WORTH

THE

WEIGHT?

It’s been a decade since the last NSX, and New NSX is a portly 1700kg thanks to
its hybrid drivetrain. So, has Honda
got it right?

And, ever the cautious Japanese entity, the gestation has been so lengthy that this is a car many of us feel we’ve been seeing for years – because we have been seeing it for years! First in 2012, and then a slow drip of motor show appearances and will-it-won’t-it-happen rumours. Well, it’s here now. It exists, it drives, and it was worth the wait.

The new NSX (New Sports Experience) was developed in the United States by a team from Acura (Honda’s US arm) led by chief engineer Ted Klaus. This was a radical move from a company as proud as Honda, but from what I saw and heard and experienced on a brief trip to California last month, it could well prove to be inspired. 

Culturally, Honda’s Japanese R&D operations are no longer the best place to make these types of cars. The company has changed beyond recognition from the one that powered Senna to multiple championships and created the original NSX. The fact that Honda’s executives managed to put aside notions of pride and tradition to allow this new machine to flourish will be forgotten in the narrative, but it is arguably one of the most significant decisions made by a Japanese car maker in decades. 

As mentioned, the first new NSX concept from 2007 was a naturally aspirated V10, but in 2011 Honda began work on a twin-turbo V6 machine with electric motors powering the front wheels. In 2012 the car appeared as a concept with a transverse motor, but anyone who’s run a Noble will attest to the issues associated with cooling a turbocharger wedged between an engine block and a bulkhead. So the engine bay was re-engineered to accommodate the motor longitudinally. Not the easiest of tasks, given the space constraints, though a super-compact nine-speed dual-clutch transmission helped the packaging.

It was probably the white socks, or perhaps the insouciance of the loafer-and- white-sock combination set against the race circuit. It was certainly the naked aggression of the driving around Suzuka. This was, of course, Ayrton Senna’s now near-legendary lap in a development-spec NSX-R, and it is my defining image and memory of the original New Sportscar eXperimental. As a fellow car-obsessive, I’m sure you have yours too. I wonder what they are.

Even the name perfectly captures that essentially Japanese fastidiousness that wrought a sports car that would define all others after the year 1990. Was it really that significant? Of course it was, not necessarily in the way it drove, but in the philosophy of its creation and execution. Now isn’t the time to deconstruct the excellence or otherwise of the original NSX (I happen to think its driving dynamics are and were massively overrated) but it served as the most pertinent wake-up call to the sloths running premises in Zuffenhausen and Maranello. ‘What?!’ they cried. ‘You mean you can make a sports car using contemporary technologies; one that you can see out of, has cogent ergonomics and doesn’t break down. Gott in Himmel/dannazione! Tell me it isn’t so!’

Without the NSX there would have been no 993, or 355. That statement alone justifies the car’s place in the pantheon. But the NSX legend is now so old that it no longer resonates with a good slice of the motoring fraternity. Honda had every opportunity to maintain the legacy, but it chose not to and, to compound matters, it made the disastrous mistake of abandoning the fast-car space the moment the world went wrong in 2008. 

Overnight, Honda killed most of its performance car development, including the naturally aspirated V10 NSX that was due to be on sale by 2010. The company found itself in the bizarre situation of being the creator of the when-the-VTEC-kicks-in millions while simultaneously being unable to offer new customers anything more spicy than the CR-Z. The bloody CR-Z. What a shambles. All was not well.

Internally, the mutterings of disapproval began soon enough. Honda needed to bridge its links from the showroom to motorsport. The blanket rejection of high performance was a mistake and the sports car market not only recovered from the snap recession faster than anyone expected, it then flourished and became more vibrant than at any point in history. Ever the cautious company, even Honda saw an opportunity to relaunch the NSX.

‘This is a road car that deploys its technology in such an effective way that it can pull very surprising speed from a circuit’

Aluminium spaceframe cradles a mid-mounted all-aluminium dry-sumped twin-turbo 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine supplemented by three electric motors.

two on the front axle, one between the engine and DCT gearbox

‘It is a way
more fun than
i imagined it would be... and it doesn’t feel like a 1700kg car’

‘It is a way more fun than
i imagined it would be...
and it doesn’t feel like
a 1700kg car’

Given that the driver’s only real connection to the NSX is that of sitting within it, the synthesised feeling of connection is good. The steering weight and speed immediately make sense of the vehicle’s dimensions and ability to turn. The brake pedal is especially impressive given how complicated the system is, and the throttle response is good. I say good, but I was initially a little disappointed by the car’s step-off thrust. For me one of the great tricks that these hybrid machines can deploy in the face of flat-Earth criticism is absurd initial surge and acceleration. This car isn’t quite as bombastic as expected. Yes, it’s very fast, and Honda is claiming standing-start acceleration better than a 911 Turbo, but I expected a little more Tesla P85d-style silliness.

