Strike Fighter

After years in the performance doldrums, does the NSX supercar signal that Honda's dog days are over?

by GED BULMER

FIRST FANG Honda NSX

After years in the performance doldrums, does the NSX supercar signal that Honda's dog days are over?

THE SUNNY seaside city of Estoril in Portugal’s Algarve region is a long way from the gritty industrial reality of Hamamatsu, Japan. It’s a long way, too, from Honda’s sprawling Performance Manufacturing Centre near rural Marysville, Ohio.

But it’s at Estoril where efforts have finally converged from a team of engineers who have worked tirelessly on either side of the Pacific for more than a decade.

NSX engineering project leader Jason Bilotta and power train engineering chief Yasuhide Sakamoto represent the two sides of that complex equation, having been handed – with hundreds of colleagues – the task of reawakening Honda’s dormant performance passions.

The pair knows better than most that the past decade has been a tough one for Honda.

Successive body blows from the global financial crisis, the brand’s late-2008 withdrawal from Formula One, the 2011 tsunami, the Fukushima nuclear radiation crisis and floods in Thailand, dampened confidence. The comeback of Honda’s born again NSX supercar has been slow, painful and replete with dead ends and false dawns.

Bilotta admits that were it not for the GFC hitting in 2008, by the end of that decade we would have seen an NSX with a front mid-mounted V10 that was more GT than the mid-engined hybrid-V6 super sports car they’ve eventually produced.

“We realised that the next generation sports car was going to be a big step up in performance and technology,” he said, in response to questions about the decision to abort the V10.

So the NSX we meet today is an east-west fusion.

It’s got electric motors, batteries, turbochargers and transmissions from Japan; an engine block and heads from the UK; and exotic body bits crafted on an assembly line in the US of A.

It could be, should be, a Frankenstein. But bathed in glittering sunlight in the pits at Estoril, the NSX looks as if it has stepped straight out of Supercar Central Casting.

Close your eyes and squint a bit and it could just be a Ferrari; which is perfectly apt since Ferrari, along with Lamborghini, McLaren, Porsche, Audi and even Mercedes-AMG, is in the crosshairs of Honda’s born-again strike fighter.

The NSX needs every scoop, vent and aero bit to cool its complex hybridised drivetrain, which features an electric motor directly coupled to the engine’s crank, lithium-ion batteries stacked vertically behind the seats, and two more electric motors in the front axle delivering both independent drive and torque-vectoring.

A fi nely calibrated butt would suggest that it's very close to 911 Turbo pace

There’s little doubt it is as technically advanced a supercar as you’ll find anywhere on the planet, comparable on some levels with the Porsche 918, McLaren P1 and LaFerrari, although Honda is careful not to mention these superstar rivals in the same breath as the NSX.

Instead, they prefer to mention Teutonic twins the Audi R8 and Porsche 911 Turbo, which are closer in price to the $420,000 (RRP) that Honda will ask for the NSX in Australia. Measured against these relative lightweights the Honda’s 1780kg kerb weight stands out like the hound’s proverbials.

Bilotta points out that the hybrid NSX was always going to trouble the scales more than conventionallypowered rivals. Fully 160kg of the heft can be traced to the car’s electric motors, batteries and wiring.

Bizarrely, Honda declines to supply or confirm acceleration numbers for its new supercar. “We’re not focused on the numbers but want the focus to be on the driving experience,” says Bilotta, before adding: “We are really happy with how we compare with 911 Turbo and Audi R8 V10.”

The engineers present seem equally keen to defuse speculation about how nimble such a lead-sled could possibly feel through the 13 challenging turns punctuating the Autodromo do Estoril’s 4.18km.

We’re about to find out. With engineers fussing over pressures in the sticky 19 and 20-inch Pirelli rubber, we drop into the snug cockpit with its heavily bolstered sports seats and carbon-fibre-topped steering wheel.

A glance around reveals a cabin that is sophisticated and technical in appearance, embellished by splashes of alloy, piano gloss, leather and alcantara. It’s certainly no poverty pack, but nor is it as high-end as those of rivals at this price point. The ergonomics and driving position, however, are excellent.

The major controls have been kept deliberately simple. There’s no Ferrari-style Manettino, or complex digital menus. Just a simple, stylised console bisecting the cabin and adorned with a large central dial. The transmission is controlled by a quartet of buttons for Park, Reverse, Neutral and Drive, while the dial selects from the NSX’s four drive modes.

We rumble out of the pits and onto the track with the V6 buzzing busily behind our heads, the obligatory hot shoe in the jump seat to provide guidance on the unfamiliar circuit. Still smiling despite having been doing this for two weeks solid, 33-year old Austrian Hannes Danzinger explains that we’ll do three laps in each mode, working our way up from Quiet, through Sport and Sport Plus, to Track.

After a sighting lap in the largely redundant Quiet, we stop at the top of Estoril’s main straight to sample launch control. Danzinger takes us through the relatively simple steps: hold the switch for a few seconds, stab the brake hard, mash the gas pedal to bring the revs up, release the brake and… BAM!

