Honda NSX: The Fearless Rival Of Porsche?

ENCRUSTED IN A GRITTY CARAPACE OF SALTY winter crud, the NSX is a long way from the dazzling vision of hybrid technology and immaculate engineering that you might expect of Honda’s halo car. Here, high up on the North York Moors, a week’s worth of driving is crystallising – literally and metaphorically-into thoughts and feelings about a unique and fascinating supercar. It was a similar story back in 1993, when as a 22-year-old road tester working for a now long-defunct publication, I was handed the gorgeous Monel alloy ignition key to a brand-new NSX. And for an entire weekend. A ‘Senna-spec’ 3-litre NA1 model with manual transmission, unassisted steering, blood-red bodywork and piano-black turret top, it was an exquisite machine and the first bona fide supercar I’d been allowed to truly get to know. It was a weekend, and a car, to remember. Then, as now, the NSX was cloaked in an air of mystery and scepticism. For starters, it took an age to reach production. That’s become something of a Japanese tradition, but it only served to feed those also keen to point out that it wasn’t class-leading in terms of engine power or straight-line performance. And despite Honda’s mighty efforts and tremendous success in Formula 1, the very idea of a mainstream Japanese manufacturer building a proper Ferrari-rivalling mid-engined supercar still seemed mildly preposterous. Yet the NSX was the real deal.

Albeit one that went about its business in an entirely different way. Not for Honda the truculent and slightly flaky approach of Italian exotica. Or the fierce-yet-flawed delivery of Porsche’s 964 Turbo, or Aston’s aristocratic but outmoded Virage. The NSX was something new. Visually there was little to frighten the established players – its styling was sleek but polite, the interior nicely made, if rather subdued and unrelentingly black – but by splicing advanced aerodynamics, extensive use of aluminium and that fabulous, howling midship-mounted VTEC V6 with everyday practicality, comfort and durability, the NSX created a new envelope of abilities that extended beyond raw speed and sex appeal.

Much has changed since those distant days. Performance has leapt remarkably across the spectrum, and advances in transmissions, tyres, brakes and electronics have made it much more accessible. The supercar sector has grown almost exponentially, with brands as diverse as Audi and McLaren now occupying the same space as Ferrari and Lamborghini, while Aston Martin, Mercedes and Porsche provide fearsome alternatives. And then there’s the rise of the hybrid hypercar. Packed with tech and boasting million-dollar price tags, they have forged ahead into a whole new realm of speed, drama and -thanks to their use of electric propulsion to augment their internal combustion engines – a degree of social conscience.

The new NSX was never going to be run-of-the-mill, but few expected it to be quite so bold. We’ve gone into detail about its technology before, so I won’t revisit the minutiae here, but even the basic details make impressive reading: a twin-turbo 3.5-litre V6 with 507hp and 550Nm of torque, bolstered by a trio of electric motors: one between the engine and the nine-speed (count ’em!) DCT gearbox, delivering its 47hp and 146Nm to the rear axle, plus a pair of 36hp/73Nm motors acting on the front wheels.

The contribution of these motors is made at different phases in the low- and mid-zone of the petrol engine’s rev range, so you’re never shoved down the road by all those maximum outputs together. Thankfully, to help dumb-asses like me get my head around what it all means, the clever people at Honda have calculated that 580hp and 645Nm are the largest combined outputs you’ll get from the NSX. To put that into context, the Audi R8 V10 Plus has 610hp and 560Nm, a rear-drive Lamborghini Huracan has 580hp and 538Nm, and a McLaren 570S has 570hp and 600Nm. Safe to say the NSX has some stonk, though at 1776kg it needs all the grunt it can muster.

This, then, is my first exposure to the car. Why test it again? Well, we threw the NSX into eCoty knowing that the nature of that test places freakish demands on the cars and the test team. Extended single-car tests, where you spend unbroken days and many miles on all manner of roads, are where you really get to explore a new car’s character and abilities. So this is a chance to devote some quality time to this complex and compelling car. It’s not often I can say a new supercar fosters great fascination and a real hope yet raises genuine concerns it won’t be convincing or seductive to drive. Years of testing cars mean you can usually build a picture in your mind of how a car will feel and, perhaps more importantly, how it will make you feel, but because the NSX is one of those rare, clean-sheet projects, it’s impossible to second-guess.

