Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Honda (Acura) NSX review

Ah, the Honda NSX. What kept you, old friend? It has been a while but it has not, apparently, been so long in gestation as we thought. 
Yes, there was a front-engined V10 Advanced Sports Car concept (2007) whose engine, albeit nothing else, eventually went racing. And yes, then there was a transverse-mounted V6 NSX concept (2012), which featured a naturally-aspirated motor like that of the first NSX.
Then a small team from Honda (and Acura, its more luxurious/sporting brand) in North America was put in charge of the project – although don’t think that this has been anything other than a globally developed car, you understand – and they said that, you know, really, honestly, a V6 isn’t going to be enough for a super sports series car today, and could Honda’s engine boffins in Japan go away and come up with something a little more boisterous? A little more worth the name of the New Sports eXperimental. 
That was only two years ago. No engine, no car to put it in, and a team of people who hadn’t much experience of what you and I call sports cars. 
Honda Japan donated the team three engineers, veterans of the original NSX project. That boosted the total number of engineers on the team who’d previously worked on a sports car to three.
And yet, here we are. It’s a curiously Honda-ish thing to do, I should add. Take a small group of bright young people, and give them their head. Honda’s North American line-up might not have sports car form, but don’t think the people there aren’t purists or enthusiasts. They race cars and bikes in their spare time. They understand.
And where they lacked contemporary knowledge, they bought it: Honda wrote cheques for a Ferrari 458 Italiaan Audi R8 V10+ and a Porsche 911 Turbo. That’s not terribly unusual.
The original NSX was meant to do what the contemporary mid-engined Ferrari was meant to, at half the price, while being as daily usable as supercars then were. The brief today is similar: better those rivals (albeit that the benchmarked R8 and Ferrari have since been replaced), while (slightly worryingly) giving the retired, wealthy residents of, say, Palm Springs, something to consider for driving to golf the course, too. The boot, at the very back, is wide enough for a set of clubs. The NSX is meant to be a road car that happens to be happy on a circuit.
The details, then. The body – R8ish in proportion, but more angular, with scoops and vents essential for the 10 radiators – is a mixed-material spaceframe in the Audi sense that you’d probably call it a monocoque. There are only two seats, and the engine, a newly-developed 3.5-litre V6 with two turbochargers, sits longitudinally behind the cabin. It’s mounted low, dry sumped to allow it to sit even more so, with turbos outside the banks rather than atop the 75-degree vee, and with exhausts and silencers that are so low that the boot sits above them. (Your clubs will be warmed nicely.) The centre of gravity is close to the ground, in other words. 
The engine makes 500bhp between 6500rpm and its 7500rpm limiter and, if that doesn’t sound enough (the power, not the revs), it isn’t. So behind the engine, acting as the flywheel and starter motor, is a 48bhp electric motor of dinner plate diameter and around 2.0in thick. Behind that sits a dual clutch automatic gearbox that has no less than nine speeds – first for launching, ninth for cruising, and seven closely stacked drive gears in between. The mechanicals are designed to be compact.
At the front, the scuttle is low, too, to aid visibility – Honda hasn’t forgotten the first NSX’s usability brief – where you’ll also find, if you look hard enough, two 37bhp electric motors, one for each front wheel. The peak revs of each motor/engine don’t arrive at the same time, so peak power is 573bhp.
The hybrid system isn't there to do quite the same thing as in a part-electric Civic. Sure, if you put the NSX’s drive mode selector – which of course it has – into Quiet mode (there are Sport, Sport+ and Track, too), it’ll drive away in electric-only mode. But that isn’t the point of the system. You can’t plug it in, and it stays well charged – when braking, or if you lift-off and there’s surplus power – whenever possible, so that there’s always power to boost performance.
The intent is that, even on a circuit, you’ll never wear it out. Think of it more like a McLaren P1 than a BMW i8, then. And like a P1, or any other car that mates electrical output with a turbocharged combustion engine, weight is the enemy. Here, there are 1725 enemies. The NSX is many things, but light it is not.
