The new Honda NSX, when it hits our shores early next year, will be the first hybrid supercar released in Australia. And, yes, it makes sense to emphasise the hybrid part — while it can be an all-out supercar that cracks 0-100km/h in under three seconds and storms on to 300km/h with change to spare, it can also creep around town on electricity alone, eerily quiet. Oh, and you'll pay $420,000 for the privilege.
AU Editor's Note: To drive the new NSX, Honda put me on a plane to Lisbon in Portugal for a day. — Cam
My time with the new NSX was split into two distinct halves. The first part of my day with Honda's six-figure supercar was spent at Lisbon's Circuito do Estoril, a former Formula 1 track with some serious high-speed straights and a few tricky corners. And, as you'd expect, the NSX excels when it comes to track work. But it was the second half of the day, on the public roads around Lisbon, that actually made me understand why you'd buy one.
2017 Honda NSX: The Vital Statistics
The 2017 Honda NSX, as it will be once it hits Australian shores early in the next year, is an all-wheel drive hybrid supercar. The way that it's all-wheel drive, and the way that it's a hybrid, though, are both noteworthy and both require a little bit of extra explanation. It's an all-wheel drive car, but the petrol engine in the back doesn't drive all four wheels. It's a hybrid, but it has three electric motors.
Benchmarked against competition like Porsche's 911 Turbo, the Audi R8 V10+ and the Ferrari 458 Italia during its development, the NSX can sit in the same company easily with a total of 427kW developed by both the petrol and electric motors. 0-100km/h is dispensed with in under three seconds after launch, and the car will happily sail along all the way up to its 308km/h top speed.
The distribution of power through the car's drivetrain simultaneously makes sense for track use and public road use. The NSX's twin-turbocharged 373kW/550Nm 3.5-litre V6 exclusively drives the rear wheels through a 9-speed DCT dual-clutch transmission, but in between engine and gearbox there's also a 35kW/148Nm direct drive electric motor, which spins up to fill torque during shifts and to complement the turbocharged petrol engine.
And then on the front wheels, a pair of identical but individual 27kW/73Nm electric motors handle both that electric-only Quiet mode driving. They also come in handy for any kind of all-wheel drive application, too, up to and including the Track mode where the front wheels' electric motors are used for torque vectoring, directing the front of the car exactly where you're steering it to even if the rear wheels have broken traction.
In Australia, the $420,000 retail price of the Honda NSX will include a complete options pack, unlike other parts of the world where the (cheaper) base car will have to be optioned up — in the same way as Honda's supercar competition from Ferrari, Porsche and Audi ask for extra for pretty much everything beyond a rolling shell with wheels. A carbon fibre interior and exterior pack, as well as carbon-ceramic brakes, are standard.
The choice you do get is a variety of eight exterior paint colours and four different interiors. Three solid colours are joined by three metallic hues for a $1500 price premium, but the hero Valencia Red Pearl and Nouvelle Blue Pearl will be a $10,000 extra cost. With only eight cars being built daily in the US, Honda is confident that it'll have more orders than cars built, especially in a small market like Australia.
Design: Exterior Aero, Interior Comfort
The 2017 Honda NSX is a car built with a function first, and form following that as a secondary necessity. With an overall design that's more Acura than Honda — Acura is the US division, and its cars are a little more pointy than the Hondas we get — the NSX definitely looks like its own unique vehicle, but there are styling cues that point directly back to the '90s nostalgia of the original.
The carbon fibre blacked-out roof, for example, and the wide rear that hides a horizontal tail-light — both are throwbacks to the first generation car. But the new NSX is a New Sports Experience, and uses the latest and greatest aerodynamics technology to make it an enjoyable car to drive on road and track alike. That aero informs everything about how the car itself looks.
Everything in the 2017 NSX is aerodynamically optimised, from the bonnet cut-outs that vent air from the front wheels, to a vent in the front of the wheel wells that has the express purpose of channeling other air down the side of the car to the mid-mounted engine and its 10 various heat exchangers and coolers. An integrated spoiler keeps the back down at high speed without looking like a Formula 1 car.
But, again, it's not ridiculous or over the top. There are no phenomenally sharp Lamborghini corners. The new NSX, like the original, is gorgeous without being lairy or aggressive. It's very Honda, looking attractive without being polarising or posing in any way. Even the waist in the door panel and the giant rear engine and aero intake behind it actually look quite reserved until you get up close and look down at them.