The noise is good – this is piped intake noise, not some speaker-fakery – and the performance potential is way beyond anything I can actually use on the public road. But the abiding impression for me is of snaking for mile after mile, snicking manually up and down the gearbox and not being able to square the response of the chassis to the claimed kerb weight. I am one of those people who is going to have to accept that my medieval adherence to the rule that states lighter is always better is going to be tested to destruction in the post-torque-vectoring age. Put simply, with its clever adaptive dampers and ability to adjust torque to individual wheels, the NSX cheats physics just like the 918 does. It feels like a 1400kg machine on these roads. And I’m really enjoying the experience.

Not everything is good. The seating position is too high for me and there is no height adjustment, but the biggest omission is not being able to isolate the damper function from the overall ‘character’ setting. It’s that old chestnut again – I want the powertrain in Sport Plus, but with slacker damping. But I can’t have it, so I run with the lazier powertrain and enjoy a supple chassis. I gather Honda is considering making a change for the production cars in 2016. 

Gearshifts are crisp and quick in Sport Plus, but not quite in the same league as a 991 GT3’s. Overall performance is frankly huge – as with its rivals, the NSX really needs to be judged in terms of how it makes you feel using whatever percentage of what’s available until you approach custodial-sentence numbers, and I think the team has done a really good job. It feels special, alert and it adds some turbo wheesh and low-speed electrical noise to remind you of the complexities lurking under your bottom. 

The destination after this short drive was Sonoma Raceway, a place so twisty, unforgiving and lacking in run-off it isn’t wise to contemplate what happens when the NASCAR fraternity rock-up to race there. Honda was keen to swap the street Continental rubber for the Michelin Cup 2s it will offer as an option, but I selfishly wanted to try both so kept the Contis on, and went off to play.

In Track mode the dampers are at full stiffness and the powertrain uses all the electricity available. The car is fast and accurate and its cornering behaviour is pretty neutral. The ESC allows a decent push of understeer and a small amount of yaw at the rear before it starts trimming, using both brakes and throttle. And this makes sense because we’re not dealing with a GT3 rival here – this is a road car that deploys its technology in such an effective way that it can pull very surprising speed from a circuit using a supposedly normal set of tyres. 

The brakes deserve special mention here, too: in this virtual world, the development team had to find a way of giving the driver a sense of fade coming from the carbon-ceramic discs, and they’ve done a very good job. The best thing I can say about them is that if I hadn’t been told anything, I’d have assumed this was a conventional braking system. Sonoma is hard on brakes and I could do five fast laps without any reduction in performance. 

The powertrain comes alive here, too – you punch through the electric torque so quickly that you then savour the petrol section for longer as the car wants to rev to its limiter. Traction is predictably impressive, but the mind games really begin when you switch all the clever traction control off and see what happens when you provoke the NSX – or, more specifically, you try to find out if this is a car that hides behind electronics and exists as a nine-tenths machine.

The search uncovers only good things. You can play with this car – allow the front to push, use that mid-engined layout to alter the line and rotate the rear. It’s not as easily playful as a 488 or an R8 because those pesky front motors always ultimately want to drag the car straight again. But it is way more fun than I’d imagined it would be and, most importantly, it demonstrates the depth of chassis development that has been undertaken to make this car worthy of the NSX badge. Clearly, only when the fundamental dynamics were good did the calibration of the anti-skid and slip systems begin. 

And it just didn’t feel like a 1700kg car on the track either. Switching to the Michelin Cup 2, it becomes even more impressive because the torque-vectoring has even more tyre performance to lean on. The result is even more speed, composure and enjoyment – and less front axle push, too. 

