First drive: the brand-new Honda NSX Reviews 2023 | Top Gear
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First Drive

First drive: the brand-new Honda NSX

Published: 14 Mar 2016

What’s this then?

Honda’s V6 hyper-hybrid that’s been a decade in the making. Developed in the USA and built as a showcase for Honda’s engineering might, it’s a thorn in the side of the Audi R8, Ferrari 488 and McLaren 570S.

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Why have we been waiting so long?

It’s fair to say the NSX has had a troubled gestation. In 2007, two years after the Ayrton Senna-developed first-gen model ceased production, Honda announced it would be developing a replacement powered by a naturally-aspirated V10. A year later the project was cancelled with Honda citing challenging economic conditions. In 2011, following signs of the beginning of a recovery, Honda announced the NSX was back on the cards and backed it up with a concept car at the 2012 Detroit show.

Since then it's fair to say the NSX has been something of a unicorn: we've seen endless testing pictures, and speculation has kept online communities buzzing. It’s been the most tantalising tease in supercar history. And then there’s the back story...

Tell us more.

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Having decided to ditch the V10 in favour of a V6 hybrid the team initially developed the car with a transverse-mounted normally aspirated motor. After extensive development the decision was made to add twin turbos and rotate the powerplant though 90 degrees for better packaging, weight distribution and heat management. That’s a colossal change to make mid-way through development. But it’s this deep-rooted obsession to get it right that defines the NSX.

OK, so where did the drivetrain actually end up?

Under the nose. Only joking. The NSX now has a 3.5-litre V6 twin-turbo generating 500bhp. Wedged between it and the nine-speed twin-clutch 'box lies a brushless electric motor, which fills in power as the turbos spool up. It also serves as the starter motor, which in turn saves weight.

At the front two further motors, sharing a single clutch, are mounted inboard, driving a front wheel each and allowing the NSX to indulge in the black art of torque vectoring, while at the rear a limited slip differential divvies up the torque. All three motors are powered by a lithium-ion battery pack running down the centre of the car and across behind the seats, forming a ‘T’.

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The battery is charged by the V6 and regen braking. All told we have an AWD supercar with a combined output of 573bhp and enough computer processing power to make NASA blush.

Sounds complicated - and complicated normally means heavy.

Yes, complexity adds weight. The NSX tips the scales at 1,725kg, which is chunky compared to the Audi R8 and Ferrari 488, at 1625kg and 1475kg respectively.

What about the styling?

Styling is always a fiercely personal thing, but the NSX has remained relatively true to the original concept’s design, which was first created in Japan, then further refined in Honda's LA studio. It’s Manga meets Tony Stark with a sharp origami precision.

The final bodywork is predominantly aluminium stretched over the structure to manipulate the airflow and cool the battery cells and complex hybrid drivetrain. Not that it helped my laptop, which was mildly boiled having spent the afternoon in the trunk. Incidentally, the trunk is large enough to accommodate the ubiquitous automotive unit of space measurement, the golf bag. As long as you like your seven-iron lightly baked.

So, styled in the USA but developed in Japan?

Nope, US influence doesn't end in the styling. The whole development of the NSX has been lead by a hugely enthusiastic team in the US (the decision presumably taken as it will be the car’s biggest market).

The nine speed ‘box, rear motor and other hybrid systems will be manufactured in Japan, then shipped to Honda's Performance Manufacturing Centre in Columbus, Ohio, where they meet the locally-built V6 and are hand-assembled by a team of 100. To give you some idea of the detail and time that goes into making one, at full production capacity the team will produce eight units a day. In Honda's factory next door they will create 850 Accords in the same time.

What about the chassis, I’m guessing carbon-fibre?

Wrong, actually. The chassis is constructed using "mixed materials", predominantly aluminium, with carbon fibre for the floor. While Honda won't get drawn on specific numbers they say this method delivers a chassis stiffer than anything the opposition has, sighting the Audi R8, Porsche 911 Turbo S and Ferrari 458 as reference points (which talks to the length of the car’s gestation).

The other area they won't be drawn on is aerodynamic efficiency or downforce. All they will say is that the NSX uses a number of clever aerodynamic channels to ‘attach’ air to the bodywork and develop ‘significant’ downforce without the need for complex deployable spoilers.

This keeps the car looking uncluttered, although you can option a carbon fibre rear wing and more aggressive front splitter. I’d be tempted, as the matte carbon weave adds an additional layer of intent.

OK, enough tech already. What’s it like to drive?

Hang on, interior first. As you approach the NSX the door handles come to life and project outwards. There's no swan, gullwing or other avian trickery here, just standard doors, and the seats are plush, comfortable and designed to hold you tightly when the NSX starts upping its game.

