- Published: Monday, 01 August 2016 16:38
The first Honda NSX had plenty to teach the supercar world in 1990. Does the new one offer any lessons?
ESTORIL, PORTUGAL — Something fresh and exciting is being launched in Singapore this September, and it’s called the Honda NSX. The Singapore price is going to shock you (it's $888,999 without COE) but the NSX was built to run in fairly exalted circles. And it can.
The original NSX did, after all. Its lasting legacy is clearly seen in the current supercar brigade — it’s the reason all Ferraris are made of aluminium now, and are drivable on a daily basis — so the question for Honda now is a simple one: will the new NSX have anything to teach the world?
To work out the answer to that million-dollar question we spent a day in the car, putting in 10 laps at the Estoril circuit in Portugal and then blatting around the roads surrounding Lisbon.
Do that, and what becomes apparent is that what gives the NSX its soul comes down to mainly one thing: torque vectoring.
Torque vectoring? Whassat?
We all do it to some extent. Say you’re walking in a straight line and you want to turn right. You can slow down your right leg. Or maybe speed up your left leg a little. That will put you on a rightward trajectory (don’t believe me? Try it!), or to be more technical about it, induces a yaw movement in the desired direction. The NSX can do the same. Realising that is the key to understanding how the car works.
So it isn’t “just another” supercar?
Hardly. Maybe the standard supercar recipe is there as a base (lightweight body made of unconventional materials, powerful mid-mounted engine) but the NSX adds exotic ingredients to it. There’s a 3.5-litre twin-turbo V6 worth 507hp alone, with a 48hp electric motor to add spice. That’s for the rear; the front is driven by a pair of motors, each one producing 37hp.
You can’t just add all the horsepower figures since the V6 and motors all peak at different rpms, but the system total is 581hp. That’s a smidgen more than the 570hp of the Ferrari 458 Italia, which was one of the cars Honda benchmarked the NSX against.
Wait, petrol-electric drive in the back, electric drive in the front? Sounds like the BMW i8.
Yes and no. The Honda is way more powerful than the BMW, and its battery is one-seventh the size of the i8’s — just 1kWh, good for 2 or 3km of electric drive. It’s no plug-in, ecocentric hybrid. The i8 is pitched as an eco sportscar, but the NSX is a smart supercar.
Explain the “smart” part.
The first corner you take in anger reveals an astonishingly sorted car. It’s all there: mighty brakes, pin-sharp steering and a roll-free way of making quick direction changes. But much of the Honda’s behaviour is down to the car’s electronics. Those front motors can brake or add drive to individual wheels, so the NSX pivots into bends in a way that gives the finger to Isaac Newton and his puny laws.
In the car’s baseline “Sport” mode it feels painted to the road, but crank things up to the “Sport +” setting and it sharpens up still. The active dampers become firmer to tighten up the suspension, the steering drops its assistance a notch, and all those motors and cylinders swing their fists harder.
But it’s the torque vectoring that makes the NSX really feel unique. Slow down, turn in, accelerate… and there’s a complete and utter absence of understeer. If anything, you can feel the Honda pulling itself into a bend just where other cars would be running wide instead.
It means three things: you can take aim with the steering and nail your chosen line, every time. You can get off the left pedal much later, braking improbably deep into corners. And you can stomp on the accelerator a lot earlier than in your average supercar.
It feels weird at first, then wonderful, and makes the NSX a completely different experience. If you could somehow drive different supercars with your eyes and ears blocked off, you would always know when you were in the Honda.
And the “supercar” part?
In some ways the NSX is your textbook supercar. Front/rear weight distribution is 48/52, and the car has a low centre-of-gravity (the lowest in its class, says Honda). That means it’s inherently balanced and stable, giving the number crunchers a solid base to work their active trickery off.
And boy, does it go like a supercar. Honda hasn’t published 0 to 100km/h times, but an engineer told us they think it’s a bit quicker than the Porsche 911 Turbo. After repeated runs with full launch control, I reckon the current 911 Turbo rearranges your insides just a little harder, but that’s not to say the NSX is a pussycat. Measured by buttocks, it’ll hit 100km/h in 3 seconds flat, and the acceleration doesn’t just come in a violent burst, but in a long, sustained rush.
The nine-speed transmission helps, certainly. The ratios are closely stacked, meaning the revs never drop much with each gearchange. And there’s a bit of trickery with the launch control that any geek would admire.
