Gavin Green on the new, and old, Honda NSX

Published: 07 February 2012

The late great Russell Bulgin – a good friend and a fellow CAR contributor – was once asked what was his favourite car. His reply was: ‘the newest’. Russell was always modern and cutting edge.

He did not like retro or nostalgic cars (or ‘classic cars’ for that matter, at least not as road transport – although they were fine in museums). He would have been highly suspicious of any car purporting to be a ‘new’ version of a great old timer, such as the oft-repeated talk of a ‘new E-type’. His view was that great cars should be forward thinking, not backward. ‘Over-the-shoulder’ design, of course, was one of Jaguar’s biggest problems (now happily exorcised by Ian Callum).

Russell was also, like me, a great fan of the Honda NSX. Despite the nostalgic name, I believe he would have approved of the ‘new NSX’ concept recently unveiled at the Detroit show. It may be a ‘new’ iteration of an old badge. But the car itself is about as retro as an iPad.

From its hybrid powertrain to its machete style to its compact dimensions to the promise of light weight, it is a thoroughly modern machine. It could well take eco friendliness, mated to driving brio, onto a new plane. The meaty torque promised from its electro-petrol powertrain (prioritised over absolute bhp) suggests Honda is cleverly targeting initial and mid-range acceleration over mindless mph. The talk is of new levels of agility and poise, not sledgehammer straight-line speed. This is entirely appropriate for a new breed of supercar.

It is also a welcome – and long overdue – sign of Honda regaining its mojo after almost a generation of mostly apologetic cars, and an apparent desertion of its sports car roots. (The first Honda car was the light and delightful S500 roadster of 1963: one of the few cars that could be successfully resurrected today.)

The first NSX: the great supercar innovator

The original NSX was a wonderful car and, like all true innovators, time has magnified its appeal rather than diminished it. I believe I was the first journalist to drive one – at the Tochigi proving ground, 60 miles north of Tokyo, in the early summer of 1989. There were a small group of European journalists on hand (no other Brits); the Yanks and Japanese scribblers were due to have their turns over the next few days. The NSX’s refinement and everyday usability were revelations by contemporary supercar standards. (Porsche 911s were tail happy, technically outdated cars. Rival Ferraris felt more animated and certainly had more deliciously detailed cockpits. But they were tricky to drive hard, mechanically frangible, noisy, cramped and wearying on long drives.) The NSX was also mechanically gorgeous. A forged aluminium wishbone from an NSX is one of world’s finest pieces of industrial sculpture. The titanium conrods and aluminium monocoque were scarcely less appealing.

The NSX proved that supercars could be comfortable, easy to drive, have good visibility and yet still turn on the fireworks when your right foot gave the instruction. That arcane voodoo sorcery that was thought to be an essential part of Ferrari or Lamborghini ownership – the skewed driving position, the heavyweight pedals, zero rear visibility – was exposed as unnecessary hokum. A succession of worthy usable fast cars followed, including the Audi R8 and all subsequent 911s. Ferraris became user friendly, yet no less inspirational. The new McLaren MP4-12C is luxury saloon car-refined yet almost F1 racer-fast: it is the NSX’s spiritual heir.

If the ‘new NSX’ can achieve half as much, it will be a very good car indeed. Russell, I suspect, would have approved.

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By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience