Ferrari 348 vs Honda NSX vs Lotus Esprit
By Greg MacLeman
Funny thing, fashion. One moment you’re sporting
the latest threads and a cutting-edge haircut, the next you’re
being ribbed mercilessly by kids who think New Order is a proscribed
But just imagine the looks on their faces when it
all comes back around, and the things we once considered slightly
uncool become desirable again.
suggesting you step outside wearing bellbottoms or a mullet, but
where once it took a brave man to consider buying one of the crop
of unloved junior supercars from the late ’80s and early ’90s,
you now find wisdom. It’s a rising market, and there’s
never been a better time to add a Ferrari 348, Honda NSX or Lotus
Esprit to your garage.
The 348 carried over many cues from the poster pin-up Testarossa
The reigning champion is always held to a higher
standard than its rivals. That was certainly true of the Ferrari
348, which not only bore the burden of expectation that comes with
the famous Prancing Horse, but also from Maranello itself, which
hoped to match the financial success of the 328.
Just as the outgoing model aped the styling of the
Berlinetta Boxer, the 348 carried over many cues from the poster
pin-up Testarossa, blending a sleek nose with the trademark slatted
side air intakes that provided cooling for the radiators and oil
The horizontal lines continued around the back of
the car and across the rear lights, again mimicking the personality
of the range-topping flat-12 and cementing the impression of an
entry-level Testarossa that has been shrunk in the wash.
The comparison with its bigger brother has become
less glaring as the years have rolled by, allowing the 348 to move
out from behind the redhead’s shadow and be considered on
its own merits – of which there are many.
for one, seems to have improved with age, and the long-term owner
of ‘our’ 348ts has tweaked things further by colour-coding
the lower skirts and removable targa-style roof, both of which were
black when it left the factory.
Clockwise from top: lower skirts and roof have been
colour-matched to the rest of the car; distinctive-sounding flat-plane-crank
V8; rich interior feels the most special here
The cabin brings to mind the epic Ferrari road cars
of the past, from 250 to Daytona and beyond. It’s a simple
recipe of lavish tan hide and purposeful black steering wheel, plus
the signature tall gearlever with a round ball standing proud above
the exposed, polished H-gate.
It’s spacious and surprisingly practical,
and even clambering in and out can be managed with a degree of elegance
you wouldn’t normally associate with a supercar.
The drivetrain, meanwhile, was shared with the Mondial
t and comprised a 3405cc 90º V8 with Bosch Motronic 2.7 fuel
injection, which was mounted longitudinally amidships and paired
with a transverse dogleg five-speed ’box.
Under the skin,
the 348 featured a steel-panel semi-integrated bodyshell with a
tubular rear subframe, along with double-wishbone suspension front
and rear, and a respectable kerbweight of 1393kg.
The firmly sprung 348 developed a reputation for
tricky handling on the limit, but on the track it has magnificent
With 300bhp on tap, the 348 was always going to
be lively, but what strikes you first is just how driveable this
The gearchange is mechanical and deliberate; it
doesn’t like to be rushed, but take your time, be purposeful
in your movements and, once the oil has had a chance to thoroughly
warm through, it’s a delight, rewarding confident shifts with
a mechanical ‘clack’ that again harks back to Ferraris
The clutch is remarkably light, and sympathetic
to the ignorance that comes with stepping into a car for the first
time. First is short, the V8 comfortably the most highly strung
motor of our trio and the keenest to rev from low down.
On-hand expert Mark Hawkins from Rardley Motors
suggests changing straight from first to third – a habit picked
up during a career spent avoiding the weak second synchros on 328s
– and it proves sound advice. Skipping the second cog takes
some of the venom out of the 348’s acceleration when you’re
When you’re not, this thing really shifts.
Bury the throttle and it will blast to 60mph in just 5.4 secs, with
a linear power delivery that feels more manageable than that of
the turbocharged Lotus.
