Honda NSX

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A legendary name returns, but it’s not necessarily the car you might imagine | By Andrew Frankel

sually my job in this space is to tell you whether the subject car is any good or not. With the new Honda NSX, however, there is a perhaps greater priority, namely figuring out exactly what kind of car it is.

It seems pretty self-evident. A low slung, two-seat mid-engined car bearing NSX badges was always going to try to rewrite the rules of sports car behaviour, as did its forebear more than a quarter-century ago. Surely? The answer is nothing like so clear.

Honda is adamant the new NSX is a true son of the original. It points not only to the configuration they share but also the fact that, now as then, the NSX sits at the technological cutting edge of sports car endeavour. I, though, find more of note in the ways that they differ. The first NSX was a largely conventional car even by the standards of 1990, but what made it extraordinary was perhaps the unprecedented excellence of its execution. Everything from its delightfully free-spinning engine, past its whipcrack gearchange to its beautiful, forged-aluminium wishbones spoke for the dedication and focus of those who created it. The result was simple, light and gorgeous.

Well, you may nor may not consider the new NSX to be gorgeous – I think it’s extremely attractive, especially from the rear – but no one is ever going to call it simple or light. I think it is probably the first car to go on sale to derive its power from four motors – three electric and one internal combustion – and when you factor in the battery pack, four-wheel-drive system and its 10 different heat exchangers, the result is a car that weighs 1788kg in standard form. That’s not only at least 200kg more than any other mid-engined rival and over a third of a tonne more than the class-leading McLaren 570S, it’s only a couple of sacks of spuds off cars like entry-level Jaguar XJs and 7-series BMWs.

Honda’s response to any suggestion of excess avoirdupois is to suggest you get in the thing and drive it before rushing to judge, which sounds reasonable.

Besides, this is a hugely clever car and one in which I suspect you’d need to spend a few weeks before you could say you knew it well. But essentially the engine is a twin-turbo 3.5-litre V6 producing 500bhp. Between it and its similarly new nine-speed double-clutch gearbox is an electric motor, whose primary role is to provide torque to eliminate turbo-lag – a trick the McLaren P1 has already shown to be extremely effective. Meanwhile, the front wheels each get an electric motor that contributes to the total power output but whose real purpose is to provide active torque vectoring during cornering. Because each motor is entirely independent of the other despite living under the same roof, one can accelerate an outer wheel while the other brakes the inner wheel to help counter understeer by angling the car into the corner. Like I said, it’s all very clever.

The spaceframe is largely aluminium, but with steel added in strength-critical areas like the A-pillars while a carbon-fibre floor contributes to static torsional rigidity said to be three times that of a Ferrari 458. Interestingly, no comparative figure was given for McLaren’s equally relevant carbon-fibre tub.

In practical terms there’s enough, just, of everything. Enough space for two 6ft adults, enough luggage room for a couple of holdalls. But most interior materials are exquisite and all-round visibility is exceptional for such a car.

I start at Estoril, playing between four driving modes – quiet, sport, sport plus and track – all of which have their own settings for the steering, damping, brake pedal force, throttle response and gearbox map. Frustratingly, however, you cannot pick ’n’ mix and choose, say, the gentle damping but fast gearshifts that would likely be most effective on British country roads. Apparently it will come on a later version.

Its noise is both sharp and interesting, not as good as an original NSX, but no turbocharged car ever stood a hope of that. At first it feels quicker than the numbers suggest. Even with a total of 573bhp, the car is so heavy its power to weight ratio is inferior to natural competitors such as the Porsche 911 Turbo S, McLaren 570S and Audi R8 Plus, but such is its traction and so immediate is its electrically enhanced response that it fairly blasts out of the traps. But at speed on public roads it feels a step below these cars. So it has vivid, attention-grabbing acceleration, but not quite enough for the novelty never to wear off in this kind of car – especially above 120mph, when the electric motors shut down to avoid over-speeding at a combined cost of about 75bhp.

Even so, the way the NSX deals with a track is highly impressive for a car of this mass, at least on the decidedly non-standard Pirelli Trofeo R semi-slicks Honda chose to bolt to the cars (those we were allowed to drive on the road came with standard Continental rubber). The way to get the most from it is to drive it like a racing car, which given its mass is somewhat counter-intuitive. But you’ll never feel that front axle really do its stuff until you enter a corner at highly ambitious speed and trail brake it all the way into the apex. Then it will hit its marks in a manner that utterly belies its weight. It’s beautifully balanced, too, providing for a sweet transition into gentle oversteer if you deliberately dose the rear axle with just a touch too much torque towards the exit.

Out on the road and away from track mode, it’s decidedly different. It felt wide but I think that said more about the narrow hill routes above Lisbon than the car itself. It has grip aplenty, superb (optional) carbon brakes and unflustered poise on even pretty terrible surfaces. But it stopped short of being a hoot, the kind of car you want to drive until the tank runs dry, fill and drive some more. On the other hand, when the fun is over and it’s time to hit the motorway home, it’s civility probably sets new standards for such machines, riding as well as any in the class and, in ‘quiet’ mode, being a sight more refined.

The NSX’s problem, if a problem it has, is likely to be one of perception. That name and those looks promise one thing, while the car beneath delivers quite another. It is probably the least exciting mid-engined two-seater this kind of money can buy, but on the other hand has the best manners. Honda’s calculation is likely to be that most customers will value the latter over the former, even if in public they profess otherwise. But in truth, this is a car far closer both in concept and execution to a faster BMW i8 than a McLaren 570S. That’s neither necessarily good or bad, it’s just not what I had expected. 

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