There are ghosts in the machine – among many other things. Fans of Ayrton Senna will know that he played a significant role in developing the original Honda NSX, the lightweight, mid-engined supercar from Japan’s most dependably left-field automotive (and motorbike and lawnmower) company. A car that landed just when Porsche and Ferrari had both badly fumbled the ball. The Japanese engineers, whose V6 propelled Senna to three Formula One world championships, adored the mercurial McLaren driver. The NSX was their gift to the rest of us. Twenty-six years later, I’m thundering down the main straight of the Estoril racing circuit in the Algarve, in an all-new NSX. Senna fans will definitely remember this as the venue for his debut Formula One win, after a rain-lashed 1985 Portuguese Grand Prix, but if the Brazilian genius was still around it’s unlikely he’d recognise Honda’s “New Sportscar experimental” (you can see why they abbreviated it).
Sure, it’s still mid-engined, the shape is broadly evolutionary and it has four wheels; nuclear fission has also yet to displace internal combustion as the primary means of propulsion. But the original’s elegant engineering ethos is now an extraordinarily complex 21st-century manifesto. Honda has been piloting the hybrid bandwagon for years now, so there was no way its new flagship was going to arrive without electric motors and the associated Wired-era buzz. Like BMW’s brilliant i8 and Porsche’s epic 918, this isn’t really about efficiency – though it certainly helps – or being able to offset your selfish supercar egotism by wafting smugly through town on regenerated electric power alone, though you can do that, too. No, the NSX is a clean sheet of paper, a fully integrated masterpiece of ambition, coursing with software algorithms that alternate between making you smile and stopping you disappearing into the scenery before the thought has even crossed your mind.
Most of the power comes from an all-new 3.5-litre twin-turbocharged V6, which produces 500bhp between 6,500 and 7,500rpm and lies longitudinally behind the cabin. It sits low in the chassis, it’s a dry sump and the turbos are either side of the main bank rather than on top, all of which gives the NSX a class-leading low centre of gravity (this is crucial, especially for a mid-engined car, and impressive given that the new NSX is up against Audi, Ferrari and Porsche). The carbon-shrouded V6 also looks stunning, in an HR Giger creepy-cool xenomorph kind of way. Next up is the electric motor, which ponies up another 47bhp and acts as the starter motor and a flywheel; a nine-speed (nine!) dual-clutch transmission sits behind that. How they found the room for all this stuff is beyond me. There’s a decent boot, too, because the NSX was largely developed by Honda’s US Acura arm, and Americans like playing golf. (It’s always golf clubs, never rifles.) There’s more.
A twin motor unit lives on the front axle and throws an additional 36bhp into the equation, though their primary function is to deliver “torque vectoring” – to sharpen turn-in and increase stability in high-speed cornering. There’s also a mechanical limited slip differential on the rear axle, which should keep things planted and predictable at that end, and the whole lot is suspended using two-stage magnetic dampers. It’s a deeply impressive armoury of tech, although the pay-off is a chunky 1,725kg kerb weight. Plus, there’s no escaping the nagging doubt that this sort of technology overload would have Senna-style purists checking into a Buddhist retreat in Bhutan.
So the big question is, does it actually work? Hell, yeah! This digitally remastered Aphex Twin opus turns into a Bessie Smith 78 when you drop the hammer. There are four driving modes – Quiet, Sport, Sport+ and Track – the first two of which turn out to be rather annoying, if only because those algorithms are a bit too cotton-woolly for my liking, even in everyday use. Everything gets more interesting and more organic in Sport+ and beyond; the immense pull of that engine, overlaid with some sonic fireworks, is only slightly undermined by the whoosh from the turbo’s wastegate.
The NSX joins that elite band of nutters that can accelerate to 60mph in less than three seconds, and with a total of 573bhp to play with, its performance thereafter is similarly electrifying. Around Estoril, it’s majestically good, all of its high-tech onboard firepower coming together like ingredients in a giant NutriBullet. The trick here is to make the science entertain as well as protect and to be honest the NSX lets you get away with murder. Its chassis, braking, steering and powertrain are all right at the top of what’s currently possible, while remembering to titillate in the manner of, say, the latest Porsche 911 GT3 RS.
That’s some feat. Sure, some of the interior plastics are a bit rum, but this is such a peerless driving tool you’ll get over that pretty fast. It’s easy to live with, too. This is the work of some very clever people indeed. Turns out that three time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti had a hand in ensuring and preserving the NSX’s soul. Unlike plenty of racing drivers I know, Franchitti genuinely loves well-engineered and rapid road cars and had tipped me the wink that the NSX was the real deal. He should know, I guess. What’s more, he was right.