On the road -- and track -- with Acura's reimagined NSX

The new Acura NSX grabs the proper amount of attention for an exotic machine driving down the road.

LOS ANGELES -- Twenty minutes into Acura’s first drive event for its all-new 2017 NSX sports car, things were not going well.

Before letting a few journalists loose on Sonoma Raceway in northern California in a pair of gleaming pre-production NSX models parked outside, Acura gave us a long-winded technical presentation about every detail on the car.

In a windowless classroom next to the track, terms like “ablation casting” and “human support cockpit” were thrown around. Always rational Honda, it seemed, was having trouble getting its head around what is largely an irrational segment.

Eyes glazed over. Fidgeting started. Emails were surreptitiously checked.

And then finally the fog lifted. Having teased the world since 2012, when a second-generation NSX concept debuted at the Detroit auto show, Acura told us the real details we’d been waiting for: 573 horsepower, 476 pound-feet of torque, a 3,803-pound curb weight and 0-60 mph in just over three seconds.

Details on the rest of the NSX drivetrain have been out for a while. A hand-built, direct-injected 3.5-liter, twin-turbocharged V-6 engine sits behind the car’s two passengers. It was developed specifically for the NSX and makes 500 horsepower.

The rest of the car’s juice comes from three electric motors: one powering each of the front wheels, and a third motor that’s positioned between the gas engine and the nine-speed, dual-clutch transmission. The motors’ lithium-ion battery is wedged between the seats and the engine.

But this is all meaningless puffery without some real-world seat time. So over the next 48 hours I learned just what those numbers added up to. Mostly good things, it turns out. Here are some key takeaways:

  • The car evokes far more emotion than I expected. After years of appearing on display stands at every auto show on the circuit, its design had lost a lot of the drama. But not on the street. It’s wide and low (Acura claims lowest center of gravity in its class) and grabs the proper amount of attention for an exotic machine driving down the road.
  • It sounds good if you’re in the car. I spotted an early development mule on the freeways just outside downtown L.A. early this year, weaving in and out of traffic with a first-gen Audi R8 and Porsche 911. It barely made a peep. If you’re lucky enough to have one rush by you, the sound may be underwhelming. Fortunately, once you’re inside the NSX, it can roar, and Acura swears it’s without the aid of artificial sound piped through the speakers. Redline is 7,500 rpm and the transmission has no fear of keeping the car right at that point when you have track mode engaged (the car also has Sport+, Sport and Quiet modes).
  • On the track there’s no real turbo whine, but on the road you can faintly hear it and the whoosh of the wastegate valve. There is a subtle pop-pop of exhaust overrun that Honda artificially calibrated into the engine -- you can thank the engineers in Ohio for this little parlor trick, since Japan didn’t think it was necessary.
  • None of the executives or engineers said so, but I got the sense that this kind of tension -- between the Americans leading the project who wanted more visceral thrills and their coworkers back in Japan who wanted rationality -- ran throughout the development of the car.
  • At 3,803 pounds, the NSX is heavier than the three models Acura benchmarked for the NSX: the Ferrari 458, Porsche 911 Turbo and first-gen Audi R8 V-10 Plus. In a way, Acura painted itself into a corner here. As a tech showcase for Honda, the NSX is packed with a complicated, heavy powertrain, and then the plumbing to keep all of it cool. But without a seven-figure price tag of a Porsche 918, Ferrari LaFerrari or McLaren P1, Acura couldn’t offset the weight with a carbon fiber chassis or body (Honda used aluminum instead).
  • Like the aforementioned hypercars that cost roughly the same as a beach house in Malibu, the NSX does a great job of plugging the performance gaps of a turbocharged engine, and for a fraction of the price. I could feel this during multiple 0-to-60 mph sprints at the track: After a brief and immediate surge that only an electric drivetrain can offer, the engine assumes duties, and suddenly you’re a block away.
  • Although the car is mid-engined, the weight distribution is 42 percent in the front and 58 percent in the rear, and the tail end of this car swings out quicker than you might expect. The NSX understeers mightily and will push through a turn if you come in too quick. But lighten up on the throttle a smidge mid-corner and the NSX tucks its nose right where you want it. You can then come back onto the power quicker than a rear-wheel-drive car as the multitude of motors, engines and software work seamlessly to power you out of the turn. In this regard, the NSX rewards nuanced, smart driving better than the Audi R8 and certainly better than the Nissan GT-R.
  • But that’s on the track, and Acura knows the vast majority of NSX buyers will keep their cars on the safe confines of public roads. The rest of the time, you don’t notice the heft of the car. This is a very easy daily driver. The cabin is quiet, spacious and comfortable, even at the track with my 6-foot-2-inch frame and a racing helmet. The suspension is nicely tuned to eat up a bumpy road but also stay planted at high speeds. You can drive hard on twisty mountain roads in Sport+ or Track mode and then twist the large silver dial in the dashboard over to Sport for easy cruising.
  • Visibility is excellent. There’s nothing sexy about visibility but it matters when driving aggressively and many sport and supercars today are burying the drivers into a cocoon that’s hard to see out of. Not the NSX. There’s so much visibility in the cabin, it’s easy to forget that you’re not in a more mundane Acura sedan.
  • The nine-speed dual-clutch transmission is a gem. Gear changes happen immediately. It’s smart too. Half the time on the track, I just left it in full auto mode and let it shift itself. There was almost never a time that I wanted a different gear than the car gave me, even if this meant the engine was shamelessly flirting with its redline.
  • There’s no full EV mode. When you have Quiet mode engaged, the car will travel on EV power alone for short distances if there’s enough juice in the battery and if you keep your speeds low. Otherwise, the car sounds like it has a head cold. Skip this mode -- Sport is a nice balance of sound and comfort for everyday driving.
  • The two pre-production models we drove came with carbon ceramic brakes, an option that all NSX models will come with at launch. Roughly six months later, the base car with iron rotors (and the promised mid-$150,000 price tag) will be available.
  • Options will be few: various carbon fiber trim pieces (engine cover, roof, rear spoiler), a tech package (navigation, premium sound system) and upgraded alloy wheels.
  • There’s a definite place in the market for this car. It splits the difference between the tech-first showcase of BMW’s i8 and the legitimate race-bred performance of Audi’s R8. It’s not as visceral as the Ferrari 458 and the Porsche 911 Turbo. Instead it offers a very Honda-esque approach to increasing capability and speed.

Due on sale next spring as a 2017 model, this new NSX is far more complicated than its revered predecessor, which arrived in 1990 and was on the market for the next 15 years.

But the ethos of both versions is the same: to serve as a showcase for Honda’s engineering might. Twenty-five years ago, that meant the NSX was the world’s first production car with an all-aluminum chassis and body, as well as variable valve timing.

Today it means Acura (and Honda globally) can prove once again it’s got the chops to build something more emotional than rational.

Ted Klaus, chief engineer for this NSX, put it this way at the press drive: “We never lost the passion, we just didn't have a place to display it.”

You can reach David Undercoffler at undercoffler@crain.com -- Follow David on Twitter: @autonews_west

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