Short on confidence, long on potential
Of all the cars in showrooms, you’d think a supercar should be the most confident. It would know its exact purpose. It wouldn’t make compromises for people who don’t immediately understand that purpose. “Here I am, suckers,” it might say. “Love me or hate me.”
Honda‘s gods of engineering once gave us exactly such a car. The original NSX was constructed of lightweight aluminum and with the same simplicity of purpose and delicate engineering as Honda’s other products. It made do with just six cylinders—no excess, thank you—but the V-6 had titanium connecting rods and a new thing called VTEC, and it spun the entire automotive world into an 8,000-rpm frenzy.
The Pininfarina-styled NSX lacked some of the soul of Italian supercars, but it taught all of them a lesson: You can, in fact, make a supercar that works. The NSX started when you turned the key and then continued to run. You could drive it in traffic with the A/C on without it overheating. It didn’t leak oil. Hell, you could even see out of the damn thing. This was a supercar you could actually live with.
That was a quarter of a century ago, and entire car companies have come and gone in the years since. In the intervening NSX-less years, Honda’s been struggling to find its performance groove. Even when it did decide to build another performance halo, Honda couldn’t decide what form it should take.
In 2007, we were shown the Acura Advanced Sports Car Concept with a V-10 mounted under its front hood. Prototypes were seen testing, but the project was ultimately cancelled. Four years later, Acura unveiled the NSX Concept, which like the original NSX used a transversely mounted V-6. Again, development got far enough to build prototypes—but alas, that car was scrapped, too.
Finally, earlier this year, we saw the concept of the car that has made it into production. It shares its basic styling language with the previous two cars, but its V-6 has been given two turbos and mounted longitudinally.
Can you imagine Ferrari promising the 488 GTB’s successor for an entire decade, showing it first as a front-engine GT; then a transverse, mid-engine hybrid; and then finally turning the engine 90 degrees, turbocharging it, and having to completely re-engineer the car from the outside in—and stretching it 3 inches in length and an inch in width to accommodate the new powertrain? This kind of unclear direction isn’t just showing your hand too early, and it’s not just a waste of time and money. It’s a sign that Honda is having a hard time figuring what its own flagship should be. And, by extension, what the Acura brand even means.
Acura’s latest models—TLX and ILX—are badge-engineered versions of existing Honda cars. So it’s clear that the NSX has one big job: to show the world that Acura actually means business.
The NSX uses an aluminum space-frame and carbon-fiber floor with both aluminum and SMC (plastic) body panels to be as light as possible. Then it adds weight back via a hybrid system and battery of undisclosed capacity. Its front-mounted twin-motor unit contains two 36-hp, 54-lb-ft electric motors. Since they power each front wheel independently, they provide real, honest-to-god torque vectoring. The ingenious TMU is similar to the one at the rear of the RLX Sport Hybrid, which means there’s a maximum road speed at which the motors can provide propulsion and regen. Above that speed (124 mph (200 km/h)) the NSX switches to rear-drive but can still use the motors to vector by adding drag to one side and propulsion to the other in equal amounts.
The V-6 isn’t Honda’s off-the-shelf 60-degree V-6. That engine, which was in the 2012 concept, wasn’t powerful enough. Honda’s Ohio R & D team, which headed up the NSX project, asked Japan for a more powerful engine, and it delivered an all-new, bespoke twin-turbo V-6 for the NSX project. The turbos—or their cooling needs, rather—are what dictated the switch to the longitudinal layout. Honda then increased the engine’s vee angle from 60 degrees to 75, which lowered the heads—and thus the engine’s center of mass—as well as strengthened the crankshaft, as the crankpin offset was reduced from 60 to 45 degrees.
The non-VTEC, non-balance-shafted, port- and direct-injected, DOHC, 24-valve, 3,493cc V-6 produces 500 hp from 6,500 to its 7,500-rpm redline, along with a 406-lb-ft plateau of torque, available from 2,000 to 6,000 rpm. Like all high-specific-output turbo engines, the 143 hp-per-liter V-6 uses big turbos to provide boost (up to 15.2 psi) and thus suffers from significant turbo lag. To mask that, the NSX’s three electric motors assist while the turbos are spooling. Both front motors are there to help, as well as a 47-hp, 109-lb-ft motor sandwiched between the V-6 and the nine-speed wet dual-clutch automatic.
