In the 1980s, exotic cars were glamorous, but were often unreliable, possessed questionable ergonomics, and frequently required a high skill level and muscle to make the most of their capabilities. Fans of models like the Ferrari 328 understood that to enjoy them you had to deal with some quirks.
Then, in 1989, Honda, the Japanese automaker known for building reliable everyday transportation, debuted the first-generation NSX under its Acura marque at the Chicago Auto Show. The name stood for New Sportscar eXperimental, and it allowed the company to showcase its engineering capability in the first true supercar that you might also want to use for daily transportation.
Honda proved that it was possible to set new benchmarks in practicality, dependability, refinement, and technology while providing a superb driving experience. The NSX’s mid-mounted naturally aspirated, all-aluminum 270-hp 3.0L V6 engine—complete with forged pistons, titanium connecting rods, and variable valve timing—was a state-of-the-art masterpiece. It revved to 8000 rpm, unheard of for its time, and was mated to a five-speed manual gearbox. Its lightweight, stylish all-aluminum body was, in fact, a first for a production automobile. The old guard took notice and was forced to improve its own products. The Japanese supercar was sold until 2005 without an immediate successor, and has since achieved a cult following.
Technology and design have changed quite a bit since then, along with expectations. Honda’s competitors have caught up and then continued to set new standards for what it means to build a world-beating supercar. Meanwhile, in 2012, Honda debuted a concept for a successor NSX. Since then, anticipation has been building, and enthusiasts have been wondering how the forthcoming car would measure up.
While you won’t find much aesthetic similarity between the 2017 model and the original, the designers crafted a stunning shape, especially in its Nouvelle Blue Pearl paint. It’s easy to admire the contours, intakes, and vents, which all serve a purpose as the air flows through, around, and under the body, producing aerodynamic downforce while cooling the machinery. I love the way the windows curve in beneath the rear pillars, creating a flying buttress.
The successor NSX, now standing for New Sports eXperience, still represents the best of Honda’s engineering capability but follows a more complex formula. The engine is again a V6, but it has grown to 3.5L and is supplemented by twin turbochargers, delivering 500 hp and 406 lb-ft torque. Aluminum remains predominant in the structure, but carbon fiber and other composites are used, too. In the biggest departure from the original formula, this NSX takes advantage of Honda’s hybrid expertise, utilizing two electric motors at the front axle, and one between the engine and the nine-speed dual-clutch transmission. The cumulative power output is 573 hp and 476 lb-ft of torque. This is an incredibly fast car, capable of 0–60 in 2.7 seconds.
The electric motors don’t simply improve fuel economy and add power. They provide drive for the front wheels in the Super Handling All-Wheel Drive system and also fill in before the turbos spool up and during gear changes, eliminating the sensation of turbo lag. Their torque can be dynamically directed to the front left or right wheels, working with the rear brakes to stabilize and rotate the car.
The cockpit is spacious with great visibility and would be a fine place to spend a day traversing hundreds of miles. My six-foot-three-inch frame easily settles into the comfortable perforated-leather sport seat. The dashboard doesn’t have a lot of buttons to distract you, as most functions are integrated into the seven-inch touchscreen, which also supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. I used the latter and it was excellent.
The standout control is the Integrated Dynamics System in the center of the dashboard, which allows you to select one of four driving modes. Each setting progressively changes the NSX’s tune, affecting throttle response, brakes, steering, suspension dampers, stability control, electric assist, and engine sound.
While driving in Sport mode, which is probably the closest mode to “normal,” I heard a subtle growl emanating from the engine behind my head. Occasionally you’ll notice the whir of the electric motors and turbocharger induction whoosh. Gear changes are smooth. In this mode, the hybrid system will seamlessly switch between full EV mode, going whisper quiet, or using the V6 for propulsion, depending on how you’re driving. While full electric mode isn’t why you might choose to own this car, it is fun to experience. Ride quality is firm, but it doesn’t jar much, even on rough suburban roads. Sport mode is usable in most everyday situations but won’t limit your enjoyment even though it’s not the most aggressive setting. Quiet mode encourages the system to depend on the electric motors even more, but the gas engine isn’t actually any quieter, and it still cycles on occasionally to maintain the battery’s charge.
