Halo cars aren't designed to be best sellers. They're vital vanity projects – succinct statements of all a car company wants to be, and what it can do.
They can be culture-shifters. Witness the Audi R8, the BMW i8.
When it made its debut 25 years ago, the Acura NSX was the brand's first halo car. It defined the outer reaches of what Acura might become.
That it also redefined the supercar was incidental. With its transverse V-6 engine, sonorous VTEC soundtrack, and its aluminum body, it was an exotic rendered in almost Lotus-like simplicity.
We're a generation past that pristine original, and after a decade of planning and at least one ditched effort, there's a new NSX.
We drove it briefly last year and left with plenty of questions. Was it Acura's clever remix of the R8 or 918 Spyder? A BMW i8 with its priorities in order? A grown-up GT-R? A perfect polar opposite to the Corvette?
After hours on the privateer track in Thermal, California, and on the public roads outside of Palm Springs, we have some answers.
You're going to want to buckle in for this.
The long and winding road to production
The new NSX has been through a long gestation period. It lands in owner's garages this spring, after roughly four years in development in its current form.
That form only took shape after a stillborn attempt to recreate the car around a V-10 engine failed.
There's a parallel with the decade-in-the-making Lexus LFA, but the end result's far different from that carbon-fiber, $375,000 machine.
What's striking at first about the NSX is that it just barely acknowledged its past. The initials are the same, and there's plenty of aluminum in the new car, and the view to the road ahead is uncannily similar.
The billing is largely the same. Acura sees the new NSX as much an everyday supercar as the 1991-2005 original.
Everything else is different. The new NSX is an all-wheel-drive hybrid, with a longitudinal twin-turbo V-6, and a body composed of three main materials.
With concept after concept paraded around the auto-show circuit, the NSX is familiar to us now. That hasn't affected its essential hotness in one damn way.
Acura's finally broken out of its styling doldrums with this car. The NSX rifles through supercar stylebook, clearly inspired by the R8 and Ferrari 458 Italia without aping them.
The front end sets the track-smothering tone. The grille starts a bare few inches from the earth, spreading wide as it wraps LED headlights in it for a winged effect.
Aerodynamics dictated the big air intakes at the front and at the sides, and the way the side mirrors distance themselves from the body in Ferrari-like fashion. Instead of disfiguring the shape with ducts and scoops, NSX engineers cloaked the air paths at the hood line and in the car's haunches, where it resembles Audi and Lamborghini super cars most strongly.
Cooling for the NSX's complex drivetrain factors invisibly into the design. Airflow moves down the rear glass, where it's diverted to cool the engine and clutch, then directed out through massive rear ducts.
The shape balances out those engineering needs with pretty countermeasures, like the distinct fillip carved into the doors that leads into the side intakes. Simple, telegraphic LED taillamps cap broad, chiseled rear fenders. A big Acura caliper badge breaks up the abbreviated tail.
No more Civic
The first NSX had an arrestingly clean shape, and that extended to its plain cockpit--minus the arresting part. it was so spartan it was compared to the contemporary Civic.
The new NSX knows its way around a couturier, though some touches lay bare the lean development budget. It sweeps the driver and passenger up in a leathery embrace. Broad brush strokes of metallic trim give the cabin a visual skeleton.
Carbon-fiber trim can be fitted in a pricey package, and semi-aniline (less treated) leather and an Alcantara (synthetic suede) headliner dress up the cabin to the same high-wattage standard of the NSX's new rivals.
The first signal the car sends the driver, though, is a mixed one. The gentle camelback of console controls house pushbuttons for the transmission. There's no shift lever at all--one thing in a luxe Lincoln SUV, maybe, quite another in a grand-touring sports car crowding the supercar gates.
It's a relief to find long paddle-shift controls behind the steering wheel. They're there, once you get past the transmission touch switches that seem familiar if you've driven a Honda Pilot.
Look up, and the NSX's 8-inch digital display lays the virtual gauges on a slightly odd plane, tilted away from the driver. The pod's dominated by a tach, and toggles through color schemes from blue to red, based on the selected driving mode.
Switches and rollers run secondary systems from the steering wheel. A second screen--either 7 inches or 8 inches--runs the audio interface or the optional navigation.
Going the hybrid route
The original NSX had mechanical purity in spades, what with its manual steering, double-wishbone suspension, and naturally aspirated engine.
The new NSX drops supercar numbers for horsepower, top speed, and 0-60 mph times, but in no way delivers it as simply as the old NSX. Or even as an R8. Porsche's 918 Spyder is really the only analogue for its highly synthesized driving experience.
The word fidelity comes up a lot with engineers when they describe the NSX. It's not without some irony. They've spent years on algorithms to simulate true driving signals from a combination of gas and electric, motors and gears.
The new NSX is as technically convoluted as Congressional testimony--but actually delivers on the promise of driving clarity. Its seamless blend of technology earns it the supercar tag alone.
So does flogging it on the track and on the Ortega Highway.