Keep it buried
and the 348 will eventually hit 173mph in top, but wind up the revs
in any gear and you’ll be rewarded with a manic howl that
neither of its rivals can match. The noise is addictive, and the
car so user-friendly that it isn’t long before you’re
blipping on downshifts and swapping cogs just for fun.
Distinctive white wheels and black roof for hottest
Despite Pininfarina’s involvement in both
the Ferrari 348 and the early Honda HP-X concept, the Italian and
Japanese cars are poles apart visually.
Side by side, it’s difficult to believe they
both broke cover in the same year, with the Ferrari looking as if
it has one foot in a 1980s world of rolled-up blazers and shoulder
pads, while the NSX was a vision of the future – if a slightly
ungainly one at times.
Part of the problem was its long tail, a result
of Honda chiefs’ insistence on meeting luggage-capacity targets,
but it has grown into that quirk as the years have passed.
The advanced nature of the NSX is more remarkable
when you consider the length of time it took to get from the draughtsman’s
table to showrooms: six years in total. So long, in fact, that it
was originally conceived as a rival to Ferrari’s 328.
In engineering terms, the NSX was light years ahead,
being the first production car to feature an all-aluminium monocoque.
The engine, too, was special, the 2977cc naturally
aspirated V6 showcasing the firm’s VTEC variable valve timing
system, which combined low-down torque with peak power via a second,
more aggressive central cam profile activated at 5800rpm.
Thanks to titanium
conrods, the engine could safely spin to 8300rpm – a dizzying
feat rarely seen away from the track at that point.
Clockwise from top: NSX-R sheds serious weight to
extract more performance; tubular brace gives extra rigidity to
the Honda engine bay; Racy Momo wheel, red seats and suede dash
give it a special feel
The 274bhp powerplant was retained for the Type
R that arrived two years later, but this Japanese domestic market
offering was far from a mere marketing exercise.
Honda engineers began by stripping out a staggering
120kg – quite an achievement given the lengths taken to reduce
weight during the design of the original.
Aluminium was used extensively, with slimmer bumpers
mounted to lightweight beams, plus alloy door bars and a hollow
brace bisecting the engine bay. A composite engine cover was added,
and the insulating panel that hid the engine was replaced by black
mesh. Even the glass used to separate the cockpit from the engine
bay was lighter, with single glazing in place of the double-glazed
Weight-saving continued inside, with luxuries such
as air-conditioning, stereo, central locking and powered mirrors
scrapped, and leather seats replaced by carbon-aramid composite
Recaro buckets trimmed in racy red fabric.
wheel (and its airbag) was swapped for a Momo item, and the gearlever
for a stubby titanium shifter said to be modelled on that in the
McLaren-Honda F1 car. They’re nice touches that hugely improve
the restrained – and, frankly, rather boring – interior
of the NSX.
NSX-R is the sweetest drive here – by far
The changes don’t look big on paper, but on
the road the NSX-R is far greater than the sum of its parts –
or indeed the lack of them.
Among the modifications was a drop in ride height
of 10mm, with firmer springs and Showa dampers stiffening the front
end, which reduces the front-biased weight transfer that could make
the standard car tricky on the limit.
As a result, you can push harder and with greater
confidence, while acceleration also feels more raucous – at
last with the theatre to match the performance thanks to a freer-flowing
quad-pipe sports exhaust.
The NSX-R is by far the sweetest drive here, with
a light clutch that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Civic
and a snappy, positive gearbox with a wonderfully short throw.
legs and this heated-up NSX feels appreciably faster than the Ferrari,
with a noticeable kick when the trick valve timing comes into play.
Keep going and past 8000rpm the V6 really sings, finally finding
the voice that was missing from the standard car. Cornering is predictable
and assured, too, with the combination of a 10% boost in the power-to-weight
ratio and a limited-slip diff encouraging you to try ever harder.
Wider rear arches, fatter tyres and smoked lenses
add a menace to the already purposeful Lotus
After the missile-like NSX-R, the Lotus seems a
bit antiquated, with the ghost of the original Giugiaro-penned Esprit
still clear to see.
