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First drive: the new Honda NSX, Japan’s 573bhp hybrid supercar

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Has the fashionably late Honda NSX actually arrived?

Not quite, sorry. This thing has been trailed for so long that many of its advances have been equalled by others.

After the original NSX died a decade ago, the concept for this new one launched in early 2012. Now, in late 2015, we’re getting our first taste. It doesn’t launch in Britain until late 2016, at a price yet unannounced but in the ill-defined suburbs of £150,000.

So what is it?

Headline act is the drive system. Behind the NSX’s front seats lurks a compact 3.5-litre twin-turbo V6 making 500bhp. It’s dry-sumped to keep the centre of gravity low, and has direct injection. Frankly this isn’t one of Honda’s more sophisticated engines: a Civic Type R has VTEC, but this doesn’t.

The ace here is electrification. Attached to its flywheel is a 47bhp electric motor. And at the front there are two further small electric motors, 36bhp each, one for each wheel.

This brings total system power to 573bhp (you can’t just add each contribution because the engine isn’t at its peak revs when the motors are at theirs). That total gets the NSX into contention with other entry-level (!) supercars. We’re around the altitude of the Audi R8, Porsche 911 Turbo and McLaren 570S.

But the NSX people reckon they have a killer app. It’s the way the urge gets to the wheels. Because of the side-to-side separation of the front motors, and a multi-plate controlled limited-slip diff at the back, there’s an enormous degree of control to modify the car’s path via torque.

A hybrid. Must be economical?

Not especially. Chief engineer of the NSX Ted Klaus tells me the purpose of the electric gubbins isn’t economy but instant response. The electric motors mask turbo lag; the vectoring helps agility. There are no official numbers anyway, but Klaus says the NSX will drink like a 911 Turbo, the most economical non-hybrid supercar with quoted economy around 30mpg.

One thing that should help long-distance economy is the nine-speed dual clutch transmission. I asked why they need so many when the power band is so wide. Well, it’s a short first for launch, a long ninth for cruising, and seven for normal driving.

Does it take anything from the old NSX?

No parts, beyond the Honda badge. But like that original car the body is mostly aluminium. Unlike that one though, which was mostly pressed, this uses a lot of extrusions and cast nodes. A new casting process makes the nodes less brittle, better for crash protection.

Then there are steel rails in the A-posts, again made with a new process to be super-strong, so the pillars are thin, to the good of visibility. The footwell floors are carbon fibre – it doesn’t need bracing like aluminium would. So, optionally, is the roof.

And the suspension?

At the front you’ve got an upper wishbone and twin-ball-joint lower links to reduce steering corruption from the e-motor torque. It’s multi-link behind. The dampers are adaptive; the magnetorheological kind we like so much.

With all this electrickery, does it have loads of set-up modes?

Yup, four. A quiet one that limits engine revs, keeps the exhaust valve quiet, and closes the pipes that bring intake sound to the cabin. Then ‘sport’, ‘sport plus’ and ‘track’. These progressively make things louder, use more peak electric power, ginger up the transmission’s shift map and shift speed, make the torque vectoring more aggressive, tauten the damping, loosen the stability system and so on.

What difference does all that make?

Apparently it vastly changes the way the car drives. But Honda doesn’t think TopGear readers deserve to find out. We were given an absurdly short time with the car, and track mode was locked out. So we stuck to sport plus. Luckily I found a glitch in the transmission’s late-beta software and felt I owed it to the engineer to demonstrate. Thus TopGear doubled its allocated seat time. For the record the engineer was very grateful too.

So what did you find out?

Well, as promised you certainly get a quick answer to the throttle. The NSX never feels turbocharged, simply bolting ahead on any flutter of your toe. All from very low revs too. How that is divided at any given instant between electricity and petrol doesn’t matter a hoot – it’s the result that counts. There’s no step-up like when a turbo cuts in, or like when the old NSX climbed onto into its caffeinated VTEC second cams. The race for the red-line is straight, steep and urgent.

With the urgency comes a hard, deep and hollow noise, made engagingly offbeat by the strange 75-degree V angle that was chosen to get the engine as compact as possible.

The nine-speed, when it’s behaving anyway, sends through your manually-selected shifts with all the zap you could wish for. Left in auto it probably does a decent job, but who drives a supercar in auto?

What about the actual performance?

A slightly thorny issue. There are no quoted figures. Klaus says it’s because most American numbers include ‘roll-out’. The clock only starts ticking when the car is moving.

He says the NSX doesn’t need roll-out; it gets going as soon as you floor it – and yes, so it feels. Klaus deduces his car would suffer in comparison under that testing method, but he claims its like-for-like 0-60 is on par.

Hmmm. Yes, the NSX does step-off crisply, but beyond 40-ish it feels merely exceeding brisk, not neck-snapping. The fact it weighs a porky 1725kg doesn’t help one bit. In other words, what’s impressive here isn’t the absolute peak acceleration, but its instantaneous and controllable nature. That’s what connects you viscerally to the machine.

And the cornering?

Theory first. To liven up the turn-in, or if the system reckons it’s understeering too much, it’ll reduce torque to the inner front wheel (or even drag it back a bit) and drive the outer one harder. The same system gives left-to-right control to stabilise braking, especially into a corner.

Much of this brief test showed real potential. Despite the weight, the NSX turns flatly without needing brutally hard springs, because the centre of gravity is snake-eye low.

The steering isn’t twitchily high geared, and it’s tuned with a progression that satisfies you from the get-go. After that, the NSX just hugs the line, with persistent but road-reasonable understeer. Foot-flapping throttle inputs don’t upset it one bit. You can brake deep into a corner and accelerate early out of it, and it never gets out of shape.

Isn’t that a bit… one-dimensional?

Yes. But what redeems the NSX is the sense of connection and confidence. The steering feel is grand, and it lets go benignly. The brakes, which use electric blending to collect regenerated energy, have a whole lot more feel and progression than other hybrid setups.

Klaus says the friendly cornering limit happens in part because they didn’t overdo the downforce (McLaren agrees and took the same policy with the 570S). There are no moving aero elements or pop-up wings, by the way. Nothing to tell anyone how fast you’re going.

Anyway, remember we haven’t been allowed track mode. They say that one livens up your life.

What about this ‘everyday supercar’ schtick?

Yes, it complies. Easy to see out of, nicely sorted cabin ergonomics, plush but supportive seats, and a general airiness. But there’s a strange lack of driver aids for a car that makes that claim. Not even radar cruise control.

More important, since the original NSX was launched – undoubtedly the first plausible everyday supercar – that niche has got awfully crowded. See the R8 and 570S and 911 Turbo. Where once Lamborghinis were endlessly user-hostile, even a Huracan is a cuddly companion in the grind of normality.

You sound a bit underwhelmed…

On this fleeting encounter, perhaps the NSX didn’t reveal its depths. But my real fear is the new rivals that do a similar job by other means. I’ve fallen for the gen-2 R8’s V10 and the security of its drive. Same for the 570S’s playful yet benign handling. The NSX promised to be tomorrow’s supercar. But that was yesterday.

What do you think?

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