The Berlin Wall has crumbled to paperweights, reading presidential lips suddenly became as unreliable as reading minds, and Southern California real estate is no longer a platinum hedge. Yet here's the absolute shocker of an audacious year: a Honda that costs $60,000. Or $64,000 with automatic. But only if you own the dealership. Tightly limited supplies of the new, pivotal, radical and very rapid Honda/Acura NSX sports car already have created a scalper's market. Only 5,000 of the cars will be made this year, and only 3,000 of those will come to the United States. Sooffers of $100,000 are being whispered. A physician in Tennessee, according to Auto Week magazine, is offering his first place on a dealer's NSX waiting list for $33,000. A Florida broker is ready to pay dealers $10,000 above their sticker prices. It's a repeat of Miata Mania--yet a display of frantics that will surprise only those who still believe Japanese automobile manufacturers make unemotional motorcycles, build super gasoline generators and really know how to recycle lawn mowers into commuter cars. The truth of this matter: Honda's maiden vehicle exports were two motorcycles shipped to Okinawa in 1957. That was three years before Nissan came to the United States. In the short generation since: * Of all new automobiles sold in California, 50% are imported. When it comes to reliable, thrifty, pretty, zippy, little imported cars, Japan owns the showroom. * Lexus and Infiniti have grabbed the luxury performance car market by the lapels. Mercedes, Jaguarand BMW aren't exactly shaking in their Connelly leather britches, but the big dogs are reducing prices or introducing less expensive entry-level vehicles. * Now comes a hefty sports car, the fastest, most expensive Japanese car ever, to raid and plunder the stables of Ferrari and Porsche, builders of lusty exotics that offer performance close to thespeed of thought. And the Acura NSX, this car that will be king of Acura, Honda's upscale division, is offering easily in its first year what others have struggled to deliver after more than four decades of development. The competition are gladiators all. From Italy, weighing in at $103,000, the Ferrari 348. From Germany, where the motor car was born a century ago, the Porsche 911 Carrera at $72,000. From the United States, wearing skinned knuckles and drinking Budweiser from the can, comes the Corvette ZR-1 at $60,000. In earlier cultures, these cars would be considered talismans to be buried alongside their masters. Top speeds usually exceed a driver's weight. They are useless for anything but going fast and reminding the self-indulgent of their limitations. They certainly do not kiss back. The NSX snarls with the baddest. Yet it doesn't roar louder than the toughest. Externally, from any view, whether seeing styling or examining aer odynamic design, the NSX is superb and doubtless one of the most handsome cars ever. The cabin-forward design starts with a short nose and a gentle slope reserved for high-performance vehicles built to slide beneath and shove aside obstructive air. Just like a Group C racing car. Amidships--and for the full length of the doors--twin horizontal lines leading to rear fuselage air scoops visually lower the car and accent its Nutra-Slim look. The roof line resembles a canopy, and the rear rises to an aerofoil; the profile is of a jet fighter's vertical stabilizer. That's no accident: In its search for the optimum silhouette of speed and purpose, Acura researched America's aeronautical designs, in particular General Dynamics' F-16 Fighting Falcon. From an engineering standpoint, the NSX is probably a decade ahead of its time. Here is a car with an all-aluminum monocoque body and subframe, and at 460 pounds, the chassis weighs less than a sumo wrestling tag team. The suspension is cast aluminum (mounted on a nice piece of walnut, the wishbones would make sensational bookends), with a unique, additional strut to prevent the front wheels from kicking out of true when riding road bumps. The engine uses lighter, stronger (and frightfully expensive) titanium connecting rods. There's also something called a Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control System (VTEC), an automatic orchestration of cams and valves. In essence, it creates a 20-horsepower reserve that is uncorked only when the car's performance must graduate from serious to competitive. On fighter aircraft, it used to be called combat boost. The interior is five-star and flawless. Leather-covered seats are closer to custom chairs with a full, but unobtrusive shoulder support for tighter turns. These are better than the most expensive custom seats by Recaro. Vision would only be better if your head were inside a goldfish bowl. There's even clear sighting to back corners and directly behind the car, a weak spot among mid-engined cars that traditionally have had gun slits for rear windows. The engine note is a ripper. The shifter couldn't be smoother in buttermilk. Headroom is just enough for anyone 6-foot-4. There's sufficient luggage space for a weekend away with even overdressed beloveds, although the trunk is set against the engine, so be prepared for hot baggage. Or it may be used to warm take-out lasagna. Only one fault: Lighting is dim on digital displays telling the driver what the radio and climate controls are supposed to be doing. In sunlight, they disappear entirely. But with its thinner air bag fabric (for a smaller lump in the steering wheel) to automatic