Inside the car, the two deep bucket seats are actually surprisingly comfortable for a track-going supercar. There's a good amount of bolstering at the lower back where you'll move most during cornering, as well as some extra interior padding on door and console where your legs will brace against it, but otherwise everything is quite plush and forgiving. The only issue? No seat height adjustment, to keep the car's centre of gravity low.
The rest of the interior, including the excellent steering wheel with paddle shifters, is built to the high standard you'd expect for a car of its price. The materials are gorgeous. The dashboard shows you every feature you need to know in whatever mode you're in, and there's a good stereo and touchscreen navigation system like you'd expect. The rear engine bay, clad in carbon fibre, even has a small golf-bag-sized boot behind.
Dynamic Mode: Quiet, Sport, Sport+, Track
The track was the place where Honda demonstrated the dramatic difference that one small dial in the centre of the dashboard makes to the NSX. The Dynamic Mode dial has four settings — Quiet, Sport, Sport+ and Track, and most of the time the NSX will spend its life in the standard Sport mode — that have a huge impact on the way the NSX drives and performs. It's the difference between ridiculous and responsible.
In its Quiet mode, the NSX's magnetic ride dampers are as soft as possible, steering is comfortable, and the 9-speed DCT transmission's shifts are buttery smooth. Under light throttle, only the car's electric motors will be used for acceleration up to around 80km/h, with around 3 kilometres of EV-only range before regenerative braking and the engine itself will kick in to replenish the internal lithium-ion cell.
In Sport, the engine has a little more prominence, with slightly faster shifts and the maximum gearshift points unrestricted all the way to the NSX's 7500rpm redline if needed. Importantly, the ride and steering response remain just as smooth and public-road-friendly as in Quiet — this is the mode that makes the most sense for everyday use, if you're the kind of person that commutes to work in a $400,000 supercar.
In Sport+, the character of the car changes completely. There's no longer any start-stop for the engine — it runs all the time — and the steering and magnetic dampers stiffen up massively, as do the speed of the still-smooth but now lightning-quick gear changes. The engine exhaust note becomes far more aggressive, too, with exhaust valves opening up and interior piping letting more intake noise into the cabin.
And, in Track mode, everything gets even more serious again. The vehicle stability system and all-wheel drive system throw themselves into overdrive to maintain stability at high speeds and through high-G-force corners, shifts are as quick as possible, and the hybrid electric system delivers and regenerates itself in a way that gives you that always-on torque at all four wheels constantly, without running low on juice.
Wearing some sticky Pirelli P Zero Trofeo Rs, Honda's recommended track tyre for the car, the new NSX absolutely monsters through high-speed corners and repeated launches. That's a given. Wearing road tyres — Continentals are the European spec — there's a little less headroom before they start to complain on public roads, but at that point you're already far in excess of any reasonable speed limit in any part of the world.
Launch control is only in track mode, requiring some hard left-foot braking and then 100 per cent throttle. A Quiet mode 'launch' from a standstill kicks in the engine while the electric motors push you from a start, and then the car blasts off - not smooth, but smooth-ish. Launching is faster in Sport and Sport+ again, thanks to faster shift speeds. The NSX's first gear is only ever used for launch, while 2-8 are close ratios for normal day to day acceleration, and 9 is overdrive for highway cruising only.
Torque vectoring and SH-AWD make it very easy to drive as a novice. Honda doesn't want to use the word 'easy', though, because that takes away from the effort gone into the software and chassis/drivetrain design — but it's easy to drive. It will get sideways if you want it to, but it's actually really straightforward to rein back in under control, because of the always-on traction control and those front electrically-powered wheels handling torque vectoring.
In track mode, with the NSX's VSA vehicle stability control completely disabled, with a competent driver at the wheel, it absolutely comes alive. Beyond just acceleration and braking, those are the same — it's all about how it holds through a corner. Half a wheel worth of turn is all it takes to correct a powerslide, and the front wheels' electric motors drag you through the corner perfectly.
Because of the torque vectoring it's very forgiving to a bit of trail-braking and on throttle adjustment through the middle of corners. Just about as uncomposed as you can get it is by going off throttle under G in the middle of a corner, it skips sideways and then holds itself. The one thing you notice is how very, very settled the car is under acceleration and turn in. You get the sense that there are hundreds of calculations per second keeping you in the right spot - as the car decides.
The car understeers slightly more in Track mode, and tends towards power oversteer at the same time as well — both of these are a function of the different way the front electric motors apply their power and the looser application of traction control. EV power is used more actively in Sport+ for torque vectoring, but the battery drains quicker. And it's a compliment to say that you can't ever tell there's a third electric motor before the transmission, because shifts are seamless and smooth in all modes.