You can hear the turbos while you’re driving, but you won’t believe they’re actually there. The relationship between your right foot and the engine’s output is so incredibly linear that you’d swear on your life that the NSX’s engine was naturally aspirated. At higher road speeds, where the electric motors’ output drops relative to the gas engine’s, you can feel some lag, but only if you’re looking for it. This, kids, is the proper way of dealing with turbo lag in a supercar. Ferrari, take note.
Total system output is quoted at 573 hp, and the NSX’s top speed is electronically limited to 191 mph (307 km/h). The run from 0 to 60 mph should take around 3 seconds and is accomplished using an easy-to-activate launch control. These are great numbers from a car that is no featherweight; according to the spec page, the NSX weighs 3,800 pounds (1,724 kg).
The excess weight, of course, comes in part from the hybrid system. The batteries, controllers, and motors together are likely responsible for more than 500 pounds (227 kg). Acura points out that, given the technology used, this is one of those times where you can add weight and complexity to a car in search of a more authentic sports car experience.
Our eyebrows also rose upon hearing that sentence. Then again, every engineer Acura brought along to the press launch was a real, serious Actual Car Guy. We gave them the benefit of the doubt and set out to tackle the twisties.
The first thing you notice inside the NSX is that you can actually see the outside. The car’s (over)styled body demonstrates precisely no lineage to the beautiful, simple original’s, but the low cowl and excellent outward visibility are a clear link. Form takes precedence over function on the NSX’s cabin, but it all works well with two exceptions: first, the touchscreen in the center console, which lacks even a physical volume knob, and second, the silly gear selector, which we’ve found equally unintuitive in other Acura products.
But the seats are supportive and comfortable, the driving position is perfect, there’s more than sufficient headroom for very tall drivers, and the materials look and feel appropriately rich. Just don’t honk the single-note horn, lest your acoustic victims strain their necks looking around for a Geo Metro. (Speaking of car manufacturers that have come and gone since the last NSX made its debut )
Firing up the NSX is somewhat unsettling because it doesn’t have a conventional starter. Rather its engine springs to life like many other hybrids, using the big sandwich motor—there’s no chin-chin-chin sound first, just the sound of the V-6 lighting off. The engine’s note isn’t particularly loud or distinct, except that with the exhaust baffles closed, the exhaust air squeezing through the mufflers sounds almost like a cigarette-lighter-powered tire pump.
Acura fitted the NSX with MR (magnetorheological) dampers, the beauty of which isn’t just a child’s-play crap-ride mode, but that they respond so quickly that they adjust multiple times in the middle of a single bump. Even more important, their huge range of variability is used to control roll, pitch, and squat at each individual corner—i.e. the suspension can be programmed to dramatically alter a car’s dynamic weight distribution. Acura says it’s essentially using the dampers’ phasing to replicate traditional lightweighting, and indeed with MR shocks, software can dramatically change not only how a car feels but also its actual limit-handling characteristics.
Layer on top of that torque vectoring up front (and to some extent in the rear through brake applications) and you suddenly have a car that should be able, in theory, to remain perfectly balanced in all conditions. Imagine our surprise when the first fast corner we attacked with the NSX was met with howling, unfixable-with-the-throttle terminal understeer. There was also absolutely nothing coming through the NSX’s steering. It doesn’t weight up as the front tires approach (and then exceed) their limits of adhesion. The lack of road texture or kickback made it tough to place the front of the NSX on the road or trust it through corners.
There’s a likely reason for the numbness. Torque vectoring at the front axle is a guaranteed recipe for torque steer. Geared to the wheels at 8.5:1, the torque multiplication of the two relatively small motors means they can apply a maximum surpassing 900 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels. And not just in one direction—one wheel can be propelled forward with more than 450 lb-ft while the other is being held back with up to that same force. So of course the NSX’s electric steering system needs to actively filter out that influence, lest the steering wheel be ripped out of your hands. We don’t like the numbness, but at least there’s an engineering reason for it.
The overall level of cornering grip was also slightly disappointing when judged against its peers, but that’s simply a result of the tires Acura chose for the NSX. Its Continental ContiSportContact 5Ps are not the sort of tire you expect to find on a supercar.
Here we are, back to Acura’s somewhat confused mission. Calling the NSX an everyday supercar means, to a rational, literal Honda, that it will be driven every day by Midwestern housewives. As such, it needs to tolerate deep puddles of rainwater; its grip mustn’t trail off excessively at low temperatures; its tires must be quiet on the highway; breakaway at the limit must be smooth and gradual. Those Contis, according to Acura’s engineers, did a magnificent job at those tasks.
