Honda NSX (NC1) | PH Used Buying Guide

The second NSX was a brilliantly engineered, forward-thinking supercar. Now it's available for 911 money

By Tony Middlehurst / Sunday, February 14, 2021 / Loading comments

Key considerations

  • Available for £80,000
  • 3.5 V6 twin turbo with triple electric motor assist, all-wheel drive
  • Same type of hybrid tech as McLaren P1 and Porsche 918
  • World-class off the line acceleration
  • Nowt goes wrong that we know of
  • Under the radar ‘practical speed’

Search for a used Honda NSX here

OVERVIEW

There's something about Ferrari that seems to get other manufacturers' backs up. Back in the 1960s, the Italian's firm's dominance at Le Mans combined with Enzo Ferrari's personal truculence goaded Ford into throwing everything it had at the GT40 programme until the red cars were put in their place.

Twenty years later, Honda looked at Ferrari's smaller V8-powered road cars like the 308 and vowed to create their own sophisticated two-seat coupe that would blend top-grade Japanese engineering with an upscaling of Colin Chapman's 'more lightness' mantra and thereby trump the Italian offerings on both value for money and everyday reliability. 

Inspired by Japan's bullet train and by the F-16 jet fighter, the NA1 NSX that Honda put on sale in 1990 in its turn became a major source of inspiration for car designer and enthusiastic NSX owner Gordon Murray, heavily informing the handling and ride ethos of the McLaren F1. Audi's A8 is often cited as the first mass production car with an aluminium body, but the aluminium NSX had been around for four years by the time the Audi arrived. In fairness to the A8, not many more than a thousand NSXs a year were put together over its 15-year lifespan, largely by hand on a dedicated assembly line. Its titanium conrods were a genuine production car first though, and the NSX was also the first car to employ Honda’s VTEC system in a performance capacity. 

Ayrton Senna is famously associated with the NA1’s development. His main input is thought to have been a less than complimentary summation of the car after he’d spent a day casually caning it around Suzuka in loafers and slacks. Clipboards akimbo, the initially dismayed Honda engineers sportingly took Senna’s comments on board, went away and made the NSX 50 percent stiffer, turning it into a much better thing.

Within a couple of years of gen-one NSX production ending in 2005 Honda was talking about a second generation car. It was supposed to go on sale by the end of that decade and it was going to be powered by a V10, after the fashion of the awesome lump that rocketed McLaren to successive F1 titles in 1989 and 1990.  An inconvenient global recession put paid to that idea. Not until the appearance of a new NSX concept at the 2012 Detroit Show did it become clear that Honda was finally coming out of the bunker with an NSX successor: the NC1.

The choice of Detroit for that reveal and for the eventual launch of the production car three years later was significant. Unlike the first NSX, which was an all-Japanese affair, the new one was going to be designed and built at Honda's plant in Ohio (albeit in cahoots with some of the Japanese engineers who had worked on the original car), reflecting the importance of the NSX in the North American market where over half of all gen-one NSXs had been sold.

The core values of the first 1990 NSX – light, powerful V6 engine placed amidships in a light two-seater body – still applied to Honda's gen-two junior supercar. As before, the idea was to make a car that would be as friendly and accessible on the road as it was effective on the racetrack. However, a quarter of a century is a long time in the automotive world. There were quite a few differences between the old and the new.

In simple displacement terms the new car's hand-built 3.5 litre V6 wasn't that much bigger than the 3.2 litres to which the old NSX’s normally aspirated 3.0 eventually grew, but now there were two turbos and three electric motors to join in the fun. The dry-sump engine alone was rated at just over 500hp. Electrically, one twin-motor unit drove the front wheels with the third acting directly on the engine’s crankshaft to supplement the power going to the rear wheels. The total output was 573hp and 476lb ft, well over twice the power and torque of the first 250hp/208lb ft NSX.

Throw in all-wheel drive, a 9-speed wet dual-clutch automatic transmission and the stepless complementary thrust of electric assistance and you can see why, despite its near-440kg weight gain over the 1990 NSX, the new car’s 0-62mph time was reduced from the mid to high fives to something in the very low threes, or even in the right conditions the high twos. For a more exact take on that you will have to resort to your favourite mag/website/tester because Honda refused to give any official 0-60 or 0-62 stats for the new car, possibly because, quick as it was, the 570S, 488 GTB and 911 Turbo S were all a little bit quicker. It’s tough at the top.

