This isn’t a straight Honda NSX review. We’ve done that before and you can read it here. However, the car is now in the UK (right hand drive, but German registered) and given how tricksy your average British road (or airfield…) can be, we wanted to reacquaint ourselves with Honda’s mighty £143,750 573bhp twin turbo V6 hybrid supercar.
I particularly wanted to do this since I hadn’t been blown away by the NSX when I’d first driven it a few months back…
The Grossglockner choice
That had been here – the astonishing Grossglockner Pass in Austria – and in the company of the car that would go on to win our Speed Week shoot-out, the Porsche 911R. Both the scenery and the Porsche overshadowed the Honda (you can read about that little adventure here). It was by no means bad, but failed to come to life on the road, to have a strong enough personality to compete with mountains and manually-gearboxed flat sixes.
However, things did improve once we got it to the Red Bull Ring. I’d assumed this heavy 1,845kg hybrid was emphatically designed to be a road car before a track car, but it was actually far more compelling to drive on a circuit. High revs and hard cornering gave the NSX a harder, tauter demeanour. The question in my mind was whether a bumpy British B-road would tax the chassis more than a smoothly polished mountain pass and in the process make the NSX more involving to drive.
The Drag Race
But that would have to wait, because the main reason we had the NSX was so Chris Harris could pitch it against an Audi R8 V10 Plus (my long termer) and Porsche 911 Turbo over the quarter mile for a film you’ll be able to watch soon.
This is Bruntingthorpe, the surface is decrepit and the weather was horrendous. So wet the runway flooded. Knowing the NSX was off to do a drag race and, we have to assume, not having looked at the long range weather forecast, Honda had fitted the NSX with the Pirelli Trofeo track day tyres. This made driving in a straight line on a runway much more challenging than it ought to be. At one point I found myself attempting to retrieve a 90mph tank-slapper half-way through a drag race. Aquaplaning-ahoy.
Here are the tyres. Look at all the channels for water to escape from. But you know what? As long as they didn’t hit standing water, they were actually very usable. Normal people would switch them for the Conti CSC 5Ps that Honda have as the other option tyre at this time of year, but they coped way better with leaf mulch and soggy conditions than you’d expect given the tread pattern.
The way it looks
Anyway, here it is not at Bruntingthorpe, but on a little road. I’m increasingly thinking the NSX is a good-looking car. It’s compact, makes the R8 look a bit flaccid around the edges and there are some nice details. The front end is overly hectic, but I like the floating C-pillars and the wheel design is cracking.
Time for a close up on the wheels…
Ornate, aren’t they? Set off nicely by the gunmetal grey carbon ceramic brakes fitted to our test car (an £8,400 option). More than that though the brakes are great to use. They don’t suffer from the low speed grabbiness that afflicts the R8, and considering they have a regen function as well, pedal precision is spot on.
This is notoriously tricky to get right on hybrids – just ask Porsche. The brakes were perhaps the weakest link in the Porsche 918’s armoury, as the system tried to juggle your retardation demands with electrical energy generation, the result being a pedal that was sometimes hard to modulate. That the NSX avoids that pitfall and has brakes that are predictable and strong, with reassuring pedal bite (if not feel), is to its credit.
Layout of boot and engine
Practicality. Not the NSX’s forte. No space behind the seats inside, no front boot (that’s all cooling and e-motors), just this rear slot. You can pack quite a lot into it, but stuff does get hot and will come out smelling like a Lotus. Mmm, glue. Weird lump in the floor, too.
Further forward, that’s a £2,900 carbonfibre engine surround which does a pretty fair job of hiding the twin turbo 3.5-litre V6 entirely, or at least making it look fairly anaemic. Engine presentation is clearly not a Honda strength. An R8 has bespoke LEDs to illuminate the V10.
There’s nowhere proper to put anything. No door pockets, no real centre console cubby, no cupholders. The packaging is compromised. So let’s crack on with some more negatives: the material quality is not great, the screen graphics are really, really sub standard (especially as Honda charge £1,700 for the pack that contains Garmin nav…), and you’d better hope your knees are up to some considerable twisting and bending.
You sit very, very low. Yet the cockpit feels light and open. The scuttle is low, visibility is good and the driving position is great. The chairs don’t have any seatbase tilt adjustment – just fore/aft and backrest – which I found frustrating to begin with, plus they felt a bit soft and thinly bolstered.
But I never had a single issue with them. I didn’t slop about in them and I never felt uncomfortable. The steering wheel (£2,300 for the carbon rim, complete with aluminium pedals and other carbon trimmings) looks like a softened hexagon, but with less than two turns between locks you rarely need to move your hands, and at the quarter to three position, it moulds perfectly.
The infotainment. Just look at it. The screen resolution, the graphics, er, the fingerprints. Sorry about that. Yes, it has Apple Carplay, but if you’re used it you’ll know it’s hardly revolutionary. You can have your texts read out to you. Big deal.
Anyway, the screen is laggy, you have to press it a couple of times before anything happens, the menus are confusing and, really, there aren’t many positives. In a car as tech laden as the NSX, having this as your main touch point with the car is really disappointing.
Dynamic Mode dial
Just below the screen you have this – the mode dial that allows you to cycle from Quiet to Sport, Sport+ and Track. But that’s all you can do. You can’t individually have sporty engine with comfort suspension or whatever. To be fair, the modes are pretty well selected and the ride is good enough that Sport holds no fears.