Get this. Launch the NSX and the first few milliseconds of acceleration are mostly driven by the electric motors and their instant torque. The V6 chimes in fractionally later. Why? So the clutch can be slammed shut fast, which lets the twin-turbo engine unleash everything it’s got without buggering the wet friction plates. After weeks of multiple full throttle launch control starts, none of the NSXs on the press fleet needed any gearbox repair.
Clever! But it all sounds very digital...
It might well be digital but the NSX feels natural. The tech works in the background, never calling attention to itself. That’s an achievement, really. Just imagine, you press the accelerator and the car not only has to figure out how much power you want, but how to divvy up the drive from the three motors and the V6 seamlessly.
Besides, there’s a Track mode available, which alters the settings in a way that makes the NSX more of a handful. It seems to dial some of the assistance down, for example, allowing small tailslides if you tromp on the accelerator a little too much, too soon as you exit a corner.
You can also disable the car’s stability control system altogether — they wisely didn’t let us, but one of Honda’s drivers pulled off some enormous, tyre-destroying drifts for our amusement. Nice way to make the point that, if you like, you can still drive the NSX like an old-school, analogue supercar.
And how does living with it compare to living with an old-school supercar?
We only spent a day in the NSX, but the experience was promising. The controls are minimalist and easy to use, the seating position is pretty much perfect and the seats themselves are excellent: firm in the right places and soft where they should be.
In some ways, Honda actually seems to feel that comfort enhances performance. Engineers pressure-mapped different palm sizes to make the steering wheel feel just right, for instance. And they invented a new way of strengthening steel, just to shave 35mm off the A-pillars. Why? So it would be easier to see out of the cockpit.
But is it practical?
Good question. Forget about trips to Ikea, but a weekend getaway should be fine. There’s a small boot behind the engine for compact luggage (remember, the front section is occupied by motors). Honda says you can slip a golf bag in there.
The cabin doesn’t offer much stowage, though. And in case you were wondering, it’s a two-seater.
All the more desirable, then. But is it stressful to drive in heavy traffic?
It’s no Accord, but it’s a 365-days-a-year car, no problems. There’s a Quiet mode designed to let you creep down the street without annoying the neighbours, but it’s great for your own comfort. It gives you light steering, soft suspension, and a quieter exhaust — 25dB quieter than in Track mode, as a matter of fact.
It can waft along silently on pure electric power to a limited extent, but it’s actually nicer when the engine is running. Honda put a pipe in the cabin connected to the engine’s air intake that lets you hear the hiss of induction, along with the odd whoosh from the turbo — a nice, playful touch.
A lifter kit for the nose would be welcome. We don’t fancy the chin’s chances over Singapore speed humps.
Aha, a flaw! Any others?
To be honest, in some ways the NSX doesn’t feel expensive enough. The Garmin-powered satnav is awfully laggy, and some of the switchgear actually feels more well-oiled in the new Civic. Still, that just goes to show that all the money was poured into the high-tech drive systems.
Million-dollar question, then: this, or a Ferrari?
In CarBuyer’s view there isn’t anything to touch a 488 GTB (sorry, Honda), but asking someone to choose is going about it like a poor person. If you already have a Ferrari in the garage, the NSX would make a nice addition. It’s the one you would wish to be in, driving home from a stressful board meeting.
But you could also make a case for the NSX above a Huracan (Lambo has no sporting pedigree) or an Audi R8 V10 (screams “investment banker” too much) or a McLaren 570S (not nearly as fascinating).
Let’s approach this another way: who is this car for?
In all honesty, it’s probably for someone like Alexander the Great. To quote Hans Gruber (the bad guy from Die Hard, who in turn was misquoting Plutarch), “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no worlds left to conquer.”
For someone who has everything, then, the Honda will feel like a breath of fresh air. There aren’t that many people like that around, so the NSX will probably stay rare enough that bystanders will raise their cameraphones in salute when they come across one.
Think of the Honda NSX, then, as a genuine supercar that will be simultaneously blessed and cursed by exclusivity.
2016 Honda NSX
Engine 3,493cc, twin-turbo V6
Power 507hp from 6500 to 7500rpm
Torque 550Nm from 2000 to 6000rpm
Motor (rear) 48hp at 3000rpm, 147Nm from 500 to 2000rpm
Motor (front) 2 x 37hp at 4000rpm, 2 x 73Nm from 0 to 2000rpm
System output 581hp
System torque 646Nm
Gearbox 9-speed twin-clutch automatic
Top Speed 308km/h
0-100km/h 3.0 seconds (estimated)
Fuel efficiency 10.0L/100km
Price $888,999 without COE
Available September 2017
Here's a quick video run-through of the new NSX and its four driving modes