Peter Stevens’ 1987 redesign modernised the
car to a degree, refreshed again by Julian Thomson in ’93.
The latter thankfully dropped Morris Marina doorhandles in favour
of those from a Rover 200 – more of an improvement than it
sounds – but the car remained a bit of a parts-bin special,
with tail-lights borrowed from the Toyota AE86 and switchgear from
various GM models.
S4S is further tweaked by the addition of a one-off set of fat arches
and a modified rear bumper made by Lotus for a customer’s
Sport 300 after he complained about stone-chips. The Esprit is hardly
a shrinking violet anyway, but the beefier bodykit gives the wedge
S4S is the pick of the four-cylinder Esprits; charge-cooled
Garrett turbo boosts the twin-cam ‘four’ to 300bhp;
cabin offers more space than earlier Esprits
It also feels the most wild inside. You sit low
and far back, in a hard, sculpted seat that is more tailored brogue
than training shoe. The steering wheel, dashboard and gearlever
are upright, and there isn’t much to see out of the back thanks
to the rear spoiler: any reversing manoeuvre requires you to hang
out of the window.
Overall, the cockpit brings to mind those out-there
concept cars of the ’70s – such as the Maserati Boomerang
that begat Giugiaro’s original Esprit – and that wonderful
view beneath the waves seared into the memory of anyone who grew
up on a diet of James Bond films.
The S4S isn’t
quite the last four-cylinder Esprit, an honour that befell the 1996-’99
GT3, but it’s certainly the most accomplished, blending the
comfort and usability of the S4 with the stomach-churning pace of
the Sport 300, whose 2174cc turbocharged lump it shares.
Esprit is strikingly stable at high speed
The Lotus is far and away the angriest of the three,
and constantly seems to be trying to make up for its lack of cylinders
– shouting and spitting until you fully commit to the accelerator.
It’s lumpy, gravelly and seemingly in a constant state of
irritation while manoeuvring out of the car park, becoming more
at ease with speed.
The turbo is about as subtle as a brick to the back
of the head, but never fails to elicit childish giggles that are
almost immediately stifled by a sharp intake of breath; it’s
seriously quick, surging as boost and cams combine at around 5000rpm.
Because its model lineage goes back the furthest,
it’s easy to assume that the ethos of homespun tinkering that
brought Lotus such success in the carburettor era might not translate
to a modern supercar – but you’d be wrong.
The Esprit is strikingly stable at high speed, with
its power steering – first introduced on the S4 – weighting
up beautifully. It feels planted and grippy, aided by the wider
rubber fitted front and rear to Tidman’s example, which gives
it the look of the X180R that dominated IMSA in 1992.
The one area
where the glassfibre-bodied Lotus falls down in comparison to its
Japanese rival is in terms of build quality. Lean on it hard and
you’ll hear the odd rattle and creak, a reminder that it was
pieced together by Rogers and Reginalds rather than robots, a world
away from the kaizen production lines of Japan.
There’s little to choose between these three
Despite how comparable these cars are in terms of
price and performance, it’s difficult to imagine the owner
of one suddenly waking in a cold sweat and realising they’ve
made the wrong choice.
An NSX enthusiast is unlikely to be drawn to the
reliability and build quality of an Esprit. Likewise, an Esprit
keeper would baulk at the running costs of the Ferrari. And the
348 owner, who has invested in the prestige and passion of the Prancing
Horse, probably won’t have their trousers set alight by the
computer-controlled precision of the Honda.
Yet you don’t have to spend long with these
cars to realise that their reputations are largely undeserved. The
Ferrari is cheaper to run than you might think; the Esprit can be
endlessly fettled, the flaws associated with its being built by
men in sheds invariably sorted out by… men in sheds; and the
NSX is brought to life by the improvements that come with its ‘R’
With so little to choose between them, which to
take home depends on personal preference – and whether you
spent your childhood watching Miami Vice or The Spy Who Loved Me.
