Going the distance: From road trip to race track, the Acura NSX is built for it all
It all starts in Ohio. There's a space inside Honda's Anna Engine Plant that's so clean and organized, so impeccably lit and equipped with state-of-the-art machinery, you'd think it was an operating room. And in a way, it kind of is.
This is where the Acura NSX gets its heart. Every single 3.5-liter, twin-turbo V6 that's destined to be mounted amidships in an NSX -- no matter if it's a road car or race car -- is hand-assembled in this room. Magazines with NSX cover stories are framed and neatly arranged along the walls. Backlit shelves house spotless engine blocks. Every drawer is labeled. There isn't a loose nut or washer anywhere.
Talk to the folks who work here and they'll make it clear that they aren't just building engines, they're building NSX engines. It's a level of pride not unlike what you'll find in the factories of Affalterbach or Maranello or Sant'Agata Bolognese, prestigious places where world-renowned sports cars are born. "Anna, Ohio" might not have the same ring, but the dedication and attention to detail is every bit as impressive.
About 40 miles east of Anna in Marysville, you'll find Honda Manufacturing of Ohio, which has been building cars like the Accord and Civic since the early 1980s. On that campus, Honda opened the Performance Manufacturing Center in 2016, which is where those Anna-built NSX engines meet their homes. Here, it's a similar story: Skilled workers who spend their days bolting supercars together with their own hands. Acura recently started building some very special TLX sedans and MDX crossovers on these lines, but make no mistake, the NSX remains the star of the show.
This is where my journey begins. It's an even 1,000 miles from the Performance Manufacturing Center to Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida -- assuming you're taking the scenic route through Asheville, North Carolina, which I am. There's a 2020 Acura NSX parked out front of the PMC with my name on it, freshly minted and shod in Pirelli Sottozero winter tires -- all the better, given it's winter in Ohio.
To recap, the NSX received a number of small but meaningful improvements for the 2019 model year, including new bushings, suspension tweaks, better tires and a few minor styling changes. The supercar rolls into 2020 with a brand-new color, Indy Yellow, which is reminiscent of the Spa Yellow that Acura offered on the NSX from 1997 to 2003. If you're into bright hues, the NSX wears this one well, though it's a $1,000 upcharge over one of the coupe's standard paints. Otherwise, the NSX is the same as it ever was, right down to its $157,500 price tag.
Even though it's not the new kid on the block anymore, everyone stares at this thing. It's worth noting the NSX is still a relative rarity on American roads, especially in the midwest, but those who know it's an NSX offer big smiles and thumbs up as I speed by. Those who aren't familiar with the NSX just know it as a yellow blur, and they've got different fingers raised in the air. (Shoutout to the guy in Urbana, Ohio who told me he was going to call the cops because I was -- *checks notes* -- taking a photo of the NSX while parked.)
Over the course of this multiday road trip, the hits keep on playing. London, Kentucky: The entire staff of a Waffle House swarms my table, all wide-eyed and curious about who I am and what the hell I'm doing in their little corner of the country. Tellico Plains, Tennessee: A man selling boiled peanuts out of a slow-cooker inside a Shell station tells me to "take 'er easy" along the Cherohala Skyway that crosses into North Carolina. Savannah, Georgia: An old woman refers to me as a "fancypants" while I get something out of the NSX's trunk. Yulee, Florida: The gas station attendant calls the NSX "weird-lookin'" as he informs me none of the pumps have premium fuel, though I'm only half paying attention, because I'm too busy being creeped out by the unusually robust selection of stuffed parrot statues he has for sale (never change, Florida). From the dingiest truck stop to the the most elegant downtown setting, wherever the NSX shows up, it's an instant celebrity.
I will admit I'm coming into this whole experience with mixed feelings. You have to understand, as a fan of Japanese sports cars who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, the original NSX will always and forever have hero status in my mind.
Hundreds of miles into this trip, I'm finding the new NSX to be a mixed bag. I think what impresses me most is the breadth of its dynamic ability; the NSX can switch from razor-sharp sports car to amicable highway commuter in an instant. At either end of the spectrum, it's so close to greatness.
