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S54 M Coupe vs Aston Martin V8 Vantage, Acura NSX

Bill Phillips is fortunate to have owned three of my all time favorite cars (he’s a man of good taste). Here’s how his S54 M Coupe compared to his 2006 Aston Martin V8 and 1992 Acura NSX:

I sold my Cosmos Black S54 powered M Coupe in 2009 after 2 years of stewardship. I have been blessed with the ability to own this car, a 1992 NSX (since 1995) and a 2006 V8 Vantage (since new) simultaneously.

M Coupe

Primarily a track day pleasure, I only put 7-8K miles on the M Coupe. I added the TC Kline D/A suspension, some track pads and enjoyed several lapping sessions in the car. I would recommend this setup to anyone looking for a ride or performance improvement.

It’s a bit twitchy for most, the short wheelbase being the primary culprit.  Softening the rear dampers helped, but it is still a car that can get out of shape in a hurry.  Lurid slides at 95 MPH were not uncommon, as were ass-first-both-feet-in forays into the weeds.

I liked the M Coupe for it’s rough and tumble demeanor. If you want to be a hooligan, this is a pretty good car to do it in.  The S54 has power everywhere in the rev range with ample grunt to break the tires.  Great sight lines for picking your apex due to the high seating position and low beltline.  Loved the controversial look, too though this is certainly subjective!  Wouldn’t dream of owning the convertible version of the car or the less endowed versions.  Rarity was a plus along with the definite front engine / rear drive dynamics.

Dislikes?  The M Coupe is not very comfortable for those 6″-0″ or over due to the close proximity of the rear bulkhead. There are driveline concerns over the rear subframe, and the clutch takeup is a little squishy.  The Z3 architecture doesn’t lend the feeling of specialness, and the curb weight seems a little high for a car of this size. The sunroof delete model would be preferred if track time is in the cards not only for the weight savings but for helmet clearance.  As most BMW’s do, the car has a “heavy” feel derived from the large steering wheel, manly gear change and porky curb weight.

I sold the car (along with a MkV R32) due to economic conditions and other priorities. I have inquired with the young man that purchased the car as to the possibility of getting it back. No dice. I still visit the M Coupe Buyers Guide to see what’s out there and possibly get another. I miss this little car.

Aston V8 Vantage

I waited almost 2 years from initial deposit to receive the first customer car delivered in the U.S.  It’s a stunningly beautiful car and remains one of the best sorted designs on the road. With other track day weapons around, I have not tracked the car, as it might feel “abusive”. I have tracked factory Vantages and I can report that the handling is predictable, stable and easy to control with a muscular soundtrack The curb weight spoils the fun here at near 3600 pounds.  I think the early cars need a better low speed ride, and the later models addressed this issue. Unlike many, I am not a fan of the 2007 and later seats and think the 06 seats look better and are more comfortable, though access to the package area is via a poorly placed lever that is a little aggravating.  Spec on the early cars is a little sparse by modern standards, lacking dual climate controls, adjustable dampers or even an automatic gearbox (like you want one anyway) in 2006.  Visibility is great, once you learn to judge where the front of the car is. No B pillar sets up an easy swivel of the head to check blind spots, and the wing like mirror mounts leave a nice opening at the base of the A pillar. Most modern cars can eclipse the moon with the mirrors integrated into the pillar.
 
I feel the Vantage is more of a reasonably priced (second hand!), exclusive tourer than sports car. Maybe this is down to how I use it, but to drive this car at 10/10th’s will be expensive and not, in my opinion, especially rewarding. Dynamics are much like a 944 Turbo I once owned with similar drivetrain layout, with easy to read slides and slow rotation.  The first thing you will notice about the powerband is that there isn’t much poke down low and the throttle feels as if there is slack in there somewhere. Definitely lacking the edgy feel of a current 911S or even the M Coupe.  The lavish ambience of the car and sense of occasion are it’s most redeeming values. A dinner out with the valet not handing you a ticket is cool.  Admiring glances on every corner are appreciated at times.  Being challenged by every hot Camaro and Mustang and knowing you will be left for dead is not cool. The Vantage is competent in every way, beautifully constructed, even reliable. But Aston was caught off guard by the Horsepower wars of the past decade and handicapped by the existing VH architecture to be at the top of this segment.

Acura NSX

This is a car that forced the sports car establishment to pay attention. Still great to drive with the best view forward of anything out there. The 3.0 liter VTEC motor is a gem, with a mad rush to the 8K redline that brings to mind a good sport bike. More exciting to listen to than any cooking Porsche or BMW.  Once acclimated to the cabin, it is a comfortable car for trips and will even hold 2 golf bags in the trunk….  take that 911.

In the track, this car sounds and steers like a race car.  Better suited to fast sweepers than hairpins with the longish wheelbase, the handling is less forgiving than the M Coupe if tire pressures are off.  Depending upon rims sizes chosen, the tail can be very snap happy at speed. Careful in the rain !  I think the transverse engine placement might leave the car with a bit too much rear weight bias, but you couldn’t convince a Porschephile of that.  The steering is very detailed and lets you know what’s going on up front. Early models have no boost, so parking maneuvers might find the wife choosing another car for a run down to the mall….  darn it!

If you compare this car to its contemporaries from 1991, I think this might be the best sports car money could buy. NSX race cars won races for many years past its prime.  I’m disappointed that Honda has chosen not to update this car and provide a Japanese 911 alternative.  Drive this car back to back with any similar age Corvette, 300ZX, RX-7, 348, 911, 944 and most will feel like trucks by comparison. Indeed, it does feel almost fragile, but it’s most definitely not.  Oh, if you track the car, you will want a brake upgrade, and you may go through a few clutches if driven poorly. The 5 speed gear ratios are too tall for quick acceleration, so short gears, 4.35 ring gear or 6 speed from a later car would be advised.  If you are a purist, leave the targa alone. You can tell a rigidity difference in the first 50 feet of driving, and the top off experience is just not that good.  If a prospective buyer could find a ’97 or later coupe (good luck) it would provide the extra poke of the 3.2L, the additional ratio, plus the pure driving experience of the coupe. In 15 years of ownership, I have repaired the CD changer, the AC coil, a speaker and one clutch. A man on a tight budget can own and enjoy an NSX.

Think about this. The Lotus Evora is 20 years newer than the NSX, but doesn’t significantly improve on it in any area, given modern tire / wheel sizes are applied to the Acura.

Out to nice dinner? Vantage
Out to the track? M Coupe
Need one car for both? NSX

So where do I go from here? I’m thinking of a late model GT3, but if the McLaren MP4-12C comes in as a 220K car and not an “almost 300K” car, I might take the plunge.  Seems it could combine the best attributes of all the above machines in a 2900 pound package with 600 HP.  It’s what a 2011 model NSX should be given proper evolution of the species.

If you have a comparison to share, please send it to me at jon@mcoupebuyersguide.com and I’ll post it.

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Jon Martin
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