurgical technique, the panels have dent resistance equal to steel. About the only drawback is that repairs of major body damage are likely to be more expensive than those involving conventional sheet-steel panels.
Standard safety features include traction control, a 4-channel anti-lock braking system (ABS), dual airbags, side door beams and front and rear impact-absorption zones.
Other standard items are power steering, leather seating and trim, automatic climate control, an AM/FM/cassette system, power windows and door locks, cruise control, and a tilt steering wheel.
Technical points of interest include a twin-plate clutch, separate oil pump for the transmission, torque-sensing differential, titanium connecting rods in the engine (a world's first for a production car) and forged - rather than cast - aluminum alloy wheels.
We were impressed by the high quality of this car's assembly and finish. And kudos to Acura for changing its ways: Previously, designers insisted on making the roof pillars and top black, regardless of body color, to emphasize the fighter-plane cockpit look. We know that some buyers will applaud the monochrome treatment applied to the '95 version.
All notions of sports cars as uncomfortable 2-seaters evaporate when you climb into an NSX. Even though the cabin is snug, it feels cozy rather than cramped. Honda engineers worked their usual magic on the ergonomic side and all instruments and controls are ideally located for viewing and operating.
The driver's seat is power adjustable; the steering wheel can tilt and telescope. With these two adjustments, practically anybody can quickly obtain an ideal driving position - one in which the seat, steering wheel, pedals and shift lever come into close harmony. There is even decent room for fairly tall drivers.
A particular advantage of the NSX is the sightlines. From the driver's seat you can see the tops of the two front fenders, and the view forward through the big windshield is clear and commanding. You feel as if you're sitting in the nose, with the road coming right up to meet you. Experienced race car drivers have compared the NSX in this respect with sitting in a real race car.
The view to the sides is also good. The only limitations are in the rear quarter areas, which is true of many sports cars. We quickly learned to rely on the mirrors - rather than the usual over-the-shoulder glance - before making lane changes.
As you might expect, there isn't a lot of room for cargo - just 5 cu. ft. in the far rear. You can stow little, soft-sided objects in the forward compartment, but with the NSX, you'll bring small suitcases or none at all.
The fit-and-finish of the passenger cabin, as with the rest of the car, is impeccable.
You could make a good case that the NSX is the best
driving experience available today. Unfortunately, few owners will ever have the opportunity to take one on a test track; in that environment the NSX handles like a finely balanced race car, with the same kind of razor-sharp precision and direct feedback.
In fact, the NSX is one of the very few street cars that can be driven on a racetrack in the same way - and with the same type of inputs - as a race car. In such harsh driving conditions, the NSX is virtually faultless. And unlike almost all other production cars, the NSX doesn't need pampering when driven hard; the skilled driver can use all of the engine's power, all of its braking capability and all of its cornering - without any part of the car asking for relief.
The amazing thing is that the same car driven on public roads is as civilized as a luxury sedan. It's a tiger on the track, but on the street drives as easily as any other Honda or Acura. High-performance sports cars have a tradition of being difficult in daily driving and of requiring special skill and care in dealing with traffic. But not the NSX. Almost anyone could drive it, and drive it with pleasure.
Power comes from a 3.0-liter DOHC 24-valve V6 mounted behind the passenger cabin, in the mid-engine position that is favored for race cars because it provides optimum weight distribution.
Based on a wealth of technology gathered from Honda's worldwide racing programs, this powerhouse generates 270 hp and will rev to 8000 rpm (252 hp and 7500 rpm with the optional 4-speed automatic transmission). And with Honda's variable valve-timing system, called VTEC, the V6 is easily drivable around town, yet revs as though it were a race engine when it's driven hard.
Like everything else about this car, the standard 5-speed manual transmission is very precise and easy to shift. And rolling down the road, we sensed a feeling of exceptional rigidity, almost as if the doors were welded shut after we got in.
The only quality problem we've ever heard of in connection with an NSX has to do with rear-tire wear. Early editions were using up their rear tires far too quickly, sometimes in less than 5000 miles. Part of this was due to a tire compound designed specifically for maximum traction, and Honda has been working with its tire supplier - as well as making small rear-suspension adjustments - to improve on this problem.
There are sports cars that are more powerful and faster than the Acura NSX, with some sporting a lower price tag. And some critics have said the NSX's styling doesn't have the drop-dead looks of a Ferrari, although the NSX was clearly inspired by that car and is far less expensive.
But there are no sports cars that approach the NSX in its superb blend of performance, handling, civility and driving savvy. In this respect, the car is simply impeccable.
Buying a sports car is a very personal thing. There are all sorts of perfectly good reasons why a particular car will appeal to a buyer. In those subjective areas, the NSX might not equal a Porsche, Ferrari or even a Corvette. But on the overall excellence of the driving experience, none of the others can match the NSX.