SONOMA, California — When Acura scheduled the first drive of the long-awaited 2017 Acura NSX, our list of questions ran off a notebook page. We know pretty much exactly what to expect when a new generation Porsche Cayman or Ferrari mid-engine coupe arrives, but the same cannot be said of Acura.
Honda Motor Company hasn’t taken a stab at a mid-engine sports car since it first released the NSX 25 years ago, and the 2017 version has no direct connection to that model — which ended production in 2005 — other than its legendary name.
The original rocked. Fast, inspirational, and economical, it opened up the world of mid-engine sports cars to many car lovers who could never afford or even care about a Ferrari. We’ve heard continual whispers of an NSX successor ever since — getting so far along as a Japanese-led team using a naturally aspirated engine before finally morphing into a turbo-charged hybrid run largely by an American team. It will now arrive as a 2017 model.
No wonder fans have been left with a giant, hovering question mark. What can we expect from the new NSX? Will it be worthy of the name?
We finally have an answer, as we were part of a tiny group worldwide who got a very early drive on both racetrack and open roads. In a nutshell: The new NSX is as contrarian and occasionally conservative as the parent company itself. And it absolutely earns the NSX moniker.
First, some basics. It is a hybrid. Like the Porsche 918, McLaren P1, and BMW i8, the 2017 Acura NSX uses electric motors — three of them — to lend instantaneous torque off the line.
The 3.5-liter gasoline engine is mounted longitudinally behind the cockpit. It is an all-new, twin-turbo V-6 making 500 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque. Peak power, utilizing the electric motors, is 573 hp 476 lb-ft of torque.
A direct-drive electric motor is attached to the engine’s crankshaft. Both work in concert with an all-new, wet-clutch 9-speed dual clutch transmission. The rear electric motor adds power, functions as a generator to help recharge the lithium battery pack, and serves as the starter motor. (Note: The NSX is not a plug-in.)
A twin-motor unit is housed up front. These two electric motors each separately drive a front wheel, and are otherwise mechanically independent from the rest of the powertrain. Upon demand, they add extra torque together or independently, aiding acceleration or cornering. In the latter case, they send extra power to the outside wheel, while the other inside wheel is slowed. Voila: Genuine torque vectoring.
This makes the NSX an all-wheel-drive coupe, but when operated in “Quiet” mode it can operate for short periods as an electrically powered front-wheel driver.
Weight is the complexity’s downside: 3,803 lb, with 58 percent distributed to the rear. Acura didn’t pursue a full-on carbon-fiber monocoque, using instead a more traditional mix of aluminum, high-strength steel, and carbon floor. Acura claims it is far more rigid than the Ferrari 458 — one of the cars it benchmarked along with the latest Porsche 911 Turbo and Audi R8 V10 Plus.
Indeed, Acura had to take the new NSX’s development very seriously. “We needed to make a real jump in technology,” says Ted Klaus, the NSX global development leader. “And we were sent packing by management more than once, quite frankly, but it was the kind of challenge they wanted us to absorb.”
The hybrid powertrain was developed in Tochigi, Japan. But nearly everything else, from the chassis, powertrain integration, interior, and final styling was a product of the American team in Raymond, Ohio, and the Acura Design Studio in Los Angeles. The car will be built in a new plant in Marysville, Ohio.
But Klaus says discussions were often ones of philosophy rather than individual technologies: What did they want the new NSX to be? What should the NSX represent as a company halo?
“We think we’re going to unsettle the sports-car world,” he says. “This is a different kind of sports car than currently exists. A new segment. And it’s going to disturb some people.”
It took me those full two days of driving to begin to understand what he was getting at. Because the NSX does rock. But it head-bangs quietly. Think of it as a new class of sports car: The stealth supercar. That’s a concept that takes some time to wrap your head around.
This stealth nature was very much the engineers’ goal. The NSX adheres to the classic “smooth is fast” racing mantra. The quicksilver transmission, magnetic shocks, and sweetly-tuned chassis work overtime so as to never unsettle the car or its pilot. That extends to details like the driver’s seat, which offers the best meld of comfort and rock-solid bolstering I’ve ever experienced. The steering wheel, too, feels like an ideally weighted tool in your palms — with accuracy that’s nearly dead-on perfect. The engineers pained over the length and pressure of the brake-pedal stroke, so it feels consistent in both parking lot and on racetrack. In fact, those brakes are some of the best all-around stoppers I’ve found in both arenas.
The result of all this finesse is that there are certain descriptors you’re unlikely to associate with the NSX: “White knuckles,” “nervous passengers,” and “skittish.” But so too are you unlikely to exit the car and pair it with “roar,” “scream,” or “wail.” Inside, the engine notes are muted, even in sport-plus and track mode. In fact, it is possible to forget that you’re even in a mid-engine car, owing to the stability and the relative lack of rear sound. That will bum out some enthusiasts.