Switch to Sport Plus mode, and the true supercar personality emerges. The V6 stays on full time, the exhaust and intake systems open up to release the engine’s full wail, the gearshifts quicken, steering tightens, and the suspension stiffens. Stab the throttle and the response is immediate. The electric motors do their job, and the result is a massive wall of torque forcing you against your seat as the engine revs up to 7500 rpm. The tachometer needle flies to its upper reaches in a blink, so while using the manual transmission mode you’ll have to recalibrate your brain to change gears before hitting the rev limiter. The symphony of mechanical sounds from the engine, turbos, and electric motors provides the sense that there’s quite a bit going on here. Track mode ramps up the dynamic systems even further, and also offers launch control. The four driving modes provide quite a bit of bandwidth to satisfy both the novice and experienced driver in all types of situations.
Steering is extremely responsive and communicates well for a modern car. When you turn in sharply, the body remains flat, and it’s easy to place the NSX perfectly while cornering. The weight is well managed, and the center of gravity is quite low. Between the steering and magnetic suspension damper tuning, you likely wouldn’t realize that the Acura weighs over 3,800 pounds. The variable-ratio electric steering rack allows you to keep your hands at nine and three o’clock on the perfectly sculpted steering wheel even on the tightest turns. Even at low speeds the experience is lively and engaging, but get the car moving on twisty back roads and it will give you the confidence to take corners faster than you would have thought possible.
The massive carbon-ceramic brakes work in tandem with the electric motors to slow the vehicle and regenerate power for the battery. The brake pedal is electronically connected to the hydraulics, and they provide feedback with an electric motor that is tuned to tell your foot what’s happening without the usual unpleasant sensations that come through on other hybrids when the regeneration kicks in. They just feel like great, normal brakes. All this technology is integrated in a way that makes it easy for all drivers to enjoy the NSX’s capabilities without fear of getting in over their heads, but it will be exciting for the enthusiast to explore its full performance capabilities.
However, performance isn’t the only reason to own this vehicle, which turns heads and receives plenty of compliments. One detail that might surprise you is that this Japanese supercar is being built in Honda’s Performance Manufacturing Center in Marysville, Ohio rather than in Japan. The company offers tour packages to buyers to watch hand-assembly of engines, view the final assembly of your car, and drive the Acura Proving Grounds track.
I wish that this iteration of the NSX had more in common with the lightweight simplicity and understated styling of the original, as it is one of my favorite cars. However, the second-generation NSX is impressive, and it’s doubtful that buyers will be left wanting. The way the car employs hybrid technology bears similarity to its use in hypercars like the Porsche 918, McLaren P1, and Ferrari LaFerrari, but the NSX is available for a fraction of the cost of those models. It does everything a modern supercar should, yielding exceptional performance at a competitive price, and with a high degree of refinement, just like the original did over 25 years ago. It was well worth the wait.
ACURA NSX AT A GLANCE
Base price: $156,000
Price as tested: $204,600
Engine: Twin-turbocharged 3.5L V6 gasoline engine, dual electric motors at front axle, direct drive electric motor between engine and transmission
Power: 573 hp, 476 lb-ft of torque 0–60
Acceleration: 2.7 seconds
Top speed: 191 mph
Transmission: 9-speed dual-clutch
Curb weight: 3,803 lb
Cargo capacity: 4.4 cu ft
Fuel economy: 21 mpg city, 22 mpg highway
Warranty: 4 years/50,000 mi (basic) 6 years/70,000 mi (powertrain) 8 years/100,000 mi (hybrid components)