Potentially bigger issue: you can’t choose to run it in electric mode. The car decides when to do that, and chooses to very rarely – and only when it’s in Quiet, which suffers from a throttle so frustratingly laggy that I found myself switching to Sport even in traffic. Which sort of defeats the object.
So it rarely feels like a hybrid. Get in a BMW i8 and it feels futuristic – you press a button, the engine falls silent and you’re suddenly in the Red October, running silent and deep. There’s something stealthy and appealing about that.
Here’s a graphic of the dash, so you can see the different parameters the Dynamic Mode dial affects. Top to bottom: Powertrain, 4WD system, stability control, suspension and steering weight.
The nine-speed twin clutch gearbox
I got on better with this though. I found the buttons intuitive to use and with so many ratios to pile through and crisp upshifts, the acceleration experience is good. Downshifts are a bit more laggy, but generally speaking I was too busy being impressed by the brakes to take much notice.
So what’s it like on wintery UK roads?
Better than it is abroad. Normally we find that cars fail to translate when they come to the UK, suspension upset by the pounding meted out by lumpen British tarmac. The NSX, which was so composed and capable on the Continent, felt remote and plain on the smooth Grossglockner, now finally feels like it has to do some work. It comes across as less aloof, more interesting and entertaining because you’re now aware of what it’s doing, how hard it’s having to work.
Sport+ is the mode you need it in, firming up the suspension, improving throttle response and noise, just making the car more tense and alert.
The suspension is unflappable, so you feel secure, even on these tyres at this time of year. The sense of connection through the super-stiff chassis (not the steering, note) is good, too, the ideal mounting point for that supple suspension. You turn-in and although the rack has a similarly sharp ratio to a Ferrari, it’s less nervous and snatchy just off-centre. Positive, grippy, but not aggressive. I wish you got a better sense of the forces building up through the wheel, but that’s an increasingly rare commodity these days.
It’s neutral through corners, favouring neither oversteer nor understeer, the weight is carried low down, and the system makes good decisions about how and where to apportion the power when you get back on the throttle.
Petrol vs electric
Honda has clearly made a lot of effort to blend the two power units together. They feel seamless. Or expressed another way, you can’t feel the electric working very much. Yes, you do get some sense of a slight torque boost and the front wheels assisting if the Trofeos do start to slide, but the power splits make this a markedly rear wheel drive set-up.
The two front electric motors generate 72bhp between them, while at the rear the twin turbo V6 (500bhp) is assisted by a third e-motor (47bhp). The way the units interact means maximum power of 573bhp, but you get the idea: less than 15per cent of torque goes to the front wheels.
But it doesn’t feel that imbalanced – this is a fast, secure car on any road. You sit low, the engine pushes hard, the chassis takes all the punishment, the steering is sharp. There’s a lot to enjoy here.
Engine vs weight
Two things upset the NSX’s equilibrium at this point. The engine has no character and it’s too heavy. The former is a massive disappointment given how we used to view the old NSX’s VTEC powerplant. But the new twin turbo is so smooth and plain that a Civic Type R has more character and excitement in its delivery.
There’s lag too: in the gearbox and the turbos, and not a big enough instant hit of e-torque to make the initial yards. In the 918 and i8, that sparkling whoosh of electricity feels interesting and special. The NSX doesn’t have it.
The engine does have the ability to entertain, but it only gains voice, volume and a harder tone right at the top end with the pedal on the floor. That’s an area of performance that’s hard to exploit. Maybe for a few seconds in second and third away from a roundabout you’ll get to extend it until the dash starts flashing at 7,500rpm, but the rest of the time the engine doesn’t have the ability to entertain.
And at 1,845kg it’s heavy and that means performance simply isn’t as penetrating as in the Audi R8, Porsche 911 Turbo or McLaren 540C, all of which are at least a quarter of a tonne lighter. It manages it’s weight well because the centre of gravity is low, but I’m not sure the NSX makes a convincing enough case for carrying around the extra hybrid baggage.
Given a straight choice?
R8 every time for me. It’s the engine that does it – the naturally aspirated V10 is just such a special thing to use, whether you’re crawling in traffic, feeling it ramp up through the mid-range or letting it howl its way to 8,800rpm. Atmospheric engines are just the best.
The NSX has better turn in and a more responsive front end. I like that about it, but the R8 gets itself out of corners with such trumpeting energy and excitement. Both will do the daily stuff, but the Audi feels more exciting and special while doing it. Nicer inside, too. And not that cost makes a blind bit of difference for people who can afford these – and I know the Honda must be more expensive to build and develop – but £143,750 before (pricey) options looks steep. Especially when the infotainment is so crap.
Some final thoughts
British roads bring out the best in the NSX. It’s fast and secure. But it’s neither the best expression of hybrid technology nor as visceral and exciting as the best cars in this class. Nor does the gain come from economy. It’ll do 30-32mpg on a motorway haul, but so will a 911 Turbo. Overall it did about 22-23mpg, which is better than I get out of the R8 (18-19mpg), but about par with the McLaren 540/570. It’s not great. Nor the point of having a supercar.
But is the Honda a supercar? For me it sits on the cusp between sports car and supercar. I’m impressed by its manners and road-holding, love how well it deals with bucking B-roads (even on these tyres), but it simply doesn’t have the sense of occasion I think a car like this should have. Nor does a 911 Turbo for that matter. The McLaren gets in for its doors and the way it drives, the R8 for its drivetrain.
Simply put, the NSX feels less fascinating than it should. It throws a cloak over the technology when it should be celebrating it, making a virtue of e-drive. For me, it’s a good car, but not a great one. Thoughts?