Can technology help purify the driving experience?
As the chief engineer of the 2019 Acura NSX program, Satoshi Mizukami’s main goal of this year’s refresh is, as he puts it, “more emotional involvement.” Judging by my brief time with him, I’d say he’s living evidence of accomplishing this goal.
I’m riding shotgun with Mizukami as he pilots a 2019 Acura NSX around the Winding Road course at Honda’s Takasu Proving Ground in Hokkaido, Japan. Inspired by the mother of all test tracks—the Nurburgring—Winding Road is a deviously treacherous course. It features 17 corners (many of them blind) and 188 feet of total elevation change, with the majority of the circuit cloaked under a claustrophobic canopy of trees.
There’s also plenty of road imperfections, as I’m about to discover. We’re approaching a curve at a rapid clip. Mizukami stabs the brakes, saws the wheel left, then just as quickly tugs it hard to the right. The NSX straightens out just as we crest a hill and take flight.
“Jump!” he cries, as the NSX launches several feet before returning to the pavement. But the NSX, like Mizukami, is unflappable. The suspension absorbs the impact with little drama, and Mizukami rolls back on the throttle. That he’s enjoying this romp is obvious. What’s less obvious, he hopes, is the technology conspiring to make it possible.
Three years after its introduction, the NSX heads into 2019 with a raft of improvements across the board. Exterior changes are subtle: The lip of the beak above the grille is now body-colored instead of silver, while high-gloss trim replaces the previously matte finishes found throughout the body. Want even more glossy trim? Opt for one of the exterior carbon fiber packages for the ultimate in shiny, woven flair. If that’s not enough, a retina-searing Thermal Orange paint color is now available. Complete the look with orange calipers on available carbon-ceramic brakes—a $10,600 USD option. Gulp.
At least four-way power seats are now standard and can be outfitted in a swanky new Indigo Blue theme. Other previously optional equipment, including premium audio and satellite navigation, are also now standard, though frustratingly, there’s still no volume knob.
But, one might argue, why the need for a volume knob when there’s a 500-hp twin-turbo V-6 bellowing just inches from your head? This sensorial immediacy has always been the hallmark of a mid-engine sports car. As before, the V-6 is paired with a nine-speed dual-clutch automatic and electric motor, both driving the rear axle. Two smaller electric motors (known as TMU, or twin-motor unit) are housed in the front axle to offer additional thrust, giving the NSX a total power output of 573 hp. Operating independently, these motors can infinitely vary the torque to each front wheel in order to enhance turn-in precision around corners. This dual-axle power delivery gives the NSX through-the-road all-wheel drive.
Although power output remains the same as before, Acura made a number of handling tweaks. Stabilizer bars are larger at both ends, increasing front stiffness by 26 percent and the rear by 19 percent, augmented by rear toe link bushings that are 21 percent stiffer. New Continental SportContact 6 tires, developed exclusively for the NSX, take advantage of this stiffer setup. Acura claims that all of these improvements add up to net a lap time around the Suzuka Circuit that’s nearly 2 seconds faster than the 2017 model.
When Mizukami discusses the importance of driver involvement, it’s hard not to compare the current NSX to its groundbreaking predecessor (especially when Acura has a 2001 Type S on hand for me to sample). Although it might be most famous for being billed as the world’s first “everyday supercar,” the original NSX is also a brilliant communicator, featuring a taut chassis and a hungry-sounding, high-revving, naturally aspirated engine. Simplicity rules—there’s no barrier between the driver and the performance potential of this superb combination. But today, the rubric has changed. Demanding the simplicity of the original NSX in 2019 is like wanting a Shamrock Shake to taste the same as it did when you were 6 years old. It’s not going to happen.
Yet it evokes a sensation of raw tactility that Mizukami still wants to deliver within this high-tech package. Hybrids can be funny creatures: Those electric motors, so potent with torque, can also act as a filter to these feelings, especially when asked to play nicely with an internal combustion engine. Economy-minded cars dial in some elasticity between the two as a solution. But with the NSX, the opposite is required. Every input should feel direct, consistent, and predictable. Particularly on the track.
