When the Acura NSX arrived for the ‘91 model year, it was hailed as the “Japanese Ferrari”. It featured a remarkably agile mid-engine chassis, sleek aluminum bodywork, and high-tech V6. It was the first Honda engine designed with variable-valve-timing. But since then numerous Ferrari models have come and gone. While the NSX has been frequently tweaked, it’s never been totally redesigned. And that’s the case again for 2002. Still the NSX holds a fascination for everyone who loves exciting cars, plus it still sells for about two-thirds the dollars of a prancing horse! So could the latest NSX indeed be the first timeless, exotic car?
Well, some folks may feel that timeless is overstating the case a bit, but it’s hard to argue that the 2002 Acura NSX is not a classic exotic sports car. One that impressed us so much when we first drove it back in 1991, we declared that with the mid-engine NSX, Japanese manufacturers had ‘’...finally reached the pinnacle of the automotive market’‘. In the intervening years, the NSX has been steadily upgraded, in the suspension, the drivetrain, and by adding a targa-style roof.
But this year, the all-aluminum body dons noticeable changes, starting with the front end. The familiar pop-up halogen headlights are gone, replaced by fixed-position, high-intensity Xenon units. While the front air dam has been lowered to reduce drag and lift. On the flanks, the side sills have been nicely smoothed, while out back, there are new taillights, a new trunk lid spoiler, and an air diffuser molded into the rear bumper.
Under the car’s aluminum skin, the mid-mounted drivetrain selection is unchanged. The long rumored V-8 NSX has yet to appear. First choice is our test car’s 3.2-liter dual-overhead-cam V6, with 290 horsepower and 224 pound-feet of torque. It features titanium connecting rods, variable- valve-timing, and a fly-by-wire-throttle. It’s linked to a 6-speed close-ratio manual gearbox, which in our car had an unusually notchy shift mechanism. The second engine choice is a smaller 3.0-liter version of the same V-6, which makes 252 horsepower and 210 pound-feet of torque. It’s fitted to a Sequential SportShift 4-speed automatic with steering wheel shift paddles.
We naturally prefer the gutsier engine and the manual gearbox, which delivered a best 0 to 60 time of 5.0 seconds and a quickest 1/4 mile run of 13.1 seconds at 109 miles-per-hour. While strong off the line, the engine really starts to sing at around 6,000 rpm. The clutch, with its dual-mass flywheel, felt good but started to slip after a few hard launches. Handling is controlled by the all-aluminum double-wishbone suspension, with increased front spring rates and a thicker rear stabilizer bar. It all rides on new 7-spoke alloy wheels. This year, the front wheels grow to a 17-by-7-inch-size, with the rears increased to 17-by-9-inches.
With the standard traction control system engaged, we hit the corners of Georgia’s Roebling Road Raceway, where the NSX exhibited almost unflappable behavior. Gentle front push was followed by rock-solid stability in the mid-corner. Body roll was almost nonexistent, while the steering delivered a moderate amount of feedback. But switch the traction control off, and the NSX becomes a different animal. The weight bias of the mid-mounted engine makes it quite twitchy, and the rear end will quickly step out if you misjudge the corner. With no electronic help at high velocities, the NSX demands a careful balance of throttle and steering, as well as a fine appreciation for what the front end is doing. Yet even in this mode it’s far more forgivable than an air cooled 911.
We actually like the fact that the NSX has such dual personalities. Traction control on, and anyone can drive this thoroughbred with confidence. Traction control off, and the NSX remains a hardcore driver’s car.
So while newer sports cars are getting more user-friendly at the limit, the NSX retains much of its early 90s edge. And its early 90s interior as well, which while clean and well organized, continues with the unexciting styling that we’ve yawned about from day one. But we’ve always marveled at the efficiency of the now standard lightweight targa roof panel. Flip two latches, lift off, and store it in the special cradle. Plus, the open air comes at virtually no loss in body rigidity from the original solid top NSX.
And, the NSX remains something of an original exotic car bargain. A $60,000 car when it debuted for 1991, the 2002 price still sits well below six digits at $89,745, with either a manual or automatic transmission.
Even with the new re-skin, and a lot of tweaks along the way, the 2002 Acura NSX is showing its age a bit, but only just. Even with more formidable V-8 and V-12 competitors from Ferrari and others, the Acura NSX remains a supercar.
We hear the second generation NSX is on the way, and changes will include much more than extra cylinders. But fans of exciting cars will likely never forget the original NSX, and the latest additions provide them with another excuse to try this classic. The 2002 Acura NSX remains an intoxicating sports car ride.
Engine: 3.2-Liter Dohc V6
Torque: 224 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 5.0 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 13.1 Seconds @ 109 MPH
EPA Mileage: 17 MPG City 24 MPG Highway