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.