On my first day with the car, at Sonoma Raceway in northern California, I tried out launch control. It’s dead simple: Engage “track” mode, left-foot brake, put gas to floor, release brake. A respectable blip of seconds later, the NSX cleaved through the air at 60 mph on its way to 100. (As is Honda’s wont, it plays very coy with 0-60 mph numbers. My best ass-feel guess is 3.4 seconds.)
But it left me cold. It was fast, but didn’t feel fast-fast. It didn’t grab me by the scruff and whip me around. Didn’t sucker punch me in the solar plexus as I stomped the gas nor chuff me in the chin each time it snap-crackle-popped to the next gear.
Fast forward to the end of my second day with the car, after I’d already gobbled several hundred miles of Golden State twisty roads. My expectations were better tuned with the car’s capabilities. I was in sync with the kind of speed it delivers. A typical moment went like this: A Prius up ahead plodded its way over a sinuous path through the foothills. I shoved down the gas pedal and the blue NSX performed two near-instantaneous downshifts. I didn’t feel the change in the car’s spine, none of the chassis tremor that comes in the Lamborghini Huracan when it drops down twice. The 9-speed dual-clutch transmission is in many ways as good as Porsche’s PDK, but it is as polite as a Japanese businessman.
Closing speeds are incredible, and the time the two Japanese cars existed side by side was infinitesimal. I was back into the right-hand lane in a lightning second, carrying huge speed into an uphill sweeping turn. The Prius existed somewhere behind me as a thought, a blip in time and space. My passenger was reading an e-mail on his cell at the time. He never even looked up.
So yes, the NSX is exceptionally fast. But you need the context of a good winding road to truly realize it. You’ve got to pass car after car after car in a blinding rush and see telephone poles flick by like toothpicks. Because neither the engine note behind you nor a shriek of tires nor squeal of brakes will announce it for you.
Acura has been using an active torque-transfer technology since 1996. The NSX employs what the company terms the “next generation Sport Hybrid Super-Handling All Wheel drive.” The issue with active torque vectoring is that a car doesn’t always respond as you expect it to.
On the racetrack, I briefly tried treating the NSX like a last-gen Audi R8 or current Huracan: Turn early, induce a bit of yaw so the nose is pointed to the exit, and allow the AWD to power me out. But the NSX’s torque vectoring is best when you slow the car through a corner using trail braking. Follow a traditional line, managing both brake pressure and then throttle carefully, and you will be well rewarded. You can carry great speed into corners. Get back on the gas too early though, and the car understeers like mad.
The stability and traction controls are too conservative for my taste, and can only be turned off completely in track mode. Even then they’ll step in if the car senses an impending spin. (The rear wheels are braked individually if the systems think the car is seriously out of shape.)
And yes, the exterior is conservative. I hoped I would love it in the flesh. We got plenty of happy cat-calls and “Hell yeah!” fists shakes as we drove around. But in light of cars like the Huracan and McLaren 570S, and certainly the new Ford GT, the NSX may look all too dated, all too soon.
A few final notes. When it comes to the original NSX’s delights, the new one mostly delivers. The dashboard is low and the sight lines marvelously unobstructed. The A pillars are thin. You sit low in the cockpit, yet it’s easy to get in and out. The front is high enough to negotiate most normal curbs and inclines. Everyday practicality achieved.
As for cost: Expect the new car to run north of $150,000 for the base model. That’s well cheaper than any Ferrari or Lamborghini, but puts it within sparring distance of upper-end Porsche 911s and the new McLaren 570S, and makes the Jaguar F-Type R a bargain.
And this: The engineers acknowledge it’s a starting point. A very good one. But as battery technology gets better and lighter, so too will their car.
The NSX’s approach is a surprising one, and some will knock its philosophy. But the 2017 Acura NSX isn’t soft rock. More like a power ballad.
2017 Acura NSX Specifications
- On Sale: Spring 2016
- Base Price: $150,000
- Engine: Rear wheels: Twin-turbo, 3.5-liter V-6/500 hp @ 6500-7500 rpm, 406 lb.-ft. @ 2000-6000 rpm, and electric motor. Front wheels: Two electric motors. Peak power: 573 hp
- Transmission: 9-speed dual-clutch automatic
- Layout: 2-door, mid-engine, AWD coupe
- EPA Mileage: N/A
- Suspension F/R: Double-wishbone, double lower control arm/Multi-link with magnetorheological coilovers
- Brakes: Vented discs
- Tires F/R: 245/35R-19 / 305/30R-20 Continental Conti-Sports Contact 5P
- L x W x H: 176.0 X 87.3 X 47.8 in
- Wheelbase: 103.5 in
- Headroom: 38.3 in
- Legroom: 42.8 in
- Shoulder Room: 57.6 in
- Cargo Volume: 3.9 cu ft
- Weight: 3,803 lb
- Weight Dist. F/R: 42/58
- 0-60 mph:
- 3.4 sec (est)
- 1/4-Mile: N/A
- Top Speed: 191 mph