The gen-two NSX was launched in 2016 and began leaving showrooms in early 2017 at a starting price of around £138,000, which was about the same as a Porsche 911 Turbo S. It's fair to say that it wasn't a huge sales success. In 2018 just 170 NSXs found buyers in the US, the car’s prime stomping ground, where the revitalisation of the Corvette (which in 2020 was between two and three times cheaper than the Honda) didn’t make the NSX’s life any easier.

Maybe potential NSX owners in the USA didn’t want to buy something that they’d been told was a doddle to drive because they felt it called their car-taming skills into question. Maybe there was a market positioning problem. Honda had claimed that the all-wheel drive NSX would be as quick through the gears as Ferrari's 458 while handling in a superior fashion and delivering better fuel economy to boot, but should they have put cars like the 458, the 488, and the 570S in the NSX’s benchmarking crosshairs? These were cars that would beat the NSX in most, if not all, conventional road test categories, but if you switched focus from measurable performance to the less quantifiable area of practical everyday performance the gap wouldn’t be as clear cut.

Moreover, the NSX might not have seemed overly ‘special’ on the surface, but it was (and still is) very special in its engineering. If we accept that its considerable performance sprang from the same sort of technology used by far more high-profile and far more expensive cars, shouldn’t the NSX have been pitched as a 918 Porsche for a sixth of the price, a McLaren P1 for a seventh of the price, or a LaFerrari for an eighth of the price?

Who knows. Whatever the reason for its disappointing sales performance, it's all grist to the depreciation mill. Today, a new NSX starts at nearly £150,000 but you can easily pick up sub-10,000-mile cars for £80,000, or, for the same money, a high-mileage original NSX NA1. Which one would you have? There’s an NA1 buyer’s guide elsewhere on PH, but we’re here to take a look at what you get in a gen-two NC1 NSX. And it’s a lot.

SPECIFICATION | HONDA NSX (2016-on)

Engine: 3,493cc V6 24v twin turbo with three e-motors
Transmission: 9-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): [email protected],500-7,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): [email protected],000-6,000rpm
0-60mph: 3.0secs (ish)
Top speed: 191mph
Weight: 1,800kg
MPG (official combined): 28.2
CO2: 228g/km
Wheels: 19in (f), 20in (r)
Tyres: 245/35 (f), 305/30 (r)
On sale: 2017 – present
Price new: £138,000 (2017)
Price now: from £80,000

Note for reference: car weight and power data is hard to pin down with absolute certainty. For consistency, we use the same source for all our guides. We hope the data we use is right more often than it’s wrong. Our advice is to treat it as relative rather than definitive.


ENGINE & GEARBOX

The NSX wasn’t a plug-in hybrid. There was a Quiet mode in which the map promoted gear shifts at low engine speeds, but an extremely feathery touch on the throttle was needed to prevent the engine from poking its nose in. Any electrical energy accumulated through braking and stored in the battery pack didn’t last very long at all.

As with the McLaren P1 or Porsche 918, the hybrid element of the NSX wasn’t about sneaking around silently and saving yourself a few bob at the pumps. It was about building on the sportiness of the drive, feeling (and watching, on the NSX’s Assist gauge) the extraordinary off-the-line traction and acceleration made possible by torque-filling electric motors at low and midrange revs, with maximum twist on tap all the way from 2,000 to 6,000rpm and a high plain of power drifting in at 6,500rpm.

Running an NSX through the 0-60 in three and a tiny bit seconds and 0-100 in six or so will get anyone’s pulse up. A Nissan GT-R with similar power will be dusted in a drag race or an in-gear face-off. It’s true that some of the Honda’s high-stepping rivals would pull away from it at higher speeds, and (you might find) they would do so with more emotion than that generated by the NSX’s more scientific noise. You can boost the artificial part of that in the NSX by selecting Track mode, or you can manufacture some real rort by handing £2,400 or so to a firm like Quicksilver in exchange for an exhaust.

The relative plainness of the cabin was mirrored in the decidedly average tactility and physical quality of the gearshift paddles. The speed of the actual shifts wasn’t quite up there with the best that Porsche and Ferrari could do either, but you have to remember that they were amazing. In isolation you won't find anything to complain about in the way the NSX goes about its business.