Powertrain, in a nutshell
The quick way to describe the NSX's powertrain is to look at the graphic above. The long way is to ask one of its engineers to explain it.
The core of the NSX is a 75-degree, twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6 rated by itself at 500 horsepower. The engine has both direct and port injection, the latter for high-end fuel delivery. Its turbochargers run at 15.2 psi, and have electric wastegate control.
The engine relies on dry-sump lubrication to circulate oil. Without it, a standard oil pan would raise the height of the engine off the ground, and raise its center of gravity.
The engine is mounted longitudinally over the car's rear axle. A four-pack of lithium-ion battery units (72 cells in all) sits ahead of the engine. Behind it there's a direct-drive motor that adds 47 hp to net output, charges the battery pack, and smooths out shifts.
At the back end of the drivetrain, there's a 9-speed dual-clutch transmission and a limited-slip differential to tame all that power.
Ahead of batteries--down the console spine of the car--Acura wedges in a powerdrive unit that choreographs the hand-off of power from the batteries to a pair of front motors. Each kicks in 36 hp and 54 lb-ft maximum to individual front wheels; the car car run under light loads on that power alone, or can continuously shift power between the front motors to give the NSX torque-vectoring control.
All together, the specs tally up to a total system output of 573 hp and 476 lb-ft. Acura pegs 0-60 mph times at 3.0 seconds, delivered on demand with a launch-control mode. Top speed is rated at 191 mph, and EPA-rated fuel economy on recommended 93-octane fuel is 20 miles per gallon city, 22 highway, 21 combined.
Acura quotes a curb weight of 3,803 pounds, with a 42/58-percent front/rear weight distribution.
Push the start button to life, and the NSX calls up all the wonderful memories of the first-generation car. A healthy dose of ripe intake sounds permeate the cabin, because Acura set up the plumbing to do just that. While everything else in the NSX is damped to kill as much extraneous noise as possible, the NSX has pipes that pump in drivetrain noise. Call it selectively amplified, not artificial.
A Thermal expansion
Trundle out of the pit lane at The Thermal Club, and you'll strain to focus on what the gearhead passenger is trying to explain. You're too busy grappling with the way NSX's novel mechanicals expand the track, turning too-tight corners into huge, easily deciphered vistas.
Everything's servo-delivered here, electronically actuated and generated. The variable-ratio steering is electric, and while the suspension has aluminum wishbones front and rear, it's damped by a set of springs wrapped around magnetorheological shocks that change stiffness quickly, based on driving inputs and chosen modes.
Those modes span the usual gamut, from Track to Sport+, to Sport, to a re-dubbed Quiet mode. In Quiet, the car runs on electric when it can, then limits the gas engine to 4,000 rpm. Sport mode drops the rev limit and cranks up throttle and shift speed, as well as in-car drivetrain sound, while it leaves stop/start enabled. It's the car's default mode.
In Sport+, the NSX throws down maximum motor torque, more steering weight, more piped-in noise, all while its displays shift from blue and grey to yellow and red. Dial up Track mode, and launch control is enabled, the sound pipes open wide, and touchscreen access to A/C and audio systems is blocked. Track mode also maintains battery charge at 60 percent for consistent lap-to-lap performance, something I spot-check as we careen through three sets of four laps in NSXs in shades of red, white, and blue.
The NSX stops with Brembo brakes, 14.5-inch ventilated rotors with six-piston two-piece calipers up front and 14-inch ventilated rotors with four-piston monoblock calipers at the rear. The drive-mode selector also has sway over the stoppers, thanks to an electric servo to blend and moderate regenerative force and friction-brake force. Push on the pedal, and the NSX translates foot speed and pressure through consistent pedal feel, no matter which driving mode is selected, no matter whether it's shod with iron brakes or carbon-ceramic rotors.
Hookups are highly dependent on how sticky you want the NSX to get. The stock tires are Conti-Sport Contact 5P treads, 245/35ZR-19s in the front, 305/30ZR-20s at the rear. Test cars at Thermal wore optional Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R treads, and for ultimate grip, the NSX can be fitted with Michelin Sport Cup 2 tires--the ones that transform the awesome Shelby GT350 into the incredible GT350R.
This NSX has handling that's as progressive as its worldview. Some early first spins in the car faulted it for understeer, on those standard-issue Continental tires. The NSXs I needled around Thermal wore Pirelli's treads and ran in Track mode--and it seems to have made most of, if not all, the difference.
The electric rush of accelerating the NSX out of pit row is palpable. It's also a duh moment. Of course it's electric, because it's using those electric motors as fill power to gloss over the time it takes the 6-cylinder's twin turbos to spool up.
That's not long, mind you. Throwing an NSX through multiple launch-control launches with zero drama makes it clear, there are some easy GT-R comparisons to be made.
The view from the driver seat is as panoramic as in the original. Acura builds the NSX in Ohio, but one critical piece--the A-pillar--comes from Japan, where robots take a heated piece of steel tubing and pull it like taffy into a super-strong, super-thin buttress.
