First drive: 2017 Acura NSX [Review]

After a long hibernation, the Acura NSX is back.

For nearly a decade the promise of a second-generation Acura NSX has been dangling in front of the automotive world like a juicy carrot hanging from a stick in front of a hungry mule. And just like that mule, we never could quite get to the prize at the end of the rope.

Acura started development of a front-engined NSX powered by a V10 engine in the mid-2000s, but The Great Recession put the kibosh on that plan by the end of 2008. Once the economic outlook improved Acura teased us with a new, mid-engined NSX concept in 2012, but we were forced to wait once again when the company decided that the show car's naturally-aspirated V6 wasn't really supercar worthy.

But finally, the wait is over. The real question is, though, has it been worth it?

What is it?Since a lot has changed over the last few years in the world of NSX, it's probably best to start with the basics.

Like the original, the 2017 NSX is a two-door coupe with seating for two. The latest version of the NSX also has a V6 engine in the middle, but that's where the similarities stop.

Whereas the original used a transversely-mounted, naturally-aspirated V6 — much like the NSX concept from 2012 — the newest version of Acura's supercar relies on a longitudinally-positioned 3.5L V6 aided by a pair of turbochargers. Although Acura currently offers a 3.5L V6 under the hood of some of its other vehicles, the 75-degree 3.5L V6 in the NSX is a ground up design that is bespoke to the nameplate.

To that gas powertrain Acura added a total of three electric motors — a pair at the front axle and another integrated into the NSX's nine-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Those electric motors are powered by a battery pack sandwiched between the NSX's passenger cell and engine compartment.

On its own, the gas engine is good for 500 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque. The electric motors bump the NSX's total output to 573 horsepower and 476 lb-ft of torque. The NSX doesn't have a dedicated EV mode, but it's capable of battery-only operation at low speeds for distance up to about 1.5 miles.

On an interesting side note, the gas engine in the NSX is completely belt-free; everything from the power steering to the air-conditioning is electrically operated, so there isn't a need for a pulley system. The NSX doesn't have a traditionally starter motor, either; the electric motor pancaked in the car's transmission is responsible for getting the gas mill going.

Form follows functionThe NSX has all the typical styling hallmarks of a high-end sports car, but there is a lot more technical stuff going on than meets the eye. Rather than just channeling air around the car, engineers worked tirelessly to divert passing air through the NSX.

That channeling system starts up front with three large inlets located in the lower portion of the NSX's front fascia. Those ducts help pass air through the NSX's front radiator and also provide cooling for the electric motors mounted in the center of the front axle. In order to ensure that incoming air doesn't create unwanted front-end lift, designers fitted functional air extractors on the NSX's hood and on the front fenders just behind the front wheels.

Once air exits those ports, it's either funneled down past the rear wheels or sucked back into the large vents located just behind the NSX's doors. Hidden inside those cutouts are intercoolers for the turbocharged engine, as well as ducts that channel air to the NSX's nine-speed gearbox. Look closely and you'll spot two air outlets just above the NSX's taillights, which work with air coming from under the car to reduce rear turbulence that can cause excessive drag.

Although it was designed with performance in mind, the NSX wasn't penned devoid of aesthetics. The front end shares a clear resemblance to the rest of the Acura lineup, including the first application of the brand's jeweled headlight treatment that we don't hate.

In profile the NSX has some Audi R8 in it, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The rear view of the NSX isn't as successful, with an overall design that comes off as a little bland for such a radical sports car. The angle of the rear fascia is also a little strange; viewed from certain angles you could almost mistake the rear of the car for it's front end.

Life aboardAcura is known as a sensible brand, so it should come as no surprise that the interior of the NSX reflects that ethos. Seats in the NSX are comfortable — even by luxury car standards — and there is plenty of head- and leg-room for those north of the six-foot mark. Outward visibility — a hallmark of the original NSX — remains a strongpoint for the 2017 NSX thanks to an expansive windshield and a rear window that is large for a mid-engined car. Heck, even the NSX's trunk is large enough to swallow a couple of bags or even a full set of golf clubs.

Unfortunately, the overall design of the NSX's interior is a little too sensible. Everything feels like it's pulled from another Honda product, and that's largely because it is. The NSX's push-button transmission is found in other Acura products and the car's main touchscreen is essentially the same unit you can get in a $20,000 Honda Fit. This interior would be just fine for something like a TLX Coupe, but feels unimaginative for a halo supercar that was developed from scratch.

Some of that Acura sensibility flies out the window once you get to the NSX's ordering sheet, however. Despite a base price approaching $160,000, navigation is a $2,800 option on the NSX. Want SiriusXM satellite radio? That'll be another $500 on top of that. True, brands like Lamborghini charge extra for similar features, but that just seems out of step for Acura. Ditto for the NSX's lack of adaptive cruise control and blind spot monitoring.