The NSX certainly throws down impressive numbers: 573 horsepower, 476 pound-feet of torque, 0 to 60 mph in less than 3 seconds. But I'll be honest: I don't love that it's a hybrid. The 3.5-liter V6 is joined by a trio of electric motors -- two up front, one in back -- that offer supplemental power while the two turbochargers come online. And while acceleration is brisk to say the least, the whole experience lacks emotion. The V6 behind the cockpit doesn't sound particularly good, and the "enhanced" noise coming through the audio system certainly doesn't help. There's a Quiet mode that'll let you do super-slow-speed stuff without turning on the engine, and while I think there's an inherent modern-day cool factor to that, I'd rather this car just have a high-output version of that excellent twin-turbo V6. The gasoline-electric solution isn't bad, it just isn't the sort of smooth, harmonious, rev-the-piss-out-of-it powertrain that Honda and Acura have historically done well. But hey, at least I managed to get 23.3 miles per gallon on the highway, which bests the 22-mpg highway EPA rating.
Still, put the NSX in its Sport setting, and the harder you push, the more rewarding it is. I like the weight and feedback of the steering, and the chassis has great overall balance. I can't say I notice those 2019 model-year upgrades on the highway or on backroads, especially with my car's Sottozero winter tires, but the NSX is nevertheless a willing companion for a spirited run down great roads. If you ever find yourself on the Cherohala Skyway in an NSX, you will not be disappointed, even if the boiled peanuts guy would prefer you slow your roll.
Rounding a blind corner on this Smoky Mountain pass, I'm immediately thankful for the winter tires -- the once-dry pavement is suddenly covered with ice and snow. With Acura's torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system moving power appropriately, and the meaty tread of the Sottozero tires helping me claw through the slop, the NSX has no problem dealing with this sudden blast of winter weather. At one point, I even bring the car to a complete stop on a slick patch and mat the throttle (for science, obviously), but the NSX just pulls away without any drama. Fit it with the correct tires, and you really could drive this supercar all winter long.
Out on the highway, the NSX is mostly enjoyable -- it's one adaptive cruise control system and a driver's seat lumbar adjustment away from being a really good grand tourer. The interior is perfectly livable for two adults over multiple days, and the NSX's interior trimmings are nice to the touch, even if the cabin has a lot going on aesthetically. My only major complaint is that the older Display Audio infotainment system could use an update (and a volume knob).
The NSX can be as docile or aggressive as you wish, yet it's not my top pick as a sports car or a GT. For the former, the McLaren 570S is far more engaging -- though considering it costs $30,000 more than an NSX, it ought to be. As a distance runner, a Porsche 911 is more comfortable, and with better cabin tech, too. As far as I'm concerned, the Audi R8 is the car to beat in this segment, as I truly feel it does offer the best of both worlds. Plus, it's powered by a naturally aspirated V10, which is one of the sweetest-sounding engines available anywhere.
But again, credit where credit's due, the NSX looks the business and goes like hell. Get it on a track and fully open its performance envelope, and the NSX can easily hang with the world's best supercars. Which brings me to Daytona.
The Rolex 24 at Daytona is one of the world's premier motorsports events. It's America's version of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where different classes of race cars compete in a round-the-clock endurance test that challenges the limits of not only the vehicles, but the drivers and teams, to say nothing of the livers of the hardcore fans camped out in the infield.
In addition to Acura's pair of ARX-05 prototypes that race in the DPi class, two different NSX GT3s ran in this year's event. The GT3 car isn't just an NSX skin on top of a unique racing chassis, either -- there's a solid link between the track star and the road car. Check out the engine: The hybrid system is removed, per race regulations, but the GT3's 3.5-liter, twin-turbo V6 is the same one you'll find in the stock NSX -- made by the same women and men up in Anna, Ohio.
Race car or stock car, the NSX is an impressive machine. Ahead of the Rolex 24's 1:40 p.m. ET start time, the same Indy Yellow car I chaperoned from Marysville pulled up trackside in a fleet of sports cars from various brands, with pro drivers offering hot laps around the circuit. (Don't worry, Acura put summer tires on.) I've driven the Daytona 24 track before -- with the speed a car can carry and the sheer angle of the banked turns, it's unlike anything else out there. Riding right seat in the NSX, Daytona now seems like a piece of cake. My guy is driving the doors off this NSX without breaking a sweat.
Earlier in the week, I asked one of the Anna workers if he ever wonders what kind of life an NSX engine will have after it leaves the factory. Will it be babied, living inside a rarely driven garage queen? Will it be flexed on occasion as a Sunday driver for some well-heeled owner? Will it go on to have its limits tested for 24 straight hours around one of America's most grueling race tracks? He thought about it for a moment, but ultimately answered with a shrug.
"Doesn't matter," he said. "It's gotta be able to do it all."