The 2017 Honda NSX is without doubt one of the greatest supercars ever made.
This is a car that provides a dynamic ability and scalability unlike anything in its price bracket, but, at a staggering $420,000 (plus on road costs), this Japanese supercar is in uncharted territory.
The original Honda NSX, which stood for New Sports Experimental, was the first mass-produced car to use an all-aluminium body. It was on sale in Australia from 1991 to 2004, finding just 133 buyers - roughly 10 per year - and, over its 13 year history, it went on to represent the best of what Honda stood for in the automotive market.
Fast-forward 12 years and the new NSX, now meaning New Sports eXperience, is hoping to do it all over again. Bringing back the NSX was critical to today’s Honda. The Japanese brand felt the full brunt of the global financial crisis, as well as earthquakes in Japan and floods in Thailand, all putting it on the back foot for the last few years. Now, though, it’s back. With a vengeance.
When Honda rebooted the NSX program for what must have been the 100th time in 2012, it ditched its naturally-aspirated engine and went for a turbocharged solution that resulted in basically three separate power units that give a total power output of 427kW and 646Nm of torque.
The 3.5-litre twin-turbo V6 on its own manages 373kW and 550Nm, with that might pointed at the rear wheels. It’s the addition of the two electric motors at the front (one on each wheel) that provide 27kW and 73Nm (each side) plus the 35kW direct-drive motor that assists the rear wheels in overcoming turbo lag, all joining together for that mammoth combined system output. Don’t try and add the figures together, either - it doesn’t really work like that.
What all of this means is an enormous amount of power and torque that appears to be accessible across the rev range. The NSX has the benefits of an electric car with instantaneous torque delivery, while utilising a high-compression turbocharged engine (10.0:1) to deliver a real motivating force through a Honda-designed nine-speed dual-clutch transmission.
To find out if the NSX was as good behind the wheel as it sounded on paper, we headed to Estoril in Portugal, where a high-speed racetrack and the surrounding mountainous roads proved a real test for the latest Japanese supercar (which is actually hand-built in Ohio, USA).
Perhaps, though - before we get stuck into the car’s specifics - it’s important to address the elephant in the room: the very serious "supercar" classification that Honda has given the NSX. It certainly has the performance credentials and the price tag to back it up - but are those the only two criteria for what makes a supercar?
Can a Honda-badged vehicle, on merit alone, claim status in the supercar world? Can the brand stretch that far? That’s a question buyers will have to answer with their wallets. As it stands in Australia, the NSX is about the same price as a Lamborghini Huracan and Porsche 911 Turbo S and more expensive than both variants of the new Audi R8. It costs more than double the Nissan GT-R black edition. So it’s only fair that when we come to assess the NSX, it’s pitted equally, in all regards, against its true competitor set.
From the outside, the Honda NSX is a rather striking car. It’s unfortunate (for NSX buyers) that Honda has now utilised the front-end styling across other models, because, while it looks good in isolation, it bears far too much resemblance to the likes of the Honda Civic. The rear, though, is rather unique and helps set the car apart.
Even so, the level of design flair and drama on offer from its Italian rivals goes unmatched. Not just on the outside, either.
Jump in and the 'Hondaness' of the NSX is immediately apparent. The 7.0-inch multimedia system is a direct clone of the one you’ll find in the Honda Civic. The steering wheel paddles are plastic and borrowed from another model, they feel cheap to touch and require far too much movement per change. The switchgear, while mostly unique, feels and looks like something that belongs in a $50,000 car.
The seats are nice and supportive, but they don’t scream supercar. There’s not even an NSX badge on the headrest. Simple things, little things that you’ll even find in a BMW M or Mercedes-AMG model that are clearly lacking here.
Overall, the NSX’s interior lacks the dramatic cockpit style approach of a Huracan, while coming nowhere close to the sophisticated style and build quality of the new Audi R8 or Porsche 911 Turbo. Comparing a Honda with a Lamborghini or a Porsche isn't a need that comes up often, but, of course, the NSX's pricing forces us to do just that.
The good news, though, is that once you’re over the fact that you’ve spent close to half-a-million dollars on a Honda, you get to enjoy it. As a performance car, and on merit alone, it makes its already mentioned rivals seem out-of-date and old-fashioned.
To get us started, Honda’s chief engineer for the NSX project, Jason Bilotta, jumped in the passenger seat for laps around Estoril racetrack. His primarily emphasis for the NSX was the car’s dynamic scalability. It offers four driving modes - Quiet, Sport, Sport Plus and Track - that are meant to suit every situation and driver.
Each mode varies 11 settings on the car, including power steering, drive-by-wire, braking force, yaw control, electric system output, suspension, vehicle stability, DCT, engine response and more.
In Quiet mode, which is where we started, the NSX could be mistaken for a Civic. That sounds harsh, but it’s actually a compliment. The supercar has such great forward visibility and noise insulation that when this mode is engaged, you could truly mistake your driving experience with that of a far more mundane vehicle.
The magnetic ride dampers of the NSX, in Quiet mode, result in an experience that is better than some city cars. It’s super comfortable, with a plush ride - even through Portugal’s cobblestone and very poorly surfaced roads.
Turn the drive-selector dial to the right and you’ll find Sport, where most owners will spend their time behind the wheel. It’s a good balance of performance without being too harsh. In all honesty, though, if you’re buying an NSX to be comfortable, you’re doing it wrong. The eXperience in NSX starts with Sport plus.
