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Acura NSX celebrates 30 years: A history of Acura's supercar

The game-changing mid-engined NSX first debuted three decades ago in the Windy City.

Head to the Acura stand at this year's Chicago Auto Show, and you may feel some sentimentality in the air. That's because 30 years ago, it was this very exhibition where Acura debuted the NS-X concept that would eventually lead to the 1991 NSX production car.

With that red, mid-engine exotic spicing up the 1989 show floor, Honda's luxury division not only turned the supercar world on its head, but Acura also disrupted the entire automotive industry, provoking other automakers, from Ferrari to Chevrolet, to step their collective games up ... big time.

To celebrate three decades of adding an extra twinkle to the public eye, Acura just released a throwback video showing a first-year, 1991 NSX playing out in the wild with a 2019 model.

With a spacious, comfortable interior and an easy-to-drive disposition, the NSX was the first mid-engine, exotic car that could be driven every day. The original model's interior is so well laid out, that when I got to take one for a spin in 2015 from the Honda museum, after the first 30 seconds of my drive, I felt as though I'd owned the car for 20 years.

"Before NSX, it was always assumed that supercar performance came at the price of a comfortable interior and everyday drivability," said Jon Ikeda, Vice President and General Manager of Acura. "NSX shattered those notions, and raised the bar on every other exotic and supercar maker, with the effects still felt today," Ikeda said.

The NSX also was the first production car to be built on an all-aluminum monocoque chassis. In other words, even the aluminum body panels were part of the supercar's structure.

The NSX also introduced the US to VTEC, Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control, a pioneering bit of engine tech that has become a fixture in Honda and Acura's lineup -- as well as a popular online catchphrase/meme.

Ultimately, the NSX made the mid-engine supercar more accessible. At $60,000, Acura's halo car was priced more than $40,000 below the comparable Ferrari 348. It also offered much more comfort and something called "reliability" -- a concept foreign to Ferrari at the time.

Acura NSX: A brief history

After considerable success with front-engine, front-wheel-drive platforms, Honda began research on a mid-engine, rear-drive powertrain in Jan. 1984 that would eventually make its way into a mid-engine sports car designed to celebrate the company's return to Formula 1 racing. The following month, Honda engineers used their research to build the powertrain and plop it into a first-gen Honda City economy car. That introductory testing would give way to the beginning of the NSX's official development in the fall of 1985.

While the production car that would bow in 1990 was the spitting image of the concept car introduced at the Chicago Auto Show a year earlier, some significant changes were made from concept to production, the most significant of which was a markedly improved engine. Whereas the concept NS-X used a transverse-mounted, single overhead-cam V6 borrowed from the Acura Legend, the production NSX got its very own 3.0-liter, double overhead-cam V6 with VTEC and an 8,000-rpm redline. 

The only major difference between the prototype (top) and production (bottom) NSX was a slight increase in length.


The more powerful engine (270 horsepower and 210 pound-feet of torque) with its wider and more complicated cylinder heads meant a longer wheelbase and longer front and rear overhangs were needed. But when looking at one car on top of the other in the above photo, you can see the production car's longer body did little to affect the sleek appearance.

Early NSXs paired the V6 with a five-speed manual transmission. If you wanted the four-speed automatic, you'd have to work with just 252 horsepower. In 1995, the targa-topped NSX-T arrived on the scene. By 1997, the NSX received a displacement bump to 3.2 liters, an extra 20 horsepower, an additional 14 pound-feet of torque and a six-speed manual, but automatic-equipped NSXs still used the 3.0-liter engine. By 2002, the pop-up headlights were gone, and fixed xenon HIDs took their place. Three years later, the first-gen NSX entered its final production year until the current NSX would arrive in 2016.

The original NSX's 3.0-liter, 270-horsepower V6 was the US's first exposure to VTEC.


Senna's indelible mark

"I'm not sure I can really give you appropriate advice on a mass-production car, but I feel it's a little fragile." Those 22 words uttered by none other than Formula 1 racing legend Ayrton Senna would forever solidify the original NSX's standing as one of the all-time greatest production supercars.

Prior to Senna's "fragile" comment, Honda's engineers were targeting chassis stiffness comparable with Ferrari and Porsche, but after some laps behind the prototype NS-X's wheel, Senna knew there was more in it. His suggestions led the NSX development team to test the car at Germany's legendary Nürburgring circuit. Once the relentless Green Hell had its way with the budding supercar, Honda's engineers were able to add 50 percent more stiffness to the chassis. Without Senna's help, it's likely the NSX would have simply been a cult classic rather than becoming an undisputed automotive icon of 20th-century performance.

Across two generations, the NSX acronym has had three different meanings.


How the NSX got its name

Fans of Acura's supercar can tell you that NSX stands for "New Sports Experimental" --- for the original production version, at least. But its letters were actually more representative of mathematics before the car lost its hyphen. That's thanks to the engineers who originally conceived the name (leave it to them to get math mixed into this story).

The research and development folks originally intended the letters to stand for "new," "sports car" and "unknown world." In algebra, the X represents an unknown variable. When the folks at American Honda decided to use "NS-X" for the prototype they would unveil in Chicago, they ended up running with the more simplified "New Sports Experimental" meaning.

Although the production vehicle was originally intended to receive a different name, the rabid response from fans and potential buyers made the three-lettered name stick. Unfortunately for the hyphen, it was nixed ahead of the car's production debut.

Even with similar livery, they still look worlds apart.


Today's NSX

The 2019 Acura NSX (which now stands for "New Sports eXperience") is a very different animal compared with the original car. First off, there's a lot more grunt with 573 horsepower and 476 pound-feet of torque emanating from a longitudinally mounted 3.5-liter V6 augmented by three electric motors (two at the front axle, one at the rear) and two turbos. That power is managed through a nine-speed, dual-clutch transmission. All of this is enough to get the car to 60 miles per hour in three seconds on the way to a claimed top speed of 191 mph -- 23 mph more than the original NSX.

The new car's fuel economy of 21 miles per gallon in the city and 22 mpg highway isn't bad considering it's a hybrid, and it's an improvement over the original car's 16/22 city/highway mpg. Trunk space has fallen from the original car's 5 cubic feet to 4.4 for the current NSX.

The most technologically advanced original NSX of 2005 had to make do with a Bose cassette AM/FM stereo and a six-disc MP3 CD changer. The new NSX, as you might imagine, offers a significant step up with a 7-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, HD radio and a nine-speaker ELS Studio premium audio system.

With a base price of $157,500 plus $1,800 for destination, today's NSX is a lot more expensive than its predecessor, which, when adjusted for inflation, would cost around $120,000 in today's dollars. The price bump seems justified for the level of performance the current car offers, but many would argue that the new NSX simply isn't as groundbreaking, revolutionary or as special as the original car. The true test of that argument will happen when we're able to see whether the reborn NSX's second-hand values hold up as well over the the long term as the first-generation model, the best examples of which can command prices approaching $90,000.