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Honda's groundbreaking Acura NSX influenced Ferrari, challenged Lamborghini, Porsche

Photo credit: Honda | The Acura NSX had VTEC variable valve timing, titanium connecting rods, all-aluminum body and suspension. Does this sound like a 25-year-old car? Nope.

Acura's NSX has run circles around some of the best sports cars in the world.

That this Japanese marvel remained a technological tour-de-force for most of its 14-year run is one of the 7 Wonders of the automotive world.

The 2-seater has earned the distinction of being not only one of the greatest sports cars in history, but also a major influence on some, if not all the high-performance vehicles that followed it.

Roll the clocks back to the mid 1980s when Honda - Acura's parent company - set about to create an image vehicle that reflected its blossoming technical prowess in Formula 1 racing. It was a culmination of pretty much everything the company had learned to that point about engineering and construction.

The hype surrounding the NSX's arrival in the fall of 1990 was immense. Never before had a Japanese car company dared challenge the leading Italian and German exotics such as Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche.

Honda set out to cure the accepted weaknesses of traditional mega-buck machines. The company sought to improve performance in just about every aspect as well as fit, finish and build quality, all the while reducing maintenance costs and hammering the competition's bottom line.

How?

The cornerstone of the project was weight: the less of it the better. A strict diet gave the car quick steering and chassis response. Within that framework, Honda chose a high-revving, high-horsepower V6.

Keeping the weight down meant bucking convention when it came to the use of metals. Because the chassis would be of the monocoque variety (no frame, but an integrated structure that included the roof), non-structural polymers and fiberglass were out of the question. Instead, engineers developed a special high-strength aluminum alloy for the internal structure and all the body panels. Even the suspension parts were forged from aluminum.

Through space-age engineering and the use of supercomputers, the resulting chassis weighed just 452 pounds, about 40% less than a comparable steel chassis and just as strong. Special attention was paid to the door sills, which when cut apart showed an intricate internal webbing designed to increase rigidity.

In the process of crafting the NSX, Honda set out to establish 400 new patents and enlisted then-Formula 1 champion Ayrton Senna, who was driving for Honda, to evaluate the car.

Like the comparable Ferrari, the NSX's powerplant was slotted behind the passenger compartment and in front of the rear wheels. In the NSX's case, the V6 was mounted east/west and was connected to the driver via a 5-speed manual transaxle. There was also a 4-speed automatic option.

Compared to Ferrari's cantankerous shifter, the NSX's gearbox was butter smooth and quick. The V6 was brought to 270 horsepower withe 1st production use of Honda's VTEC variable valve timing that increased the top-end horsepower and rev range. It kicked in at about 5,000 rpm, just when other domestic vehicles were gasping for an upshift. At 5,000, the NSX was just coming into its own. You had to be quick with the shifter in 1st gear as the engine howled its way to 8,000 revs in a heartbeat. Holding it together were 6 titanium connecting rods, deemed necessary for such engine speeds.

The true beauty of the car was its ability to make anyone feel like they could lead the Formula 1 pack. The ergonomics were superb and occupants were treated to tautly drawn leather seats, high-powered Bose stereo and climate control, all the while enjoying a panoramic view from the F-16-fighter-jet inspired cockpit.

Perhaps a little known fact is that every NSX was hand-built in a factory especially constructed for the car. Each NSX was painstakingly pieced together by the 200 elite workers who were required to have a minimum 10-years experience assembling cars. Even the leather interior was hand sewn.

As well, the NSX was 1 of a few vehicles at the time to offer different diameter wheels front and back. Forged aluminum blocks - called billets - were whittled into lightweight 15-inch wheels for the front and 16 inchers for the rear. Yokohama was contracted to supply a tire that was unique to the NSX and its performance characteristics. Dubbed the AO22, the tires - a separate part number had to be ordered for each position - wore out quickly, but stuck like glue. During the 2-year development period, Yokohama produced and rejected 10 separate molds and used more than 6,000 test tires in over 100 different formulations of compound and construction before going with the AO22.

And there it was. The new performance benchmark. NSXs sold in Japan and Europe were badged as Hondas, while North American versions wore the upscale Acura label.

Ferrari, in particular, pulled up its socks after the NSX arrived, finally creating a worthy adversary with the 360 Modena, although maintenance costs and reliability were lessons that were either unlearned or ignored.

Interestingly, the NSX changed very little over the years. In its final incarnation, it sported integrated headlight pods, slightly larger wheels, a 6-speed manual transmission and 290 horsepower from an updated 3.2-liter V6.

What's next?

Acura finally has a new NSX in the works that pays homage to the original, but once again will turn the world on its ear with technology.
 
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