Batteries can die if you’re not using an NSX often enough or not giving it enough beans when you are using it, but that’s something that can afflict any modern car. Some early cars had faulty seals on their thermostats, which was more of a problem than it might sound because you had to dismantle a good bit of bodywork to access it.

CHASSIS

The NSX’s engine was mounted in what was described as a multi-material spaceframe (actually mainly aluminium extrusions) with twin resin fuel tanks wedged between the engine and the Intelligent Power Unit angled behind the seats, or the lithium-ion battery pack as companies that aren't Honda call it. There was a recall on those fuel tanks. The story goes that a fault was found in one tank on one car and 700 NSXs were pulled in for replacements.

The all-aluminium double wishbone front and multi-link rear suspension employed Audi R8-style Magnetic Ride magnetorheological dampers, and there was a mechanical multiplate limited-slip differential too. The result was handling that was both approachable and entertaining, amply satisyfing for the expert, reassuringly rewarding for the average driver, and usefully adept at saving ‘all the gear and no idea’ buyers from themselves.

You’d think that one potential consequence of electric motor assistance might have been a reluctance to indulge the inveterate skidder, but more than one tester showed how happy the NSX was to play on a track. At less barmy speeds cornering was flat and sure, courtesy of innumerable computer calculations of speed, g-force, steering and probably a whole load more stuff that only the NSX knew about. The variable ratio steering was electronic too, and linked to the vehicle stability assist (VSA) system. All this might sound like a recipe for digitally-induced boredom, but it wasn’t. Honda succeeded in engineering enough feel into the NSX to take it through that barrier and into the rarely-visited sunlit uplands where pleasure and safety come together in a wondrous way. 

Drivers with finely-tuned posteriors might sense a little nibbliness in the ride. That could be more evident in cars built after late 2019 when, presumably in response to sniffiness from some testers, the dampers was tweaked, the anti-roll bars were stiffened by 26 percent at the front and 19 percent at the rear, and the steering was recalibrated. Continental SportContact 6 tyres specially developed for the NSX became standard fitment at this time. Not everyone was convinced by them, but most came down in favour of the overall chassis-twiddling exercise, believing it to offer a little more engagement to the driver and a little less of the ‘I’m in control, not you’ message that some felt they were being sent by the pre-tweaks car. No change was made to the power units other than a software patch to alter slightly the relationship between the electrical assistance and the engine.

There was no physical connection between the brake pedal and the standard six- and four-piston Brembo brakes, but the operation and feel were both more than fine. Carbon ceramic discs were an £8,400 option. The elegant, NSX-exclusive and very light interwoven ‘Y’ wheels were forged from aluminium.

BODYWORK

Many different lightweight materials were used for the NSX’s bodywork. All four wings were made of sheet moulding compound (SMC), a high-grade type of GRP. So was the boot skin, which was designed to be removable for easier engine access. The door skins, inner panels, bonnet, roof, engine compartment and boot frame were in hydroformed or stamped aluminium, while the floor was carbon fibre and the A-pillars were 3DQ (three-dimensionally bent and quenched) ultra-high-strength steel, a world automotive first.

Styling plays a big part in this market. It’s always going to be subjective and you’ll either like the NSX or you won’t. What can’t be denied is the cleverness of the aero package which keeps the electrical and oily bits cool while providing bags of downforce at each corner, and all without the visual afterthought of a tacked-on wing or gash spoiler. It’s clean in the same way that the Lexus LFA was. If you really wanted extra bits of bodywork you could get front and rear spoilers, side skirts and an exhaust diffuser in the £7,400 Carbon Fibre Exterior Pack. A CF engine cover was also available.

The body paint is lustrous. After the application of two coats of primer, five coats of colour and two layers of clearcoat, an NSX would be left to cure for 16 hours before being finely hand-sanded, wiped down and given another two layers of clear coat ahead of the final polish. The flush-fitting non-colour-coded doorhandles that were probably a sop to US tastes can look slightly blingy to Europeans, but if you were looking at one of the Thermal Orange Pearlescent cars that came along on 2020MY cars you would probably be too dazzled to notice anyway.

Honda said that the NSX’s boot behind the engine bay was the largest in its class. The last three words there are the important ones. You won’t fit a golf bag or a hard suitcase in it, and the floor isn’t flat, but you will get a couple of soft bags in. Light throw from the headlamps isn’t up to the car’s performance, and some warranty work was carried out on malfunctioning upper brake lights.

