Honda resisted the urge to build a supercar until the start of the Nineties, when the iconic NSX, a car designed to go head-to-head with the Ferrari 348, made its debut.
Words: Wilhelm Lutjeharms
Photos: Kian Eriksen
For many car enthusiasts, the Nineties marked the end of an era… Given the proliferation of advanced technological features in high-performance road cars, the elemental sports cars adored by purists – equipped with manual transmissions and shorn of significant electronic gimmicks – were on the endangered-species list.
Between 1989 and 1994, the 348 filled the gap left by the 328, which was largely an evolution of the 308 that debuted in the late Seventies and the much-loved F355, with its F1-inspired gearbox. The 348 was launched at the Frankfurt Show at the end of the Eighties and it’s clear to see its design was inspired by that of the Testarossa.
The 348 clearly laid the foundation for the F355; its proportions are similar to those of the latter, but more importantly, it has characteristic side strakes that channel air into the engine bay. Many would argue the F355’s design is cleaner (and prettier), but even if that’s the case, this in-betweener Ferrari does have its place in history.
I’m reminded of the 348 TS owner’s short remark during the shoot and test drive of these cars: “Many enthusiasts remark that this is the baby Testarossa thanks to those side intakes and the square rear lights.” That is a very pertinent point.
Interestingly, this targa-topped 348 was the owner’s first and only Ferrari. He’s a keen auto enthusiast and owns a number of cars, one of which dates back to 1911.
He remarks: “I guess it is every guy’s ambition to own a Ferrari sometime in their life. As I’m a member of several car blubs, one of them is for cars older than 20 years. Because of this, and also because of its affordability and being one of the last Ferrari’s to not feature any complicated electronic wizardry, I decided on the 348.”
A humorous touch on the 348 TS is the “I would rather be a Riley” sticker on the left front fender just above the front wheel-arch. The owner placed it on the exact area where a Ferrari shield would usually be affixed – just to annoy the brand’s fanboys.
The 348 looks exotic from virtually every angle, there is no doubt about that… Its compact dimensions and footprint contribute to the taut, attractive design and the five-spoke wheels add to the sporty stance of the car. However, compared with the sinuous Honda, which has a curb weight of 1 370 kg, the 348 is heavier (it has a dry weight of 1 390 kg, which means it weighs over 1.4 tons at the curb).
The Ferrari’s mileage is just over 41 000 km, but the NSX doesn’t have much more on the odo: only 48 688 km. On the one hand, they both fit the profiles of pure ‘90s sports cars, but they also represent noticeably different design philosophies…
The pop-up headlights are stark reminders of an era that began more than four decades ago. It’s extremely cool to drive a car with pop-up lights, isn’t it? The impact of lighting elements on cars’ front-end designs is greatly diminished these days. On modern cars, main lights increasingly resemble integrated strips thanks to LED technology.
As both are mid-engined, the Ferrari and Honda have stubby noses and their cabins are pushed fairly forward. There is such simplicity to the NSX: its side air intakes are rectangular, while its body flows elegantly to the rear of the car, which ends with a discreet wing.
It is a clean, unfussy design – in marked contrast with the 348, which has sloping C-pillars that stretch back to end in a small, integrated lip spoiler. The 348’s larger wheel and tyre combination (215/50 ZR17 (f); 255/50 ZR17 (r) vs 205/50 ZR15 (f); 215/45 ZR16) does give it a more sports car-like stance compared with the NSX.
Roughly 8 700 examples of the 348 were produced between 1989 and 1994, while around 10 000 more NSXs were made – admittedly over a much longer period (from 1991 to as late as 2005). Needless to say, in terms of production numbers, the 348 is far rarer.
Under the Ferrari’s engine cover resides a 3.4-litre, 90-degree V8 engine (inherited from the Mondial T) and a five-speed gearbox. When you climb in, the TS’s cabin is more spacious than you’d think, partly because of the shallow dashboard, which creates additional space, even ahead of the passenger seat. For the driver, the simple steering wheel, the stark, analogue gauges behind it and that gorgeous open gate for the gear lever are undoubtedly highlights of the cabin. When I start the engine, it turns over quickly, although the sound is not as raucous as I’d expected.
The dog-leg first gear is a delightful reminder of cars from a couple of decades ago. Plus, once your machine hits its stride on twisty roads such as these, one can easily swap between second and third gears (it requires a simple, straight up or down shift, which saves you time and effort when you’re scything through the H-pattern ‘box). Every shift action is a bit of an event. You can’t rush it, but why would you want to, when every shift has such a satisfying, thoroughly mechanical action to it? Once all the 348’s fluids are warmed up, the shift action is not particularly heavy, but there are, sadly, no click-clack sounds when you change gears. Being a right-hand drive version, the gearlever is within perfect reach, located just to the left of my leg.
You undoubtedly feel like a bit of star when piloting a car as beautiful and muscular as the 348. Because there is no power steering, parking manoeuvres are a pain, but that matters little when the car starts moving and you are availed all that steering feedback with which to gauge the car’s behaviour. The steering wheel loads up the more you turn it, which is something you can’t really experience in modern cars. It has been a while since I’ve enjoyed a car’s steering feel to this extent; you do, however, need to exert some effort to make the car do exactly what you want it to.
As I start to rev the engine harder, the motor emits a more intense, soulful sound; there is evidently heightened zest from the V8 as it approaches its 7 500 rpm redline (maximum power of 221 kW arrives at 7 200 rpm). There is more than enough torque available in the middle of the rev range, but why would you want to do dawdle if you could watch (and listen) as the rev counter’s orange needle spins from the beginning to end of its gauge all day long? Later, when the owner drives away in his car, I note that the sound from the 348’s engine and exhaust is purer and more intense than when you sit inside the cabin. Sadly, that’s the case with most performance cars.
