Thermal, Calif. — I’m a full 12 laps into my time behind the wheel of the 2017 Honda NSX when the realisation strikes me: I need to figure out a new driving style in order to make the most of this all-new hybrid supercar. But once the chequered flag flew to close out the final four-lap session, my track time with the car, at the Thermal Club in a blistering hot California, had come to an end.
This is the kind of thing that can happen when testing a supercar that is loaded to the gills with technology, much of it focused on making the driving experience rewarding for the seasoned professional and manageable for the rank amateur — all at the same time.
Allow me to explain.
The engineers at the Honda Performance Manufacturing Center in Marysville, Ohio, did not, in their own words, set out to create a “track monster.” Their target was to develop the spiritual successor to the original NSX, produced from 1990-2005, which featured strong engine performance, telepathic handling and solid reliability. That car proved to be so good, it raised the bar for more familiar supercar builders such as Ferrari.
This time around, even though track performance was supposedly not their intended goal, the Honda engineers targeted the Ferrari 458, one of the best supercars ever built and a car that is easy to drive at high speeds on a closed circuit. Compared to the Italians, they took a completely different approach to generating performance, but they wanted to capture that essential easygoing nature — and they’ve succeeded.
Despite the fact that the Honda NSX features a hybrid powertrain and a torque-vectoring AWD system, it also feels like a well-balanced and proper supercar. But there are some quirks. The hybrid powertrain sees a mid-mounted twin-turbocharged 3.5-litre petrol V6 linked to a pair of electric motors at the front, each one responsible for guiding one of the front wheels. Behind that V6, there is another electric motor, a direct drive unit that connects to the 9-speed dual-clutch automatic. (In case you haven’t noticed by now, the Honda NSX is a technologically sophisticated machine.)
Total system power rolls in at 427kW, which is available from 6500rpm right up to the car’s 7500rpm redline. The torque, all 550Nm of it, comes in at a credible 2000 rpm. The NSX has an automatic launch control system — no special buttons to push, just press both the brake and the accelerator to the floor, wait for a signal to appear in the instrument panel, and release the brake.
With all four wheels churning and the transmission left in automatic, the Honda rockets off the line with so little drama, it almost doesn’t feel all that quick. Yet it certainly is quick: The sprint from 0-100km/h takes three seconds flat. The NSX then goes on to record a top speed of 307km/h. Not too shabby.
While the electric motors and all-wheel drive system help to propel this supercar down a straight, they also give the NSX some interesting cornering capabilities. If you’re like me, you’ve no doubt experienced the tendency for all-wheel drive supercars to understeer when a corner is taken too quickly or you try to get on the throttle too soon while in said corner. This can make for an excruciating track experience as you’re forced to either tiptoe through corners or toss it in sideways from the start and hope for the best.
The NSX also understeers in these circumstances — and then it doesn’t.
The torque-vectoring capability of the Sport Hybrid SH-AWD system over-accelerates the outside wheels to help bend the car around corners. At the same time, the two electric motors at the front are pulling the car forward. So the NSX understeers in certain situations and then corrects itself automatically; this is the revelation that required me to consider a new driving style.
While the acceleration and the handling of the NSX are both commendable, they pale in comparison to the regenerative braking system, which is flat-out brilliant. Many of these regenerative systems suffer from inconsistent pedal feel or simply not enough stopping power. The NSX is the exception that proves the rule; the brake-by-wire system creates a remarkably consistent feel and the optional carbon ceramic brake package delivers the stopping power expected of a supercar.
The transmission is also stellar. In automatic mode, it unfailingly selected the proper gear at the proper time, never once entering or exiting a corner in too high or too low a gear. At no time did I believe I was shifting as well in manual mode as the machine could shift on its own. This was another eye-opener.
On the open road, there was the opportunity to sample the car’s other three, non-race drive modes and to establish its credentials as the proverbial “everyday supercar.” The NSX did not disappoint here either.
The chassis, a mixed-material creation made of aluminum, steel and carbon fibre, is resolutely rigid — either two or three times as much as its closest competitor, according to the engineers at Honda. This has enabled the adaptive suspension system to provide a supple and controlled ride on bumpier roads, as well as a stiffer set-up for track duty. I wouldn’t describe the NSX suspension system as being quite as wide-ranging as that of the McLaren 650S — the standard-bearer, in my mind — but it’s not far off the mark either.
In quiet mode, the most docile of them all, two of the four exhaust pipes shut down and the car can travel at speeds of up to 80km/h on electric power alone. While this all-electric commuting does not last for long (less than 4 km, in fact), this mode does help give the NSX truly remarkable fuel efficiency. (Automatic start/stop is also part of the picture.)
With all the settings at their most relaxed, the Honda NSX almost becomes a completely workable everyday commuter. Of course, there’s not much space for your gear in the two-seater cabin. The boot is not large, either, and it’s positioned perilously close to engine bay. (Pro tip: Don’t leave any packs of gum back there.) But the seats are nicely contoured and supportive, the driving position feels slightly elevated and visibility forward is very good.
The way in which leather, metal and carbon fibre have been incorporated shows creativity. The squared-off steering wheel is a nice touch. But owners of far less expensive Honda vehicles will recognize the navigation system screen and some of the controls. (To be fair, the first Audi R8 featured switchgear borrowed from an A3 and some Ferrari vehicles have used Chrysler navigation systems.)
While the 2017 Honda NSX can’t lay claim to the same performance levels of the hybrid hypercar trio from Ferrari, McLaren and Porsche, it’s important to remember that it will cost far less. For a closer comparison, one might consider the BMW i8, a similarly exotic hybrid that offers nowhere near the outright performance of the NSX.
Without question, the latest NSX is a credible supercar that is loaded to the teeth with technology. It’s not much like the original in execution, but it’s definitely similar in terms of intent. More importantly, it’s a car that stays true to Honda’s roots in racing… even if they don’t consider it a track monster.