But this is a supercar. With an expected base price in excess of $150,000 USD, the NSX isn’t competing with base Porsche 911 Carreras. It’ll be judged against GT3s and Turbos—and Ferraris. For better or worse, the world’s perception of the NSX is that it’s a Big Boy supercar. After all, it has Big Boy horsepower, Big Boy looks, and a Big Boy price. It needs Big Boy tires and Big Boy handling to compete.
I was a ball of nerves when I sat down to dinner with some of the Ohio-based NSX engineers. These guys are the real deal. They race their own cars; they’re drivers; they get it. They weren’t going to be happy with my questions, so I planned an escape route should a steak knife come flying at my jugular. And then started pushing for a reason why the NSX disappointed me.
No knives were thrown, but some strong words did fly back and forth across the table. The strongest ones, however, were these two: Track and Mode.
Like so many modern cars, the NSX comes with multiple drive modes. It starts out in Sport, but you can then enter Quiet should you choose to be acoustically conservative. This mode closes all exhaust baffles and intake resonance tubes, softens throttle response, limits engine speed to 4,000 rpm, and favors engine-off EV operation.
Sport Plus, on the other hand, opens the exhaust, keeps the engine running, and dons more aggressive throttle and shift maps. It also raises steering effort (but of course not feel) and firms up the body motions.
And then there’s Track mode, which requires a multiple-second-long twist of the controller. In this mode, the LCD gauges get angry, the stability control light comes on, the engine gets even louder, and the transmission goes into berserk mode. The throttle is relaxed (because precision drivers never want a jumpy pedal), and the NSX turns from a shock of understeer into an incredibly capable, neutral-handling bolt of lightning.
Little irks me more than hearing about a car being “transformed” in some silly Sport mode when in reality the only difference is the steering is heavier, the throttle map is more aggressive, and the stability control allows a little more wiggle.
This is not what’s happening here.
The NSX is a completely, entirely different handling machine in Track mode. With the endless adjustability of its MR dampers and torque-vectoring front end, the computer can make the kind of changes that would normally require putting a car on a lift and replacing its shocks, springs, and anti-roll bars; installing a different steering rack; and swapping the diffs in its all-wheel-drive system.
In Track mode, the NSX handles like an NSX ought to. It’s neutral on the way into a corner, it remains neutral on the way through, and it explodes out in a perfect diagonal drift like you’ve accomplished only in video games. You don’t get stability control interventions unless you do something really stupid—the instant variability of the dampers and the front wheels means the car can usually figure out a way to get you where you want to go without having to slow you down.
I cannot explain to you the relief I felt after the first session on track in Track mode. And the frustration that went along with it.
See, I didn’t use Track mode on the street, because it’s maddening. The transmission flat-out refuses to allow the engine to go under 4,000 rpm, regardless of how many times you ask it to via the shift paddles. Honda says there’s a 25-decibel volumetric sound difference between Quiet and Track modes—that’s engineer speak for “it’s deafening in loud mode.” And like all V-6s, it’s not a pleasant noise at high revs when under minimal load. In fact, it’s as loud, nasally, and shrill as Jonny Lieberman in the passenger seat, having a screaming orgasm into a megaphone.
Track mode locks out the upper gears even in manual mode, so you still can’t shut the engine up that way. To be honest, the transmission ignores the driver’s requests much of the time in any mode—there is no temporary override in the automatic modes, and if you find yourself in Quiet mode, you can’t go into manual mode at all. This despite an hour-long Powerpoint presentation on the engineers centering on how the NSX has been designed to faithfully do whatever the driver wants.
But when you’re actually on track in Track mode, there’s no need to ask for anything, because the NSX behaves like a Big Boy supercar. The dead steering still doesn’t impart confidence, so we never fully turned off stability control at Northern California’s lined-with-concrete-walls Sonoma Raceway. The NSX’s limit handling was sometimes inconsistent—if you managed to get it to understeer, the front motors don’t have quite enough power to fix it, and as speeds increase, their decreasing grunt means the NSX gradually behaves more and more like a rear-drive, mid-engine machine. But the powertrain’s response is so incredibly, refreshingly linear—again, you would absolutely swear those turbo noises are coming from the speakers—and the NSX laps a racetrack with no overheating and no complaints, just immense speed. Lots and lots and lots of speed.