But for a man who wasted his youth staring at the
pixelated perfection of Gran Turismo’s Suzuka, trying to emulate
the twinkling loafers of Ayrton Senna, it’s impossible to
see beyond the NSX-R. Honda engineers took an already brilliant
car and turned it into a legend.
Images: Luc Lacey
All prices correct at date of original publication
“The value of early cars depends very much on age, mileage
and service history – most likely to be specialist rather
than main dealer now,” says Mark Hawkins of Rardley Motors.
“Expect to pay £35-55k for a right-hand-drive
tb or ts. From 1991-’93 the build quality was greatly improved,
and in 1994 they were uprated to the 320bhp GTB/GTS. Values of these
later models have levelled in the past few years, but you can pay
as much as £65,000.”
“Values have risen markedly in the past few years,”
says Graham Horgan of NSX specialist Plans Performance, “but
the Honda lags behind the equivalent Porsche or Ferrari. They’re
still undervalued, both in price and reputation as an engineering
“Automatics are considerably cheaper: £30-40k
for a reasonable 1991-’95 auto, compared to £40-50k
for the equivalent manual. Post-’02 facelift cars are £70-90k,
with the R starting at six figures.”
Lotus Esprit S4S
“The ‘Stevens’ Esprit came out in ’87, and
was much improved by the involvement of Toyota,” says Lotus
guru Paul Matty. “The market has yet to catch up with SEs
and they represent really good buys, with tatty cars from as little
as £15,000 and good examples up to £30k; expect to pay
£20-30k for a GT3 or S4.
“That’s the starting point for the best
model, the S4S – the looks of the V8, without the headaches.
Top, low-mileage cars reach £50-60,000.”
Sold/number built 1989-’94/8720
Construction steel semi-monocoque with steel, plastic and aluminium
body panels Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 3405cc V8, Bosch Motronic
Max power 300bhp @ 7000rpm
Max torque 237lb ft @ 4000rpm
Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
Suspension independent, by wishbones, coils, telescopic dampers;
anti-roll bar f/r
Steering rack and pinion
Brakes ventilated discs, with servo
Length 13ft 10in (4230mm)
Width 6ft 3in (1894mm)
Height 3ft 10in (1170mm)
Wheelbase 8ft (2450mm)
Weight 3071lb (1393kg)
0-60mph 5.4 secs
Top speed 173mph
Price new £67,499
Sold/number built 1990-2005/18,685 [1992-’95/483]
Construction aluminium monocoque Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank
2977cc V6, with sequential multi-point fuel injection and VTEC variable
Max power 274bhp @ 7300rpm
Max torque 224lb ft @ 5300rpm
Transmission five-speed manual, RWD Suspension double wishbones,
coilover telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar f/r
Steering rack and pinion
Brakes ventilated discs, with ABS
Length 14ft 61/2in (4430mm)
Width 6ft 11in (1810mm)
Height 3ft 10in (1170mm)
Wheelbase 8ft 31/2in (2530mm)
Weight 3010lb (1365kg) [2745lb (1245kg)]
0-60mph 5.6 secs [4.9 secs]
Top speed 168mph
Price new £55,000 [¥9,707,000]
Sold/number built 1994-’97/367
Construction steel backbone chassis, glassfibre body Engine all-alloy,
dohc 2174cc ‘four’, with Garrett T3/4 turbo and multi-point
Max power 300bhp @ 7000rpm
Max torque 290lb ft @ 3600rpm
Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones rear upper
and lower transverse links, radius arms; coil springs, telescopic
dampers, anti-roll bar f/r
Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
Brakes discs, with servo and ABS Length 14ft 53/4in (4413mm)
Width 6ft 2in (1880mm)
Height 3ft 91/4in (1149mm)
Wheelbase 7ft 111/3in (2420mm)
Weight 3219lb (1460kg)
0-60mph 4.6 secs
Top speed 168mph
Price new £52,995