It all looks suitably modern and stylish, but my biggest issue is with some of the materials used – what looks metal is often plastic, removing a layer of authenticity from some of the key touch points, most notably the door handles, dynamic mode selector and paddle shifts. Honda says some of this may get addressed before final production begins.

So what's it like to drive?

Despite the complexity of the drive train, or perhaps because of it, the NSX has only four drive modes: Quiet, Sport, Sport+ and Track, all controlled through the dynamic mode wheel in the centre of the dash.

You can configure which of these settings the car starts in so you can make a stealthy exit in the morning or let the neighbours know you're off. Quiet mode allows you to leave in silence using pure EV drive, a nice party tricky for a supercar. It's good for about 2 miles before the V6 kicks in to help things along and act as a generator for the batteries.

Sport turns the NSX into a hybrid with the V6 and E-motors working together to optimise efficiency. Flick it to Sport+ and the car comes alive, the third-gen magnetorheological dampers stiffen and the steering and throttle response become more eager, the whole car becomes more focused and purposeful. Lower down the rev range the V6 doesn't make the most satisfying noise, but push the NSX harder and above 4000rpm it starts to sing.

And the acceleration?

The combined thrust is mighty - think Audi R8 with a more instant shove at the bottom end and you won't be far off. The gearshifts are instantaneous and with nine to play with there are plenty of opportunities to flick around and push to the 7500rpm redline.

We threaded the NSX along the famous Palms to Pines highway. A road as open and inviting as this is perfect for settling into fast flow, piling into corners and then jumping on the throttle earlier than you'd dare in many competitors. That allows the torque vectoring to work its magic and pull you out of the corner, delivering impossible exit speeds and firing you down the next straight. It's effortless and addictive and delivers on the brief to create an accessible supercar, or as Honda would have it “a New Sportscar Experience.”

There's a suppleness to the ride which is reminiscent of the McLaren Super Series and testament to the effectiveness of the adaptive dampers and the hours spent optimising them. Even more pleasing is that the NSX does an impressive job of hiding its mass. There's initial understeer as a safety warning system, but push further and the NSX deploys its giant processing power to swallow tarmac at an alarming rate.

Did you get to drive it on track, too?

Yep. And in full-attack Track mode and wearing Pirelli Trofeo R tyres. To spice things up a bit Indycar legend (and NSX development driver) Dario Franchitti set the pace. After a few laps following his lead I start to dig deeper into the NSX's capabilities.

You can brake impossibly late (our test car was on the optional carbon ceramics), turn in and after initial understeer the car begins to rotate. Even with the traction on it will allow a decent amount of angle before the nannies kick in. Most of the time it does a staggeringly good job of hiding its extra mass, although it's most obvious mid-corner. The trick is to lay off the throttle, allow the car to settle, then jump back on it letting the torque vectoring weave its magic. It's brutally effective.

In track mode the NSX opens a valve in the intake manifold, which directs sound into the cockpit and increases the noise by 25db, so even with a helmet on you can hear the V6 charging to 7,500rpm and blipping beautifully on downshifts.

Any other tricks?

Yep. The NSX has one of the most undramatic but effective launch control systems I've experienced. In Track mode and with your left foot on the brake turn the Dynamic dial to the right until it beeps and notifies you in the dash that LC is enabled. Push the throttle and the revs rise to 2,500rpm, step off the brake and all three electric motors fire you off the line, the V6 joins the party once the turbos have spooled up and the combined effect is violently effective. No wheel spin, no violent dumping of the clutch, just dramatic, effective thrust.

So you're impressed?

In a word yes, more than I had expected to be if I'm honest. The scale of achievement in making this immensely complex car feel so immersive is what sticks in the mind. The braking, steering and integration between the V6 and three motors could have been a recipe for a car that constantly interrupted your enjoyment. In the NSX you learn to drive with the systems not against them, and in return it delivers a fascinatingly engaging experience.

In many ways it would be wrong to compare the NSX to an R8 or 488 although those are the benchmark competitors. In fact it feels more directly related to a Porsche 918. Both took years to get right, both hide their additional mass with trick electronics and both represent a new kind of performance car that's hard not to admire. 

Supercars used to be one trick ponies, but the NSX represents a new generation. For some, Quiet mode will be anathema, but for others that, and the breadth of the NSX's capabilities, represent a new and attractive proposition. Honda describe the NSX as an articulation of the brand as a whole and more importantly "not the finish line, just the start point". Having been so long in the making it would have been painfully easy for the NSX to disappoint, but for my money, it was well worth the wait.

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