traction control (which completely tames the overcontrol buffoon in all of us), the car is a technological marvel. If only Honda/Acura had moved a little faster. For the NSX was conceived in 1983. Its announced targets at that time were the Porsche 911, the Chevrolet Corvette and the Ferrari 328. And the Acura NSX clearly is superior to all three. But they were cars of seven years ago, and in the development cycle since, Porsche has produced the all-wheel drive Carrera 4. Chevrolet built a day of thunder it called the ZR-1. And Ferrari recently began selling the 348ts. We have driven them all. The NSX generally is superior in engineering, design and technology, but only a peer in performance. In the hands of the average to better driver, nothing corners sweeter, flatter and safer than the all-wheel Carrera 4. The NSX is only a rear-wheel drive vehicle. No sports car offers more muscle for the buck than the Corvette ZR-1. The NSX isn't quite so quick from zero to 60 m.p.h. and has a slightly slower top speed. The Ferrari 348ts can claim an identical edge at the top end. And in its maiden year, the NSX cannot possibly match the 40- year racing heritage, mystique, exclusivity and visceral appeal of Ferrari. In 1983, Acura's 3-liter engine and 270 horsepower were a significant threat to the opposition. But in 1990, that engine has lightened a little alongside the 3.4 liters (290 horsepower) of Ferrari, the 3.6 liters (247 horsepower) of Porsche and the 3.5 liters (375 horsepower) of the Corvette ZR-1. Acura officials have heard the comparisons, express no concerns and counter with some acceptable arguments. The ZR-1, they said, survives only on brute strength. Handling is coarse, and the fit and finish barely American average. Porsche Carrera? A tired, 25-year-old design, they said, on the life-support system of modern technology. Also more expensive than the NSX. Ferrari 348ts? A purist's car and a hard drive. And twice as expensive as the NSX. Would that our road test could have produced an honest conclusion. Or, at the very least, some understanding of t e near-total canonization of the NSX by automotive magazines. But our test car had been their test car. It was production prototype 007 that had been ridden hard and put away wet by motoring journalists from the United States, Canada and Japan. Even dealers got to lap this one at 150-m.p.h. So, at 4,400 miles, the car was close to the end of its career as a performance punching bag. But we took the NSX to Willow Springs Raceway anyway. Enough of its heart remained to be impressive on some smart laps of the facility's secondary circuit, the tight, often tortuous Streets of Willow Springs. The car has grip and balance, and when its ends get loose, the wagging is both predictable and correctable. Even adjusting to the car's oversteer snap-roll (created when over-correcting a drifting tail, failing to catch lateral forces and blushing when stored energy whips the car in the opposite direction), quickly becomes a reflex because the buildup and release is so constant. The steering, which is unassisted, seemed a little on the thick side, and that created a heavy turn-in. And there was a constant understeer. But on the highway, lightness and feel return, and the register is perfect. Track. Highway. Those dual personalities, and the broad division between polite jogger and Olympic athlete, is the enormous gift of the Acura NSX. In traffic, around town, harumphing through clotted freeways or settled down on a pleasant and legal run along the coast to Santa Barbara, the NSX is relaxed and terribly smooth. It is a touring car. But when the going gets tough and the tough get rambunctious, quick shifts and a heavy foot unleash that extra horsepower in the higher engine ranges. And the NSX becomes a race car. Then that mid-engine sets up serious wails behind a driver's right ear and the moment rises to a breathtaking blur in search of a checkered flag. It is pure performance, even Ferrari pace, and certainly with Porsche's poise. In truth, being a Ferrari for the masses most certainly isn't a bad place to occupy. Especially when one considers that Acura has earned that heady spot in the Major Leagues from its first at bat. Honda officials acknowledge that with huge development costs and limited production numbers, the NSX--which goes on sale Wednesday--will not be a money maker. But they do expect it to be an image-enhancer for the Acura line. It also is worth noting that Porsche, Ferrari and Chevrolet are not known for nimbleness of product development. Japanese car builders are. And senior types at Honda are not reluctant to discuss tomorrow's NSX, enlarging that V-6, adding turbocharging and all-wheel drive--and noting how quickly they can bring a second generation NSX to market. Then watch out. 1991 Acura NSX The Good Handsome, fighter-plane looks. Superb appointments, per fect ergonomics amid total comfort. Ferrari for everyone. Smooth, effortless, genuine high performer. Or gentle street car. The Bad Does not outperform the competition. Tendency to understeer. Slightly heavy low-speed steering. The Ugly Still looking. Cost Base: $60,000 As tested $60,000 (with automatic, $64,000) Engine 3 liter, 24-valve V-6, developing 270 horsepower Type Two-seat, mid-engined, high-performance sports car. No convertible available. Performance 0-60 m.p.h. (as tested), 5.9 seconds. Top speed, (manufacturer's estimate) 168 m.p.h. Fuel economy, EPA city-highway, 21 and 31 m.p.g. Curb Weight 2,985 pounds.