It’s one of few numbers, despite the 100 pages of bumf it gave us, that Honda is willing to put its name to. “It’s extremely competitive in its segment,” is the standard Honda response to a number of questions; mostly with good reason, sometimes without. 
Engineers say it’s slippery through the air. How slippery? “We know a European wind tunnel which will give us a 20% better reading, so there’s no point comparing with other cars. It’s extremely competitive in its segment.”
Ditto the amount of downforce it makes front and rear. “It is extremely competitive in its segment.” It’ll get from 0-60mph quickly. “Though because all magazines have their own way of testing it, we’ll let them do it.” But? “But, well, it’s extremely competitive in its segment.” Okay. I get it.
That 0-60mph time, by the way, ought to start with a two. The top speed is 191mph. A test of performance, and the handling too, is my first chance to try the NSX, in a dozen laps of a circuit.
You can’t judge its external size easily here – though at 4470mm long it’s about 1cm longer than, and at 1940mm precisely the same width as, an Audi R8 - but you can sense it’s built to accommodate. The seats don’t adjust for height, which is a pity, but there’s plenty of space between the driver and passenger, and the driving position is fundamentally sound. 
The interior’s mostly good, but there are a few niggles; a few things that give it away as a Honda: a distinctly average infotainment touchscreen, some plastics masquerading unconvincingly as metal, a shortage of storage cubbies. Stuff that Audi gets right, but stuff that’s easily forgotten when you thumb the starter and roll down the pit lane.
That’s accompanied by a soundtrack of the 3.5-litre V6. It’s quite a rich sound – not as soulful as an original NSX’s, but that’s no surprise – a fairly smooth sound, overladen with wastegate chatter but no noise from the electric motors. They’re fairly modest in capacity but Honda’s engineers say they fundamentally affect the NSX’s cornering balance once you’re near the limit. 
The NSX rides on two-stage magnetorheological dampers, but even in their firmer setting, it feels compliant over bumps and kerbs. They’re not ‘road’ and ‘track’ settings; more like ‘any road’ and ‘smooth road’. So you have to give a thought to body movements, but I don’t suppose more than you would in, say, an R8. 
And the NSX is capable of pulling a) huge speeds in a straight line and b) significant cornering forces. Although you can’t hear the motors doing anything, you can sense their work in either case. At low revs they fill the torque gap while the turbos spool, so acceleration at any revs feels supercharged-strong.
Not 488 GTB-fast, obviously (that’s lighter and almost 100 horsepower more powerful), but there’s sonority to the noise and real purpose to the acceleration. Gearshifts are fast both up and down – the electric motor actually helps pull up the revs quickly during downshifts under braking, which is spectacularly cool. 
Given there’s so much tech to the drivetrain, it would be easy if it felt non-linear. Even the brakes are by-wire because there’s energy recovery from the motors. But everything feels utterly integrated: the digital supercar feels entirely analogue.
It does in its handling, too. The steering is, at 1.9 turns, almost as quick in ratio as a Ferrari’s but far less nervy. There’s little in the way of feel, but it’s pleasingly weighted (in either of its settings) and nicely accurate. 
If you trail its brakes – which are infinitely powerful enough in optional carbon ceramic form – into a corner, the rear becomes mobile, helping the car turn, while nicely supported by the rear suspension, so it doesn’t fall into a drift like, say, a Toyota GT86. There’s more agility than in an R8 or Lamborghini Huracan, though. That power goes to the front too, mind, means that traction is strong.
So although it’s possible to steer the NSX on the throttle – there’s a mechanical rear limited-slip differential and it’ll drift if you turn off the ESC, whose operation is too strict on track – it’s at its happiest when driven very smoothly, very quickly, with reduced steering inputs and where I suspect it’ll be shockingly quick against a stop watch (or “extremely competitive”, as the phrase has it).
I doubt much this side of a 911 Turbo will accelerate out of a corner as rapidly; and the NSX does it without the 911’s ever present mass behind the rear axle so you can be more confident giving it the lot. 
They’re right. It’s a terrific track car.

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