Out On The Road: A Supercar You Can Use
The second half of my time with the NSX was a couple of 100-kilometre jaunts around Lisbon's city streets and rural highways and B-roads, and this is the point where I realised the NSX's utility as a hybrid supercar versus its competition. Not only is it a more than competent, massively computer- and electrically-augmented track car, it's actually quite a nice car to drive around in for a day.
Take the NSX's exhaust sound, for example. Sound is quite relaxed and everyday sportscar in Sport mode. In the cabin it gets loud during Sport+ and raucous in Track, while outside of the car it's the quick gearshifts that you hear the most — like a VW Golf R on some serious steroids. And the combo of petrol and electric gives the NSX that jet fighter sound when it passes you at high speed. But in Quiet, it's actually quiet, and you can have a conversation with your passenger as you do 140km/h down the highway. My only complaint is that the electric motor whine in Quiet mode sometimes gets a bit old.
If I had a criticism of the NSX, it would be that the exhaust note from the 75-degree V6 is not lovely in the same way that it is in competitor supercars. The NSX's engine noise, as the driver hears it, is probably best described as complicated. You get some electric whine from the front motors, and some louder whine from the rear motor, which sounds like a jet turbine spooling down when you get off the throttle. There's turbocharger whoosh and sneeze when you're on and off throttle, and there's the engine and exhaust itself, which change note in different driving modes. It sounds like there's fifty different orchestra pieces playing mostly together in the rear of the car.
Cutting up the corners on twisty mountain roads — as long as there's no traffic — is so enjoyable in the car's Sport mode, which gives you that electric assist and quick shifts while still maintaining that comfortable ride and the sure-footed all-wheel drive feel. From high-speed highway to twisty country road to city streets, the NSX performs superbly in all three aspects. The only temptation is to switch to Sport+ for the superior tighter steering feel.
But for driving around anywhere that's not a track, Sport+ is extravagant. It holds gears slightly too long to be comfortable, and while the noise is more traditionally supercar it starts to grate after a while. If Quiet is too quiet, and Sport+ is too sporty, then Sport seems like the smart compromise for the average driver having a bit of weekend fun. The four different driving modes, which change 11 different settings and mechanical/electric subsystems, really transform the NSX into at least a couple of distinctly different vehicles.
It's not a hugely efficient or hugely inefficient car, but for a supercar it's pretty impressive — on a spirited journey I saw overall fuel consumption of little more than 14 litres per 100km. Of course, fuel costs don't mean anything to the driver that probably not only buys the NSX but that already has a garage of Ferraris and McLarens and Porsches, but the planet should be grateful.
The view from the cabin is incredibly good, too, with a big windscreen and side windows despite the car's low profile. Very very thin A-pillars — Honda has a world-first steelworking technique to make them so small while still maintaining cabin rigidity — and the same blacked out roof make for good visibility consistently at forward and rearward driving positions. The car's wing mirrors are small but have good angle of view, and you can actually see out of the rear window.
There is a huge amount of engineering that has gone into making the NSX, and that engineering has had to build a car not just for track days, bro, but for the real world. If I had a new NSX, I'd
probably definitely drive it to work. An aluminium subframe — not a carbon fibre tub — means that the NSX is more like a regular road car than any other competitor supercar out there. But despite that, the NSX is 300 per cent stiffer dynamically and 200 per cent stiffer statically than a Ferrari 458 Italia, with new casting techniques and a mix of different aluminium and steel types to make crumple zones that pass the most stringent testing.
Acoustic glass, soundproof carpeting, seals within the aluminium subframe, all work to keep the outside world from intruding on your comfortable drive. There's a 25 decibel difference between Quiet mode and Track mode. Hundreds of computations — everything from the steering angle to the brake, which uses a hydraulic reservoir but pushes the car's electric motors to regeneratively brake to their maximum before adding actual braking on top of that — come together to build a car that takes your throttle and steering input and gets you from point A to B as quickly as possibly, and as efficiently as possible.
All this combines into a driving experience on the road that is really quite responsible and no-compromise. It's a supercar that you can use. Whether that use is on a track, monstering down a straight at 270km/h and then braking to 60km/h for a tight right turn without worrying that anything is going to come unstuck, or whether it's on the city streets or a highway where you can actually sit in traffic comfortably without overheating — and then taking off like a bat out of hell if you want — the new NSX is two cars in one.