2017 Acura NSX First Drive - The Pragmatic Supercar
I remember it like it was yesterday.
I was working for a crazy little company in Fremont, California in 1995. One day the boss-man pulled up in a shiny new Acura NSX. It was low. It was foreign. It was cool. Little did I know the bitchin’ Acura in the parking lot would upset the supercar apple cart.
Twenty-five years ago, Honda put the big-boys on notice with a fast, economical and reliable supercar. Yes, reliable and supercar can be used in the same sentence without irony when speaking of a first-generation NSX.
If you set the way-back machine to 1990, you’ll realize it was a different world. Supercars were rear-wheel drive, few made more than 300 horsepower, and a modern Volvo wagon would probably eat them alive on a track. By the time the NSX was euthanized in 2005, the competition had more than caught up and Honda decided its resources were best used elsewhere.
For 2017, Acura has resurrected the NSX name and applied it to an all-new mid-engine coupe, but can it fill the big shoes left by its predecessor?
Acura claims the NSX is the only supercar made in America. I’m sure FCA and GM would like to argue with that. But a supercar made in Ohio is, without a doubt, a novelty. Perhaps more interesting is that the NSX isn’t just manufactured in Ohio, but engineered in Ohio and styled in California. While the drivetrain has a Japanese pedigree, the lack of a Japanese focus is somewhat surprising as this will be Honda’s worldwide halo car.
Yep, the Ohio-built NSX will be sold in Japan and other world markets. Ohio this is the only place where the NSX is built.
No supercar would be complete without an insane drivetrain, and the folks in Japan obliged. Like last time, the NSX uses a V6, but that’s where the similarity ends.
Instead of taking the TLX’s V6 and kicking it up a notch, an entirely new 3.5-liter engine was created with the cylinders set at a 75-degree angle to lower the center of gravity. Then the engineers fitted twin turbochargers, a dry sump lubrication system, port injection and direct fuel injection. With everything working in harmony, the V6 cranks out a healthy 500 horsepower and 406 pounds-feet of torque.
A unique in-house designed double-shaft dual-clutch transmission sends the power to the rear wheels via a limited slip differential. According to Acura, the NSX project didn’t exactly set out to create a hybrid supercar in the same way that BMW had electrification high on the i8’s design priority list. Instead, the NSX’s hybrid system was used to help the vehicle meet the team’s performance objectives.
The first performance benchmark that’s the easiest to explain is the problem of the first 1/10th to 2/10ths of a second in an acceleration run. In a vehicle without a DCT, the start of any launch run hinges on the engine speed being just right and a clutch dump executing to perfection for the best 0-30 time. To help “fill the gap,” the NSX uses a pair of motors up front that can deliver 72 horsepower and 106 lbs-ft of twist instantly from a stop. Once the clutch engages out back, a 47 horsepower electric motor helps the engine drive the rear wheels to eliminate any turbo lag.
Acura rates the complete system at 573 horsepower and 476 pound-feet of torque. That’s good for a TTAC timed 0-60 run of 3.38 seconds with launch control, at 91 degrees, after 20-30 back-to-back launch control 0-60 mph runs had completed. Clearly, the NSX has little issue with heat soak, although I do anticipate a faster run to 60 if we ever get the NSX to our secret coastal California test grounds due to the cooler climate.
The real winner here was the impressively low 1.5 second 0-30 mph time, however.
If the two-motor axle up front sounds an awful lot like the rear axle in the RLX hybrid, you’re right. While Acura’s engineers say that this isn’t the same part, it functions in exactly the same way. If you recall in my review of the 2014 RLX Hybrid, my main complaint about the dynamics of the vehicle is that the system just couldn’t mask certain front-wheel-drive tendencies like torque steer. While the same can be said of the RLX’s electric SH-AWD system, in the NSX this is a good thing. The NSX has a strong rear-wheel bias, as shown by the theoretical maximum power split graphic above, and it’s simply not possible for the Acura to send as much power to the front axle as an all-wheel-drive Porsche 911 or Audi R8.
As a result of the power split, the NSX can’t AWD power slide in the corners and it’s likely to be less sure-footed than a 911 in an Ohio winter. On the flip side, it preserves the rear-wheel dynamics that some supercars have lost in the quest for traction.
Acura could have used a torque converter inside the DCT to solve the launch problem, like they do in the eight-speed DCT they built for the TLX and ILX, but the hybrid system introduces another interesting trick. The design allows the NSX to power one wheel while regenerative braking the other. While in theory this could be done with a mechanical AWD system under power using the brakes, that generates excess heat, which is a problem on the track. In addition, the NSX will actually torque vector up front whether the power is on or off.
Acura’s software boffins crafted four hybrid system drive modes: quiet, sport, sport+ and track. Quiet causes the NSX to close exhaust valves to make the car quieter outside and close a valve in the intake system to make the car quieter inside. (The NSX literally pipes induction sound into the cabin rather than relying on digital engine noise a la BMW.) Quiet mode also causes the hybrid system to be more aggressive in shutting off the engine and operating in EV mode. Sport mode maintains a higher battery charge and stiffens the suspension. Sport+ causes the DCT to hold gears longer, disables the start/stop system, stiffens the suspension yet again, and causes the hybrid system to be more aggressive at its torque vectoring game. Track reduces the stability control program, holds low gears so the engine is screaming like a banshee, keeps the exhaust valves open, and sets the dynamic suspension to its stiffest mode.