As with the 918, this is a car that uses technology to alter your perspective of what might be possible. Like the 918, it can at times feel like rank sorcery that is scooting you through complicated sections of track at speeds the kerb weight suggests aren’t possible. Oh, and the front motors de-couple above 125mph (just like a 918). Of course this is not a perfect driving device: those looking for a GT3-style experience will feel a little short-changed on excitement, interaction and, I suspect, the ability to pound-out dozens of laps at a time.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the NSX for me is in its personality. And I’m not talking about the slightly uninspiring cabin or the exterior styling that I happen to think is very attractive but others feel resembles the aftermath of a Photoshop session, an Audi R8 and a set-square. No, for me there has always been something inextricably appealing about very-high-performance Japanese sports cars – from the visual detailing to the ubiquitous madness that lurks somewhere in the powertrain or the chassis. This doesn’t feel like a Japanese car because essentially it isn’t one. The powertrain was developed in Japan, but the rest is American and you can tell. How much that matters to potential customers remains to be seen because, judged on this initial exposure and knowing that production volumes will not be large, Honda is going to sell every one of these it can make.

This is a clever piece of engineering that I think will find a neat niche in the marketplace because it perfectly dissects the conventional R8/911 Turbo offering beloved by people who love driving and the BMW i8 that has so perfectly ensnared those who care less about tactile thrills. The NSX can do the silent electric thing, it can pull smokey slides and to my eyes it looks superb. And I love the fact that, as with the 918 and its 1990s namesake, it’s a technology statement for what might come from Honda in the future, which is exactly what the company needs.

There is no price quoted yet, but think 911 Turbo S money (£140k-150k) and you probably won’t be far wrong. For that you’ll have a car with the same performance but one that is infinitely more interesting mechanically and capable of nipping to the shops without burning a thimble of fuel. You’ll curse the lack of luggage space but hell, just thank whoever it is you thank at times like these that Honda has made a new NSX, and it’s a very good car.

Honda NSX
Engine
V6, 3493cc, twin-turbo, plus three electric motors
CO2
TBC
Power
565bhp (combined total)
Torque
476lb ft (combined total)
Transmission
Nine-speed dual-clutch, four-wheel drive,
LSD, torque vectoring, ESC
Front suspension
Double wishbones, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension
Multi-link, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes
Ventilated carbon-ceramic discs, brake-by-wire, ABS, EBD
Wheels
8.5 x 19in front, 11 x 20in rear
Tyres
245/35 ZR19 front, 305/30 ZR20 rear, Continental Conti-SportContact (Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 option)
Weight
1725kg
Power-to-weight
333bhp/ton
0-60mph
2.9sec (claimed)
Top speed
191mph (claimed)
Basic price
£140,000 (est)
evo rating

The resulting specification is very impressive, and these are now finalised production figures. The 3493cc, 75-degree V6 with twin turbochargers produces 493bhp. The two electric motors acting on the front axle and the single rear motor that nestles between the engine and gearbox add another 72bhp, making 565bhp in total. The torque contribution of the electric powertrain is obviously more significant – a substantial 217lb ft out of the total 476lb ft. Top speed is limited to 191mph and it runs 0-60mph in 2.9sec.

This new-age sports car also tips the scales at 1725kg. The NSX’s construction is a clever amalgam of materials chosen specifically because of their individual properties – much of the monocoque is aluminium, but there are special steels in both regular and cast forms. There is also carbonfibre and other exotic materials. Honda won’t reveal numbers for twist and stiffness at this stage but claim both are class-leading. 

The suspension is just as complicated. The front axle uses struts, but also a double-joint for a lower centre offset and better wheel control. The rear is best described as ‘multi-link’ but has all the key elements of a classic double-wishbone contained within its complexity. The power steering is electric, the brakes are completely by-wire, there is a mechanical locking differential at the rear and both axles use torque-vectoring. 

At this point, are any of you thinking what I’m thinking? Here we have a machine that many people wanted to exist without any complicated electrical equipment. One that has endured a troubled birth, and a sense of public bewilderment that it is so heavy. Yep, we could just as easily be talking about the Porsche 918, couldn’t we? The similarities in layout, perception and, dare I say it, driving dynamics are incredibly similar. Am I saying Honda has built a baby 918? I might regret saying this, but I think it has.

This was a brief introduction to the car, and it began on the road with vehicle test development leader Jason Widmer sitting next to me on some roads that completely destroy European notions that the US doesn’t do proper switchbacks. After half an hour my innards needed a break.

From stationary, the NSX pulls silently away in full electric mode. It can run for around two miles like this before the engine cuts in – and it does so with uncanny smoothness. There are four driving modes: Quiet, Sport, Sport Plus and Track. The first really is for trawling residential streets with maximum efficiency. I began this drive in Sport mode. 

has Honda built a baby porsche 918? I Might Regret saying this, but i think it has’

by CHRIS HARRIS