The red missile howls away from the start line, its nose momentarily bobbing skywards as the rear squats, the nine-speed twin-clutch transmission firing

home upshifts with furious velocity, each millisecondfast change accompanied by an explosive blat as the ignition is cut momentarily.

The NSX launches with the gut-churning acceleration that only a thoroughbred supercar can deliver. In lieu of anything more scientific, a finely calibrated butt would suggest it’s very near to the 911 Turbo’s 3.0 second 0-100km/h time. Given the instant punch of the NSX’s electric powertrain, the Honda may even shade the Porsche.

As we work our way through the modes, each lap rising in pace and intensity, the claim that the NSX doesn’t feel like a 1780kg supercar begins to ring true.

This, frankly, freaking amazing performance starts inches behind our heads. While early NSX prototypes evaluated a transversely-mounted atmo V6 as well as the V10, the eventual engine is an unusual, 75-degree, 3.5-litre DOHC mid-mounted dry-sump V6. Bilotta explains that the V-angle was chosen for its strength – the engine forms a structural component of the chassis – as well as its packaging and balance benefits.

Force-fed by a pair of single-scroll turbos, the engine features electronic wastegate actuators, direct and port injection, a high 10.0:1 compression ratio and a 7500rpm redline, all of which contribute to its healthy 373kW/550Nm outputs. These numbers alone won’t trouble rivals such as an Audi R8. But with its electrical systems engaged, outputs from the NSX rise to a Porsche 911 Turbo-challenging 427kW/646Nm.

The electric motor directly coupled to the V6’s crank provides instant torque in every gear, ensuring that while the engine is spinning up and the turbos are spooling, acceleration is available immediately.

The shot of energy is apparent as you apply power coming out of slow bends, where the NSX’s reflexes feel, forgive the pun, electric. Meanwhile, torque vectoring from the electric motors up front contributes to the other-worldly handling.

Honda says the transmission was benchmarked during development with Porsche’s impressive PDK.

It’s a staggeringly good piece of kit.

With a super-low first gear and a super-tall 9th intended for high-speed autobahn cruising, it’s effectively a close-ratio seven-speeder for most driving. The refinement of the auto shifts and shift mapping is simply superb.

Drop the hammer at any speed, in any gear and in any mode, and the Honda reacts with blindingly fast instincts, permitting overtaking manoeuvres on the winding Portuguese roads we later inhabit that would be comfortable in only a select few alternative supercars or on some motorcycles.

Back on the track, the phrase “it corners like it’s on rails” could have been written specifically for the NSX, thanks largely to Honda’s so-called Super Handling All-Wheel Drive, or SH-AWD. Similar technology has been used before in Honda’s Legend luxury sedan.

Drop the hammer at any speed and the Honda reacts with blindingly fast instincts

But the NSX reverses the location of the Legend’s twin electric motors. They brake and power, respectively, front wheels on the inside and outside of a turn, to deliver phenomenal cornering ability.

Because it’s electrically driven, the NSX’s direct yaw control works whether the driver is on or off the throttle. The result is a car that’s wonderfully easy to drive quickly, with an incredibly progressive throttle response and sublime balance that flatters.

Of course, the track is one thing and public roads quite another. If anything was going to test the temperament of this hi-tech supercar it would be the snotty, rock-walled Portuguese backroads they directed us to for the afternoon session.

But the NSX continued to impress and amaze. First with its ridiculous ease of use: at sensible speeds it is no harder to drive than a humble Civic. And second with its exceptional ride quality, thanks to Honda’s use of fourth-generation magnetorheological dampers.

We did find a flaw in this polished gem. At idle and low revs the engine emits a less-than-sonorous, slightly chesty, off-beat warble that morphs to midrange boominess. The low-rev grumble is overlaid by the whirr of the regenerative braking system, which together adds up to something well short of a typical supercar symphony. Fortunately, by 4000rpm the acoustics are starting to come together and the V6 is sounding purposeful, while by 5000rpm it’s a properly angry thing, delivering its full high-fidelity soundtrack.

Given the halo that surrounds the original NSX, this new car had plenty to live up to. Many of the world’s media approached it with scepticism. But nine laps of Estoril and a half day on twisting roads convinced MOTOR that the NSX is bloody brilliant.

This is a supercar that harnesses technology in a way that flatters the average driver, yet which has a depth to it that will tempt and enthral the most capable steerer.

Yes, there are still a lot of dreary cardigan cars desperately in need of an injection of talent across the Honda’s Australian model range, but the NSX is one giant step in the right direction for a brand that might just be on the cusp of a comeback. M Full specs can be found on p70.

This is a supercar that harnesses technology in a way that fl atters the average driver

Top End Test There's a hint of Down Under in the NSX

AUSTRALIA played a small but significant role in the car’s development, courtesy of two weeks heat testing in the NT. Heat is the enemy of batteries, and the car’s lithium-ion bank, cleverly stacked behind the seats, are cooled via the car’s climate control system, which can divert chilled air their way even when the cabin is being heated.

Accounting for 160kg of the NSX’s weight, along with their attendant wiring, the batteries are warrantied for five years. – GB