The new NSX is here and it's an amazing feat of engineering. But does all that technology put too much between you and a pure driving experience?
This has been a very long time coming, a long time waiting for some proper seat time in the successor to one of the most important sportscars of the '90s -- and of the early '00s, for that matter. It's the new 2017 NSX, thoroughly modernized and precision-engineered to an incredible degree. In fact, some might say over-engineered with its four-motor hybrid system, electronic all-wheel drive and nine-speed dual-clutch transmission. That's a lot of moving pieces, but only one thing matters: How does it feel to drive?
The answer to that question is: "Very well indeed." But, before we delve into the necessary driving impressions, let's take a moment to discuss just what it is that makes this thing go.
Though the NSX is far from a traditional looking car, its powertrain is even less-so. The original NSX was powered by a mid-mounted V-6 that, at its peak, put 290 horsepower to the rear wheels through a six-speed manual transmission. The new NSX also has a V-6 somewhere in the middle, but that's about where the similarities end.
The new motor is 3.5 liters, twin-turbocharged to make an even 500 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque. That's a huge bump over the original -- but not enough for Honda's engineers. They've also grafted on a small electric motor onto that V-6, then paired that with two more electric motors up on the front axle. Yes, that's four total sources of oomph (one internal combustion, three electric) with a combined power output of 573 hp and 476 ft-lbs.
Do the math and you'll see that's basically twice the power of the original in a 3,800-pound package. Yes, it has all-wheel drive, but the vast majority of that drive is restricted to the rear wheels. So, too, the car has a strong rearward weight bias: 58 percent on the back axle.
Power gets to those rear wheels via a nine-speed, dual-clutch gearbox and is modulated across the axle with a proper, mechanical limited-slip differential. Suspension is adaptive, magnetorheological damping able to be toggled into one of two modes, one for comfort, the other for somewhat less comfort.
My first full day in the car would start out in the less-comfortable option.
Thermal Springs was the venue, situated just outside Palm Springs, California. It's a tight course, with a series of orderly turns that make the most of the available real estate. Thanks to a longish back straight I was quickly able to get a feel for the (optional) carbon ceramic brakes, which did not disappoint despite temperatures hovering in the mid-90s. Initial bite is strong and clean, unlike most hybrids I've driven, and brake pedal feel stayed firm -- although, given the car's brake-by-wire system, that feeling is largely synthetic in nature.
Steering, too, is firm and quick, so quick that you can do an entire lap without your hands leaving 9 and 3 on the wheel. Not a fan of shuffle-steering? This is the car for you. However, after a few sessions I couldn't help but feel like the steering was too firm, as if the car were resisting my inputs rather than assisting.
Steering weight is one of the many parameters the car modifies as you cycle through the four driving modes: Quiet, Sport, Sport+ and Track. On Track you get maximum power and the most liberal interpretation of stability control, as well as the stiffest suspension and the most firm steering. Unfortunately, unlike the simpler (and far less expensive) BMW M4, in the NSX you cannot select individual parameters to create a custom driving mode. So, there's no way to get maximum power and handling from the car without also selecting the firmest steering. That's a little disappointing.
Toggling through the various modes also makes the car progressively louder. At least, it does on the inside. Much like the Porsche 911, Honda engineers ran a couple of tubes from the engine's intake into the cabin of the car. Those tubes open or close depending on the mode, piping in more or less of the organic symphony of internal combustion. The exhaust, too, has valves that selectively allow more noise out the back, but as you might expect given those twin-turbos, even when wide-open there's not an awful lot to be heard trackside.
Power here is strong, as indeed it should be given that 573 hp figure, but it's delivered in a deceptively flat way. Acceleration almost feels underwhelming, a sensation that professional Indy racer Graham Rahal confirmed when I ran a few laps in the right seat with him. Rahal called the car "deceptively quick," and that's thanks to many factors, including the electric motors. Among many other things, those motors kick in a little extra power when shifting. That, plus to the close ratios of the nine-speed box, give the feeling of a nearly seamless shift. There's no screaming surge of power toward the redline then a kick in the pants when you grab the next gear. It's just a flat wall of torque with an almost imperceptible toggle from one cog to the next.
It's similar for the 0-60 sprint. The car's launch control holds at a (relatively low) 2,200rpm before you slip your foot off the brake. The NSX shoots forward immediately with zero drama and then just maintains that acceleration as it gets to 60 somewhere around three seconds later. The flat torque and power delivery make this process almost clinical in execution.
Handling, too, is a bit deceptive. The NSX is plenty grippy and, despite its weight and AWD, feels very nimble. But, when you really start to push, the front-end can start to feel a bit vague. However, another pro racer, Acura legend Peter Cunningham, advised to be a little more heavy on the throttle to get a good reaction.
And, of course, he was right. Unlike many AWD cars, which will simply plow onward should you get on the gas with the front wheels turned, the NSX tucks in nicely with judicious early applications of the throttle. The electronic wizardry controlling those two front motors works. Get on the gas early and be rewarded with a car that hugs the apex and then slings itself down the next straight.
Toggle the NSX into Quiet mode and it lives up to its billing. Here, the car can whisk along at low speeds using only the EV motors, making nary a sound as it cruises through the paddock or wafts out of your driveway. But, this is not a plug-in hybrid, so you won't get far before the V-6 pops on. When it does, it does so with an industrial racket. While that engine sounds good when screaming on the track, it's far from evocative when idling around town.
In Sport mode the sound gets a bit more engaging, but still the ride is compliant and the transmission takes it easy. The seats are comfortable, the fat steering wheel feels great in your hand, the optional ELS speaker package sounds phenomenal and, with both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay on-tap, inside the NSX is a very nice place to be. Even visibility is good, something that can't be said for most cars in this performance category. I could definitely see myself commuting in this car.
However, despite all the tech trimmings, there's still a lot missing. Adaptive cruise is not on the docket, nor any sort of lane-keep assist nor collision warnings. You do get a rear-view camera and parking sensors, but that's about it.
Come to a twisty bit of road, toggle the car into Sport+, and any ADAS-related worries drift away. While the impeccable poise of the car on the track leaves it feeling a bit overly composed, out on the road that's simply not a problem. Across cracked and crumbling roads, through unexpected sections of gravel, the NSX never lost its footing -- despite generating plenty enough g-forces to put a big smile on my face.
The 2017 NSX is deceptively quick on the track and impeccably civilized on the road, a split personality that many supercars advertise but few deliver. But it's on the road where the NSX feels most at home, and given that's where most owners will spend the vast majority of their time, that's almost certainly for the best.
If the NSX has a failing, it's that it's too sophisticated, engineered to such a fine point that you can't help feeling like you are the weakest link in the equation. This is a comprehensively excellent drive, but it's rarely an exhilarating one. You're left wondering what this car would be like minus the hybrid system and about 300 pounds of weight. Rumor has it, Honda is pondering the same question, and I hope some day to drive the answer.