It’s finally under these conditions that we appreciate the brakes—big, carbon-ceramic rotors (15.0 inches front, 14.2 rear) squeezed tight by Brembo monoblock calipers (six-piston front, four-piston rear). The pedal is so perfectly consistent and linear that you could become suspicious that it’s all too good to be true.
Actually, it isn’t true. There is no physical connection between the brake pedal and the pads—the left pedal is hooked up to a brake-force simulator. A computer determines how much braking to accomplish via electric motor regen (front and rear) and how much pressure to send to the Brembos. The latter is done via a massively powerful electric stepper motor attached directly to the hydraulic master cylinder.
Thanks to that system, there’s no typical hybrid brake-feel misery here, and Acura assures us that the system is watching for brake fade and will alert the driver to it by not only flashing a warning on the dash but also by increasing brake pedal travel. We never got to feel that fade map—because, apparently, we never got close to overheating the brakes.
Not even once the Real Tires went on.
The NSX has an optional tire. One that says Michelin on the sidewall and then the words Pilot Sport Cup 2. They’re the same size as the base tires (245/35R19 front, 305/30R20 rear), and the NSX engineers are quick to point out this compound doesn’t work well in cold, rainy conditions the way the Contis do. But it takes no time at all to learn that they also don’t perform on track the way the Contis do. Not only is the steering immediately heavier with the optional rubber, but the chassis also responds more sharply, and the difference in grip is orders-of-magnitude enormous. Indeed, there’s so much adhesion that the ABS system feels like it needs to be recalibrated for the Cup tires—there’s some fairly violent chatter through the chassis as the tires cycle through grip and slip. Worth it.
Go figure. Putting supercar tires on Acura’s supercar transforms the machine. All of which leads to the question: Why did Acura choose those relatively workaday Continental tires for the NSX—and why did the engineers tune the car for such benign behavior any time you’re out of the Track mode? Well, because Honda.
Acura executed exactly on its plan—to subject the everyday-supercar NSX to the same kinds of practical goals as Honda’s everyday cars. The engineers made sure the car was stable and safe at the limit for novice drivers. They wanted the car to be quiet enough that they didn’t get dirty looks at church. They nailed their target. But it was the wrong target. If you don’t like getting dirty looks in your supercar at church, you do not recoil in fear; you do burnouts in the church parking lot, and you throw pot brownies at the pastor. This is a supercar, for the love of Enzo. It shouldn’t worry about offending people.
Or maybe that kind of stuff doesn’t fly in Ohio. The NSX is what happens when the world’s most rational car company builds the world’s most irrational vehicle: a supercar. Sorry, but I think rational considerations needn’t apply. Sure, the original NSX started and ran, and it was comfortable, and it went 100,000 miles without anything breaking. But it also, famously, wore out its rear tires by the time you got to the grocery store.
Contrary to my original impressions, there’s nothing, in fact, wrong with this NSX. Except for that lack of confidence. The NSX should come from the factory with tires that turn to coal when the temperature drops below 50 degrees. It should start its engine with enough acoustic violence to scare nuns—and then rocket out of the sacred parking lot with a half-turn of oppo on the wheel. And it should never, ever disregard its driver’s wishes to upshift, downshift, or not shift.
But for tire choice, every one of those complaints is fixable with software. And there’s plenty of time for that. Honda’s engineers took delivery of their first turbocharged V-6 in the last weeks of 2013. It was installed and ran for the very first time in an NSX in the early spring of 2014. That’s only 18 months ago—and it’ll be another six months before any customers receive their NSX. That means a quarter of the NSX’s final tuning is still to be done.
Fitting, isn’t it? Honda finally lets us drive the supercar that it showed us years and years too early—and it turns out they let us drive it too early, too. Should those brilliant Ohio engineers engineer out some of the Honda rationalness from this irrational Honda product (and engineer in some balls) before it goes on sale next year, the NSX will be the irrational, uncompromised, take-no-prisoners, awesome supercar it’s already proven it can be. When it’s in Track mode.
|2017 ACURA NSX|
|BASE PRICE||$155,000 (est)|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Mid-engine, AWD, 2-pass, 2-door coupe|
|ENGINES||3.5L/500-hp/406-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC 32-valve V-8 plus two 36-hp/54-lb-ft front and one 47-hp/109-lb-ft rear electric motors; 573 hp comb|
|TRANSMISSION||9-speed twin-clutch auto|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,800 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||176.0 x 76.3 x 47.8 in|
|0-60 MPH||3.0 sec (mfr est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||Not yet rated|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Spring 2016|