Meanwhile, the brakes feel firm and positive, although I admit I never needed to use all their stopping performance. The view from the driver’s seat is unobstructed; by virtue of being 1.87 metres tall, I see only a small part of the nose, because the front lid drops down sharply. As a driver, you are always mindful that the Ferrari’s nose is short and this all contributes to the compact feel of the car from behind the wheel. It is an exotic experience in every way, so what about the Honda?
The owner of the Honda NSX has owned this car since 2003. It is believed to be one of three NSXs in South Africa; only two were officially imported and the third arrived at a later stage. This particular NSX, however, can lay claim to a special place in South African auto-racing history. In 1993, it was used as the pace car for the last South African Formula One Grand Prix at Kyalami and, although its current owner didn’t own the car at the time, he was there and remembers seeing this car leading the field on the parade lap. As an incurable gearhead and collector, he could not help but to snap it up when he got the chance.
He comments: “I saw it at a Honda dealership and couldn’t believe my eyes. I remember it vividly, I traded in a black Honda Accord 2.4 Automatic for the NSX. The combination of the exclusivity of the car, especially in South Africa, the build-quality, the history of the car’s development and the engine all contribute to my love for – and enjoyment of – the NSX.”
The NSX was indeed an important car for Honda. At the time, Honda powered all three McLarens the late Ayrton Senna drove to his trio of F1 drivers’ championship titles. As Honda had access to Senna, the firm enlisted the Brazilian’s help to fine-tune the setup of the NSX. If you haven’t seen it already, watch the YouTube clip in which Senna pilots an NSX-R at Suzuka while wearing leather loafers and white socks.
Launched in 1990 into a niche dominated by European manufacturers, the NSX was designed to rival Ferrari’s 348 and Porsche’s 911 (964) Turbo. In its heyday, the NSX was the most expensive car produced in Japan and manufactured by a select group of 200 Honda employees who built 25 examples of the supercar per day. For a marque that had never built a supercar before, the NSX was a major achievement.
Now it’s time to see if the countless volumes that have been written about the NSX’s brilliance hold true.
I climb into the Honda’s driver’s seat and find it surprisingly comfortable, almost cosseting, yet it still manages to offer sufficient lumbar support. As I turn the ignition key, the V6 engine comes alive with a soft bark. I move the gear lever into first, let the clutch out and short shift to third. The NSX’s transmission is the most notable of its major controls. Honda’s now discontinued S2000 is often hailed for its snappy close-ratio six-speed gearbox – and rightly so – but the NSX’s ‘box feels even slicker to operate. Its throws may not be as short as the S2000’s, but the overall shift feel is noticeably better. It is a precise, mechanical action.
After a few miles, when all the Honda’s mechanical bits have reached their optimal operating temperatures, I task the engine with more zealous throttle inputs. As interesting as it is to see how easily the engine spins between 2 000 and 3 000 rpm – where there is enough torque for simply pottering around – it’s far happier when the needle swings to the 8 000 rpm redline (the rev limit is 8 300, as a matter of fact).
As a source of driving enjoyment, a high-revving, naturally-aspirated engine offers rich rewards and the NSX’s 3.0-litre V6 (delivering 201 kW) must be one of the best examples ever made.
Whenever you squeeze the Honda’s accelerator, its motor responds immediately. In fact, it revs with far greater willingness than a number of modern engines that I have experienced. It almost feels as if there is no flywheel at the back of the motor!
The NSX builds speed briskly and, as the redline approaches, the engine sound that emanates from behind your shoulders and that metallic rasp from the flat-tipped exhaust tips intensify. One can only marvel at the fact that the 3.0-litre unit, which is equipped with titanium connecting rods, sounds and feels as if it could continue to spin forth to at least 10 000 rpm.
The NSX has an all-aluminium monocoque in combination with a forged aluminium suspension and its ride quality, helped by the supercar’s relatively high-profile tires, is impressively pliant. While negotiating a mountain pass, the car’s lightness makes it easy to change direction; the Honda feels well-planted along the twisty coastal road. The steering is power-assisted, but offers more than enough feedback. When driving through town, it’s palpably easy to pilot the car and visibility over the nose is good.
In its 1994 “Performance Car of the Year” issue, the erstwhile British magazine Performance Car described the Honda NSX as “the most complete, subtly rewarding supercar experience this side of £100k.”
I once read an article about South African-born Formula One and McLaren F1 road-car designer Gordon Murray. Not only did he own a Honda NSX, but he was quoted as saying that he drew inspiration from it while he was developing that legendary BMW-engined (and 3-seater) McLaren supercar – a major feather in the NSX’s cap.
Ferrari and Honda’s approach to a supercar was vastly different. But thankfully, both the 348 and NSX offer such special and very memorable driving experiences that it doesn’t matter which key you take, you are all but guaranteed that you will be rewarded as a driver and have a smile etched on your face. While the Ferrari is probably the one that you might prefer to have in your garage, I can’t ignore the NSX with its sublime engine, super-slick gearbox and broader usability – elements making it a winner for some.
1994 Honda NSX
Engine: 3.0-litre, V6, petrol
Power: 201 kW @ 7 300 rpm
Torque: 285 Nm @ 6 500 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual, RWD
Weight: 1 370 kg
0-100 km/h: 6.0 seconds
Top speed: 270 km/h
1990 Ferrri 348 TS
Engine: 3.4-litre, V8, petrol
Power: 221 kW @ 7 200 rpm
Torque: 323 Nm @ 4 200 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual, RWD
Weight: 1 403 kg
0-100 km/h: 5.6 seconds
Top speed: 275 km/h