INTERIOR

This is an area that can really divide opinions. Players in this £100,000-plus market generally go all in on cabin design and detailing. That’s important for those who want to see where their money has gone.

The NSX is different. It almost revels in its apparent ordinariness. There’s no quibble about the quality of the materials, and the controls fall smartly to hand as they always do in specialist Hondas, but none of it is ‘special’ by the definition that might be used by Aston, Ferrari or Lamborghini owners. In fairness, the original NSX was similarly unflashy, its cabin design owing more to the inside of an Accord and Civic than to an artsy scribble in an interior designer’s notepad. You might well appreciate such a sober approach, especially if you’re considering an NSX as a daily, although the shortage of cabin storage spaces does mitigate against that somewhat.

The beautifully crafted top-grain leather seats are a bit hard and a bit high, and the absence of thigh-clamping bolsters might become an inconvenience in committed track use, but when you’re off to the shops in an NSX their easy-access design makes a lot of sense.

A £2,400 Interior Sport Pack brought a leather wrapped steering wheel, an Alcantara headliner, Alcantara or CF instrument visor and aluminium pedals, while the £1,700 Technology Package included an upgrade of the audio to a 9-speaker 580 watt ELS Studio system. Apple and Android mirroring was standard but sat nav was a pricey and not massively impressive extra. The standard infotainment system in general is a bit ‘rub’, held back by grotty graphics, mindboggling menus and too-easily hit climate control buttons below the screen.

Some warm-climate owners have reported cracks in the optional carbon fibre ‘garnish’ steering wheels. There have also been mystery rattles in the A-pillar area. Too much 3D bending and quenching, perhaps.

PH VERDICT

Harking back to the positioning points raised in the overview, is it possible that not just us humble punters but Honda itself has been looking at the NSX in the wrong way? Despite the good work that the first NSX did for the brand, there’s no getting away from the fact that the Honda badge still doesn't carry as much heritage heft as that of Porsche, Aston Martin, or even (ironically given the incredible F1 success they had enjoyed in collaboration with them) McLaren. That lower brand perception has undoubtedly held the current NSX back. There’s something of a parallel here with the BMW i8, an under-appreciated car that’s currently amazing value at under £40k.

But if you can set aside brand issues and just look at the clarity of design and outright braininess of an NSX, and if you can squint a bit, you might even see a hint of ‘affordable LFA’ there. In that light, a four-year-old NSX for £80k starts to look rather interesting. Design touches that will look unsporty to some – non-extreme seats, conventional dash, low profile aero – give the NSX a carefree useability that you might not always get in more spangly marques.

Plus it’s a Honda. The common problems that usually pepper these buying guides are notable by their absence here. That kind of reliability means that you don’t have to ignore leggier examples. Servicing is a specialist game, mind ye, and there are only two NSX specialists in the UK, both of them in London. Still, intervals are variable with notifications indicated on the dash, and the new car three-year/100,000km warranty will still be in place on many cars, with extensions easily arranged.

Some of us may recall that the original NA1 NSX only really began to excite significant buyer interest after it was gone. Today, with rosy glasses firmly affixed, you can easily pay well into six figures for an NA1. Even dull automatics are rarely seen below £40,000. Could the same ‘you’ll miss it when it’s gone’ thing happen to the gen-two NC1? If Honda comes to the conclusion that it’s no longer worth mixing it with the big-name players and decides to cut the NSX programme off at the knees, and if the reliability expectations are borne out in reality, you could easily see NC1 prices rising. That’s a lot of ifs, but even if Honda does continue to invest in this model line it’s hard to see values dropping hard any time soon.

While you’re mulling that over, have a squint at three tasty morsels from the selection on offer through PH Classifieds at the time of writing. We’re sticking with the cheaper cars this time, on the strength of the NSX’s excellent reliability record. If you’ve always wanted to say you’ve bought a car from Tom Hartley, this 2017 9,000-miler with the carbon exterior package, ceramic brakes and ELS audio upgrade could fulfil that dream at £89,950. For just forty pounds more at £89,990 there’s this black 8,000 miler that reportedly cost £173k new. Again it’s got the ceramic brakes and a goodly bushel of carbon. Finally feast your scratchy old eyes on this nicely understated white car with just 7,000 miles covered at £88,000. Minty.


Search for a used Honda NSX here

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