Here you have all the power and might of the car’s systems available, without compromising on stability or traction. It’s designed for when you want to go really fast but don’t want to run the risk of losing it around a corner.
It’s also where the NSX sounds its best. Honda says that the sound emitting from the NSX in the leap from Quiet mode to Sport Plus or Track mode varies by as much as 25dB. If you know anything about sound measurement, you will know that is a massive change. You can have a listen to it fly past on our facebook page here.
The NSX utilises double-wishbone double-ball-joint front suspension and a multi-link design at the rear. The front is meant to compensate for the electric motors to avoid any feelings of torque steer, while the back has to manage the turbocharged engine's might and its 42:58 front:rear weight distribution.
The engine is, of course, located at the rear - as is the only storage space. The high-voltage battery sits behind the driver and passenger seats, limiting any potential for storage. Meanwhile, under the bonnet is the electric componentry of the two front motors.
Around the racetrack, the NSX is at first strange to drive. There’s evident torque-vectoring going on at all times. So much so that you begin to realise you can trail-brake the Honda into corners deeper and deeper, relying more and more on the Brembo supplied six-piston front and four-piston rear carbon-ceramic brake system.
The nine-speed dual-clutch transmission is really a close ratio seven-speed unit with first gear used just for take-off and ninth gear for highway cruising. It’s a brilliant unit, which Honda admits was benchmarked against the best in the business: the Porsche 911 Turbo’s PDK.
Although the Honda NSX weighs a hefty 1780kg (kerb), which is not helped by the 160kg of electric drive and battery system componentry, it feels nothing like it on track. Throw it hard into a corner and the NSX dances around with extreme precision and finesse. It actually feels extremely agile in how quickly it can change direction or respond to driver input. If we had to guess the car’s mass based on driving experience alone, we would’ve said around 1400kg.
We performed a launch-control sequence (available in Sport Plus), where you simply hold the brake pedal with your left foot and flatten the accelerator with your right. It holds the revs at a rather underwhelming 2000RPM and then lets go with ballistic response.
It doesn’t need higher revs because the electric systems are in charge of the initial take off, eliminating any turbo lag that would’ve otherwise required a far-higher-RPM launch mode. Honda won’t officially say what the 0-100km/h time for the NSX is, for now, but it’s evidently in the very low three-second range.
One other neat trick of the NSX is that it can drift. Seriously. Put it in Track mode - which is engaged by turning the dial to the right yet one more time and holding it there for five seconds - which will give you about 15 degrees of slip (hence why it requires that five-second commitment to make sure it was intended), then hold down the ESC button - with another wait - and it will completely switch everything off and become an oversteer king.
Despite what you may think, the NSX doesn’t rely on its stability systems to make it good - it is inherently a well-balanced and composed machine. This is no more evident than at high speed with all the nanny controls switched fully off. Turn in to a tight corner and go for the accelerator a little earlier than you probably should and you’ll find yourself with an uncontrollable grin as the back steps out in the most predictable manner, followed by endless tyre smoke, symbolising the physical manifestation of happiness one feels inside the cabin.
Thanks to the two front electric motors, it’s also relatively straightforward to get the NSX pointing back in the right direction when you’ve run out of rubber at the back. By its nature, the NSX wants to oversteer, yet it never wants to step out completely. You couldn’t ask for more.
Steering response is brilliant. It’s super sharp and highly engaging, however we did feel that it was a little lighter than it probably ought to be.
Once you get used to the idea that the NSX can go flatter through a corner that it really has any right to, without the slightest issue, it becomes evident that Honda’s return to the supercar world has been well worth the wait. On a racetrack, the NSX surpassed our expectations massively. But it was on the open road that we truly fell in love with a Honda.
On a twisty stretch of road the NSX comes to life, more so than on a racetrack. As the road gets tighter, the weight of the car becomes more evident - not through the usual manner of body roll, but via momentary understeer before the torque vectoring system goes overboard and pulls you back into line. Its compliant suspension also sees it absorb the varying surfaces without ever bouncing around mid-corner.
Having recently spent considerable time in the new Audi R8, Lamborghini Huracan, Ferrari 488 GTB and Porsche 911, I can say with certainty that the NSX, as a package, does not fall short of any of its rivals.
It’s nowhere near as manic as the 488, and nor does it feel as fast on the go, yet where the Huracan falls over with relentless understeer, the NSX powers on. Perhaps then, it’s the Audi R8 that matches it on controllable power delivery and dynamic stability.
While the R8 feels most balanced and neutral in the purest sense, powering through corners with a sense of confidence that remains unmatched, the NSX is noticeably faster, but possesses similar characteristics without being as communicative to the driver. For us, it sits somewhere between a new R8 for sheer cornering ability and the 488 for outright speed. Ironically, that's also where it sits in price.
Ultimately, buying a $420,000 vehicle is not a rational decision, whether it's a Lamborghini, Ferrari or a Honda. It’s a purely emotional choice. In saying that, there is at least that sense of brand credibility and show factor with the European supercars brands, something that Honda is far from possessing at this time. Not to mention the interior of the car, which is not up to supercar levels by any standard.
It seems best to sum up the latest from Japan’s resurgent sports-car manufacturer as such: as a car, and on merit alone, the Honda NSX is arguably the best supercar for the money. It offers the best balance between a high-powered supercar and an electric sports car all in one very dynamically capable package. It’s Japan’s answer to the Porsche 918, LaFerrari and McLaren P1, and when put in that context, it’s rather cheap.
When it all comes down to it however, you can’t really fault the NSX for what it is, but you can certainly question the badge.