The NSX’s interior is likely showcasing a few things that will trickle down into other Acura models. As you’d expect from a car costing over $156,000, cowhide is slathered galore. In addition to the requisite seats with Alcantara inserts (to keep your behind planted) the NSX uses a leather dashboard, leather coated doors and leather center console.
As we see in other high-performance cars, the NSX borrows plenty of parts from the Honda and Acura parts bin. The shifter, buttons on the steering wheel and the window switches see duty in other Acura models. Borrowing the two-screen infotainment system from the TLX would have made the dash too high, so they swiped essentially the same system used in the Honda Civic Touring to deliver the first Acura with CarPlay and Android Auto. To reduce weight, Acura made navigation and satellite radio optional, a move that strikes me as penny pinching, but everyone else does the same thing to save a few ounces. While some owners may complain that their supercar uses a subcompact’s nav system, remember that Ferrari uses the same systems as the Dodge Dart and Caravan.
As we saw from Lexus in the LFA, Acura’s conservative ethos is apparent even in its “think outside the box” halo car. This manifests itself in everything from the select parts shared with other Honda and Acura models to the decision to use an ELS-branded audio system instead of something from an exotic and unproven supplier. The result is a pragmatic interior that doesn’t scream luxury the same way a $180,000 Bentley does, but it’s likely to withstand the rigors of daily driving and parking in the sun better than the average exotic.
Acura’s pragmatism is instantly apparent when you drive the NSX on public roads. Despite having similar suspension travel to a Ferrari 458, the NSX’s suspension is daily driver suitable in “Quiet” mode. In fact, the very existence of a “Quiet” mode demonstrates Acura’s intention that the NSX be something you can drive every day. Out on I-10, the NSX soaked up road imperfections as well as a BMW M235i. On the mountain highways, selecting Sport+ changes the NSX’s character turning it into a corner carving machine, but one that feels immediately in tune with the driver. The “easy to live with” nature of the original NSX is present in the new NSX in a way that I hadn’t expected. I’m sure it’s all in my head, but every time I drive a car like a Viper or Ferrari, driving them requires more attention, more “respect” and on the track it seems that it’s easier to make a wrong move. The NSX, on the other hand, and quite like a modern AWD Porsche 911, is forgiving thanks to expertly programmed software.
Part of our day in the NSX was spent at a private track in the Southern California desert near Coachella. (Yes, that Coachella.) I’m not normally a fan of track events like this since you’re not usually free to explore the limits of a car’s ability — and for good reason. The small collection of pre-production NSXs, all labeled number 000, are the only ones in existence at the moment since the factory won’t start production for another few weeks. Crash one of these babies and there would be 20-percent fewer cars for the next group of journalists to sample. It therefore surprised me that so little actual instruction or “babysitting” was employed. Mid-apex, the right-seat Acura engineer said, “Just mash the accelerator.” Doing so in a classic RWD 911 (or NSX for that matter) would have ended badly, but the modern NSX’s front motors dug in and helped control the NSX as its ass kicked out.
Simply put, the car went exactly where it was pointed.
Acura regularly referred to the NSX’s ability to “line trace,” or follow the intended line on the track without additional driver input. You may recall videos where a hot lap driver is practically see-sawing the steering wheel on a car to correct the trajectory; that doesn’t happen to the same extent in the NSX. The resulting steering feel on the track or out on a winding mountain road takes some getting used to in the same way that Infiniti’s steer-by-wire system feels a hair unnatural at first. While Infiniti corrects the “trace” by turning the steering wheel, Acura nudges the front of the NSX around with the motors.
The NSX is the first hybrid that has brake feel on par with a traditional vacuum-assisted system. Acura uses a partial brake-by-wire system that allows the software to directly control the application of the friction brakes and the regeneration by the front motors. The result is pedal feel and consistency of deceleration that BMW’s i8 can only dream of. The ability of the system to control the regen braking on each front wheel independently likely adds to the stable braking feel.
With a starting price of $156,000, the NSX can be seen as an incredible value — or insanely expensive. Take your pick. For the price of the NSX, you could get three well equipped MDX crossovers or a well-equipped Porsche 911 4S. On the other hand, a Porsche 918 Spyder is an astronomical $689,000 more expensive. What of BMW’s i8? It marches to a different drummer with skinny tires (for a supercar), a front wheel drive pure EV mode and a three-cylinder turbo engine. Although “NSX” has cachet as a brand, I’m not sure how many of the Ferrari or Lamborghini faithful will jump ship.
I think the best comparison for the NSX is Porsche’s 911. The Acura’s price tag slots between the 911 4S and 911 Turbo while 0-60 mph performance and handling are more Turbo than 4S. The Porsche has an interior that’s more harmonious and consistently more luxurious than the NSX, and it can also be equipped with luxury car features like radar adaptive cruise control, mahogany wood trim, and 871-watts of high-end stereo … but it won’t handle like an NSX, look like an NSX or be as exclusive as an NSX. With comparable pricing being a virtual wash between the models, I have to admit I would lean towards the NSX because of it’s “LOOK AT ME!” styling, easy to live with attitude and expected high reliability. Does that make the NSX the best supercar buy or just the most pragmatic supercar available?
[Images: © 2016 Alex L. Dykes/The Truth About Cars, Acura]
Acura provided the vehicle at a launch event which was inexplicably located in Thermal, CA. Transportation via Southwest Airlines, lodging and two snazzy dinners at the Ritz Carlton were also provided.
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