So in addition to the hardware, Mizukami and his team also dove into the software, fine-tuning the programming of the hybrid powertrain, magnetic-ride suspension, power steering, and stability control systems to improve, as Mizukami says, “the feel-good factor.”
As before, the NSX offers a big, fat knob in the console labeled “Dynamic Mode” with four settings: Quiet, Sport, Sport+, and Track. Track mode is the only choice here if I want to have any chance of keeping up with Mizukami as we play lead/follow around Winding Road—it quickens shifts by 40 milliseconds compared to Sport+ and administers a tranquilizer dart to the stability control intervention. Pressing the stability control button for 6 seconds would deliver a total knockout to the systems, but I’m merely feeling competitive, not suicidal. The safety net remains, albeit loosened.
Mizukami wastes no time, expecting that I’ll keep pace. I have a general rule in lead/follow situations: If the car ahead of me doesn’t brake, then I don’t, either. It’s easier said than done, especially since he knows every single one of these curves intimately, including that jump.
Oh, and about those road imperfections: They’re all done on purpose. Anyone who’s driven the Nurburgring knows that the quality of the road surface can quickly change between corners—sometimes even midcorner. It’s as much a challenge for the driver as it is for the car, and here on Winding Road, it’s designed to replicate a real-world track experience rather than the usual test-track utopia.
It’s also the perfect place to put the hybrid system to the test. A hard stab to the pedal in the first heavy braking zone is punctuated by the chop of rough asphalt. Still, the NSX tracks straight. Six-piston Brembos up front work in concert with the TMU to provide a combo of traditional and regenerative braking. Pedal feel and modulation is excellent, with no discernible transition between the two modes.
Back on the throttle to chase Mizukami on the next straight. The aural nature of the V-6 is enhanced in two ways: Mechanically, a tube connected directly to the intake manifold splits into two pipes as the sound is routed to behind the outboard of each seat. That’s augmented by active exhaust valves, transmitting full exhaust flow through all four pipes in Track mode. Feel-good factor, indeed. But the addition of electronic enhancement on top of these mechanical touches layers on a decidedly flatulent note inside the cabin at full throttle. It’s wholly unnecessary in a mid-engine car, especially when compared to the full-throated howl of an Audi R8 or the flat-plane-crank wail of a McLaren 570S. Inches from your head, remember? This added digital flourish is akin to a comedian explaining a joke.
The first seven gears of the transmission are closely spaced, cracking off shifts instantly at the 7,500-rpm redline—also the engine’s power peak. It’s nice that Acura took advantage of the spacing to keep the engine in the powerband instead of using the higher gears as impossibly tall fuel savers—I’m looking at you, Lexus LC 500. Top speed is achieved at the height of eighth gear, with ninth reserved for relaxed highway cruising.
Then—the jump. Knowing that I need to be pointed straight before I sail over the edge, I set myself up for the quick left–right combo to put me in line, where I discover that I’ve turned in too early. The active torque vectoring of the TMU sharpens my initial angle, so I pull back to correct my approach. The NSX prefers a later turn-in for a more precise attack. The effect is predictable, but it takes some getting used to. By the end of our laps, I’m charging through the corner with the same delighted fervency as Mizukami.
It’s important to note that Takasu offers more than just a diabolical road course. Also nestled within the 2,000-acre campus are replicas of European and American roadways. Honda went so far as to import native soil, grasses, and foliage to accurately re-create environments that one might find in, say, Germany or California. The patchwork nature of the asphalt I discover in the “Carpool Lane” of the American circuit is insultingly accurate. It’s also here where I test Quiet mode, which enables the NSX to cruise up to 50 mph (80 km/h) for brief periods of time. In practice, this electrical serenity is short-lived, far below the advertised speed threshold. The V-6 kicks in even at partial throttle, acting as nothing more than a really loud generator to keep the batteries charged.
Like the origins of the proving ground itself, the 2019 NSX is but a faithful reinterpretation of the real thing, a simulacrum of what our senses see, hear, and feel. With a base price of $159,300 USD, it might not provide a totally raw, visceral experience, but then again, it’s not designed to—at least not in the traditional sense. If Mizukami’s joy on the track is any indication, technology and emotion can happily coexist, counterintuitive as that might seem.