With that, the low cowl, and a steering wheel flattened at its top and bottom to preserve the view, the new NSX has recreated the original perspective.
Pin the throttle into Thermal's first few corners, and as induction noises whip around the cabin, the NSX quickly gives up its drive bias. It's designed to be driven quickly without feeling nervous or twitchy, and that's just what it does.
In truth, even the cars you'd expect to be a ball of hair in a hairpin (cough, Aventador), are way more docile than you'd expect. The NSX demands a different line than rear-drivers; like the Lamborghinis and the R8, its all-wheel-drive system confounds sloppy driving, a talent for which it trades off some pinpoint precision.
There still are traces of understeer if you wait too long to engage in a corner, but once the rhythm makes itself obvious, the new line does, too. Brake, lift, and the NSX's front motors begin to cut the corner closely, blending torque to the outside wheel cleanly with the steering.
Roll into the right pedal, unwind the steering, and the NSX moves with neutral and transparent footwork from apex to run-out. The front motors trade off torque or spin in regen mode, while the limited-slip keeps the rear wheels mostly in line.
Do the same in an Aventador SV and darty steering sets up a wicked step off-line, before it tucks itself back on line. The NSX is too much a control freak to allow that rate of change.
If there's such a beast as a tame supercar, this is it. After just three laps, it's easy to guide the NSX around Thermal's set of elevation-challenged corners. There's a trace of front-end lift, as the car hoovers up all the air it can and steers it rearward to cool the engine, but the NSX responds beautifully to trail-braking and powering out of corners. The electro-servo brake pedal stroke is about perfect.
Shifting is something to forget about. Sure, there are paddle controls, but the NSX's 9-speed automatic wants to act invisibly. Engineers suggest a set-and-forget approach works best. Unless you're a pinball wizard, beating the programming with fingertip flutters isn't humanly possible, they insist.
Depressingly, they're right. The NSX is faster in Track mode when the car dictates the pace and place for shifts. It's programmed to hold low gears in corners and to flip up a few when all the driver inputs hit some algorithmic blue sky.
We're officially there--where the onanistic pleasure of shifting gears has been reduced, clarified, and obsoleted.
The NSX is a stubby two-seater, but interior space is ample for adults. At 176 inches overall, it rides on a 103.5-inch wheelbase, a few inches shy of a Civic sedan.
There's plenty of room in all directions for 6-foot drivers, especially in head room, though the NSX sits low at 47.8 inches high. The base four-way manual seats can be optioned up to power leather-and-suede buckets with lumbar adjustment. The driving position is excellent, but the bottom cushion angle isn't adjustable on any except the most expensive seats.
In some ways, the NSX is as big as an RLX sedan. It sits 87.3 inches wide and in stock form, weighs 3,803 pounds. That's despite a body that makes fairly extensive use of lightweight materials. The passenger cell is made of aluminum. Body panels are aluminum and composite. The floor pan is carbon fiber, the roof pillars high-strength steel.
In another sports-car irony, you can pay to make the NSX lighter. Acura will sell a carbon-fiber roof panel, interior trim, even a rear lip spoiler. Colin Chapman, meet P.T. Barnum.
There's no solution for the meager trunk space. At 4.4 cubic feet, it'll fit a couple soft-sided bags, and that's it.
Crowding in on $200,000
It's deceptively easy to spend a lot on the NSX. The base price of $157,800 including destination includes power features; leather; tilt/telescope steering; keyless ignition; dual-zone climate control; ambient lighting; and a 7-inch touchscreen interface for audio, including Bluetooth with audio streaming, HD radio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The NSX also comes with a multi-angle rearview camera, but front and rear parking sensors are an option. Off the menu entirely are active safety technology features such as forward-collision warnings, automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and blind-spot monitors.
Configuring an NSX with some options lifts the price breathtakingly close to $200,000. The carbon-based pieces alone add thousands, whether you order carbon-ceramic brakes ($9,900), the carbon-fiber trim package ($9,000), the carbon-fiber engine cover ($3,600), the carbon-fiber roof panel ($6,000) or the carbon-fiber interior trim ($2,900).
A Technology Package will feature a 9-speaker ELS audio system, a navigation system, AcuraLink, and front and rear parking sensors. It's either $2,800 or $3,300, depending on whether you pre-pay for satellite radio.
Color and trim options polish off whatever change you'd expect from the dealer. Painted brake calipers are $700; full power seats are $2,500; an Alcantara headliner is $1,300; and special red or blue paint runs $6,000.
Inflation-adjusted, the original NSX's sticker of about $60,000 would be about $104,300 today. With a plan to sell just 800 cars a year in the U.S., the new NSX's huge premium over that might not matter much. They'll be exceedingly rare for at least a couple of years, while cars trickle out of the Ohio facility that's essentially hand-building them.
The first NSX was a rare bird at first, too. A purely conceived halo car, it had no point other than to show Honda could build its own Ferrari, minus the badge.
The new NSX reasserts that authority. The purity has been replaced by a wildly inventive synthesis of drive systems. It's a technological flagship, and a convincing one.