IT’S BEEN A hot minute since Acura launched a truesupercar. The last time we saw a salacious, ceiling-smashing, mortgage-busting two-seater from Honda’s upscale outfit, Ayrton Senna and McLaren were dominating Formula One.
That was 1990, when the Acura NSX crashed the supercar party. It was a revelation for Honda—a company known more for thrifty, utilitarian cars that ran forever—and an unexpected challenge to contemporary exotics from those guys in Italy. The NSX combined groundbreaking tech like an aluminum chassis and titanium engine valves with the comfort and reliability of an Accord to create a supercar you could commute in.
The original NSX, amazing as it was, eventually became a historical relic, unable (or unwilling) to compete in the horsepower wars of the past decade. The 2017 model faces the challenge of living up to its predecessor, matching potent rivals, and delivering driving emotion before the machines take the wheel from humans.
In the 25 years since the first NSX drew auto enthusiasts to the east, hypercars from Ferrari, Porsche, and McLaren haveevolved from thirsty, big displacement beasts to smart, sophisticated hybridswith all-wheel drive and bogglingly complicated drivetrains.
The 21st century take on the NSX, which starts at $156,000, follows the same path. Three motors join the mid-mounted, twin-turbo V6 in sending power to all four wheels. It’s a convincing package. The engine is good for 500 horsepower and the motors offer another 73, propelling the car to 60 mph in 2.9 seconds and a top speed of 191 mph.
All manner of computerized logic helps with acceleration, cornering, and lap times. There’s a lot of thinking to do. Just to cite one example, two of the three electric motors drive the front wheels, each operating independently to ensure torque goes exactly where it’s needed. During hard cornering, extra power goes to the outside wheel. Meanwhile, the motor driving the inside wheel flips into generator mode, slowing the wheel to make the car turn in faster and sending the recuperated kinetic energy to the battery.
Behind the Wheel
Climb into the NSX’s two-seat cabin, an overwhelming sense of Honda-ness greets you. The integrated, center-mounted shift control mechanism, those familiar graphics on the shape-shifting digital display, the accommodating, ergonomic friendliness that speaks of benign functionality.
The vanilla overtones are spiced with pleasant details, like the peekaboo aluminum structural member in the dash between a swath of Alcantara and leather, which designers say is a nod to naked sport bikes, and the way the cool display morphs its design between drive modes. A sense of restrained tautness governs the cabin.
The NSX lets you drive in full electric mode, and, in addition to standard modes like Sport, Sport +, and Track, there’s Quiet. As in, chauffeuring your mother-in-law quiet, or don’t-wake-the-neighbors-as-you-head-to-work quiet, or Airwolf air-to-ground surveillance stealth mode quiet. Your demographic may vary.
On the Track
My first go at Sonoma Raceway reveals a buttery smooth ability that complements the raw power numbers. The combination of internal combustion and electric motivation delivers a smooth whoosh of energy leading up to peak torque, between 6,500 and 7,500 rpm. There’s no lull or soft spot within that crescendo, no surge or spike, just a constant pull of power.
Launch control is similarly drama-free. All four wheels fling the car forward like an aircraft carrier catapult. When you reach the corner, just turn the wheel and feel the surprisingly porky NSX (3,802 pounds) obey without question. The nine-speed transmission does its part, downshifting with a quick and smooth throttle blip and upshifting nearly instantaneously as the computers send just enough power to the wheels that need it most.
Track mode delivers sharper jolts of torque and tire sliding. Though the engine soundtrack cranks up by 25 decibels compared to Quiet mode, the aural mood is more deliberate aircraft than blatty, burbly racecar. Sure, there are some throaty, compelling acoustics emanating from the engine (aided by intake sounds directed into the cabin), but the overall tone is one of focused fierceness, not heedless fury.
Switch off all the electric aids and things get sloppier; tracking the car through a corner takes more attention, the car feels looser. But you’re never entirely alone. When I intentionally lift the throttle mid-corner, ready to reapply gas and countersteer to right the car, the damn thing catches itself. Back in the pits, I try in vain to convince Nick Robinson, head of dynamic development, that a car that starts at $156,000 should, for better or worse, let the driver disable all of the nannies and experience the unrestrained glory of 573 horsepower.
Anyway. Away from the track, the NSX is commanding and confident on public roads, devouring s-curves and straights as though someone filled the frunk with get-out-of-jail-free cards.
One decision perplexes: The standard tires, Continental’s four-season Conti-Sport SP, give up grip far too early when driven hard. The solution comes with the more aggressive (and optional) Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires. Making all-year rubber the standard is like cladding an Olympic sprinter with hiking boots. Oh, Honda.
The Supercar, Cerebralized
The team behind the NSX is eager and inventive, but I wonder if the NSX is over-rationalized, a too-smart-for-its-own-good expression of brain over brawn. Soft-spoken NSX project lead Ted Klaus is an airy auto philosopher, with lines like, “How can you have something that’s basically complicated and fundamentally heavy that provides a sense of lightness?” Chassis guru Robinson is similarly cerebral, describing his team’s approach to the human machine interface as, “We wanted a degree of linearity so it could be driven not from the upper brain, but from the brain stem.”