The first test of any supercar begins before you even open the door. I had some doubts about the NSX’s looks, but the difference between seeing it on a page or screen and seeing it in real life is huge. The size of it, the stance and its individuality mean it really does look the part. White really suits it – as fitting for a Japanese supercar (albeit one developed in the USA) as red is for a Ferrari – and the detailing is bold and memorable without being gimmicky. The hawkish nose, angular flanks and stubby tail shrink the car’s scale and slam it to the road like a stingray hugs the seabed.

Open the door and the interior is busy but well laid-out. Not as clean and minimal as a McLaren’s, as ordered as an Audi’s or as inviting as a Ferrari’s, but it looks the part and feels of decent quality. The driving position is spot-on. It’s low but not too low, and the faceted steering wheel is generous in diameter and feels good in your hands. Most importantly, despite the incredible technology packed into the car, it’s intuitive to simply jump into and drive. As you’d expect, there are a multitude of driving modes.

Accessed via a rotary control in the centre of the dashboard ‘waterfall’, on offer is everything from Quiet to Track, with Sport and Sport+ in between. Each one incrementally alters powertrain response, damping firmness, control weights and stability-control thresholds, not to mention the sound piped into the cockpit from the induction system. You soon discover each is distinct from the others. Quiet mode is surprisingly satisfying, for it cloaks the NSX in a serene calm. The engine is extremely well muffled, which makes for discreet early-morning start-ups, and though this isn’t a plug-in hybrid like the Porsche 918, the battery soon gains and stores enough energy for the NSX to switch itself into electric mode and waft you along at low speeds with a whirr and a modest kerfuffle ofroad and wind noise. The novelty of this never wears off.

Nudge to Sport and you immediately feel more immersed in familiar territory. There’s an energy and intent about the car, exciting as much for the reserves of pent-up performance yet to be tapped as for the confident, polished way in which it makes swift, unfussed progress. The magnetic damping strikes an ice balance between support and suppleness, so although there’s a tangible increase in tautness as you switch from Quiet to Sport, it doesn’t come with sharp edges. If you came to the NSX in blissful ignorance of its hybrid tech, you’d merely think it had an absolute mutha of an engine tucked behind your shoulders. If you concentrate, you’ll detect a faint depletion of shove once the electric motors have done their bit up to 4000rpm, but in truth the sensation of slingshotting out of corners and down the road is all-consuming. Similarly, the fly-by-wire brakes – one of the bigger challenges with hybrid tech – are extremely well honed, disguising the varying degrees of regen effect with a firm, consistent pedal and deeply impressive stopping power.

You need a smooth road to truly enjoy it, but upping the ante to Sport+ is where you really feel like the NSX is turning up the heat. With more weight in the steering, more immediacy to the power delivery and greater firmness in the damping, it feels as if both you and the car have been plumbed into a shared adrenal gland. The nine-speed DCT transmission is one of the best judged of its kind, with ultra-clean and eerily prescient up- and downshifts when left to its own devices. That said, it’s more fun to flip the paddles yourself. The steering is alert but not jumpy in its responses, and while it’s not as immediately communicative as, say, a Ferrari 488’s, if you give yourself a chance to dial yourself in there’s feel and connection to be found. The front end has terrific bite. Almost too much for the tail to keep up with, in fact. Sometimes, if you’re aggressive with your initial steering input, you’ll feel the tail begin to rotate, at least in slow corners, but the stability-control system brings things back into line. Through faster corners the NSX is calmer but still incredibly agile. It feels alive, up on its toes but somehow still planted, so you trust in the grip and lean on it early and with increasing conviction.

Let loose across the moors, the NSX is a spellbinding car. Of course, there’s speed to spare. So much that you have to restrict yourself to short bursts of acceleration before settling into a reined-in canter, trading raw G-force for enjoying the way this car finds a flow. It copes with crests and compressions so well, cuts clean lines through last, transient bends and puts its power down emphatically. Stay in Sport or Sport+ and the damping feels just right-tight and controlled, but free enough to let the car find its feet and get in sync with the road, breathing with the nuances of its surface.

There’s a clarity to what this car does. It’s not exuberant or wildly expressive in the manner of a Ferrari, but it feels connected and it works so well on fast and challenging roads. It’s effortlessly quick and admirably light on its feet, without divorcing you from the excitement of driving. And when you do decide to pull the pin, it feels otherworldly fast, not just accruing speed but grabbing it in 15km/h chunks. As ever with hybrid cars, the elephant in the room is exactly what all the batteries and motors bring, apart from the pros of bolstered performance and short bursts of zero-emission riving and the cons of weight and frightening complexity.

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