Road and trackIt's nice to talk about styling and features, but people are really only interested in the NSX for one reason — the way it drives.

Our first experience with the 2017 NSX came on the private pavement of The Thermal Club just outside of Palm Springs, California. Although not a complicated circuit, Thermal's red course provided plenty of curves and long straights to properly put the NSX through its paces.

With the NSX's Track mode engaged, we eased out of the pits and onto Thermal's long straight. Mash the long pedal and the NSX accelerates like a rocket. The electric motor integrated into the NSX's transmission automatically engages on takeoff, eliminating any sensation of turbo lag. And with both turbos fully spooled, the NSX can really scoot.

The NSX's accelerator pedal actually has a built in "step” point for fully activating the twin electric motors at the front end. Push the pedal past that clicking point and the NSX' entire hybrid system works in tandem to shoot you to the horizon line as quickly as possible. Acura isn't releasing 0-60 figures for the NSX but, with launch mode engaged, we wouldn't be surprised to see figures in the low 3-second range.

The NSX is equipped with torque vectoring systems at both ends, which really helps in the corners. At the rear axle the NSX is cable of braking the inside wheel, while the electric motors up front are cable of apply negative force to one wheel and positive force to the other. The end result of that electronic wizardry is a car that is extremely easy to hustle through tight turns.

Since it uses an electric power steering system, the NSX doesn't offer a whole lot in terms of steering feel, but the tiller is spot on in every other regard. Any inputs are met with a proportional response from the front wheels and the "gearing” is just about as perfect as you can get — no hand shuffling is necessary here, just put your hands at 9 and 3 and keep them there for every turn of the track.

The NSX checks in at a rather portly 3,800 pounds (nearly 700 pounds more than a Lamborghini Huracan), but most of that mass is packaged extremely low in the NSX's chassis, so it carries its weight well. That heft does tend to rear its head through fast corners though, with mean Mr. Physics providing a subtle but constant tug toward the outside. If you do cross the limit, the NSX is forgiving; drifts are easily controlled and the all-wheel drive system is quick to pull you back in line.

Our test cars were fitted with the NSX's optional Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R tires, which proved to be the most responsive of the two tires we tested, the other being NSX's standard Continental tires, but more on that later. Michelin Sport Cup 2 tires are also available for buyers that are planning to do some track driving.

The NSX's optional carbon ceramic brakes had no issues with the car's big bones, hauling the nearly two-ton supercar down from speed with ease. We were limited to about four laps per track session, but during that time we never experienced any signs of fade. Regenerative braking is also included in the NSX and never felt obtrusive.

The NSX's nine-speed transmission works well in either its automatic or manual settings. But truth be told, we probably prefer the automatic setting to the NSX's steering wheel-mounted paddles. The NSX is so technically advanced that it's just best to leave it to its own devices.

The aural experience can be just an important as the driving sensation in a supercar, and this is one area where the NSX could use some improvement. The V6 sounds decent in the mid-part of the rev band, but its howling can be borderline annoying once the RPMs really start to climb. Part of the problem stems from tubes that transmit intake sound from the engine compartment to the cabin, terminating just behind the head of the driver and passenger. As a result, it's almost impossible to hold a conversation while driving above 5,000rpm. And despite all that noise, you really don't hear much from the twin-turbos, which seems like a missed opportunity. We'd gladly trade some of the NSX's intake noise for the chirping of the turbochargers.

So how is the NSX on track overall? Very good, but somehow lacking that emotional connection that makes it a truly moving experience. That feeling will obviously vary from person-to-person, but the NSX didn't beg us to keep pounding lap after lap.

However, there is good reason for that. Although the NSX is track-capable right out of the box, it was really designed with street use in mind. And out on the roads of the real world, it really shines.

Rather than thinking of the NSX as a full-on supercar, think of the NSX as a super grand touring car — fast, but with plenty of space and comfort. When you just want to cruise around town, flip the NSX's dial to Quiet mode and it will loaf around as silently as an RLX sedan. And with its third-generation magnetic ride dampers, the NSX is just about as comfortable as Acura's flagship sedan.

Sport mode livens up the NSX's drivetrain, but keeps the active exhaust flaps mostly closed, so the car's cabin isn't flooded with engine noise.

Sport+ prods the NSX's powertrain a little more, while also livening up the car's suspension and steering. With Sport+ mode engaged and a winding mountain road ahead, the NSX really comes into its own. The AWD system instills gobs of confidence while the NSX's torque vectoring seems to bend the laws of physics — tight turns are no match for this car. Moreover, we didn't experience any moments of turbo lag or even transitions between the gas-electric powertrain, resulting in a linear connection between our right foot and a rush of forward movement.

The NSX's standard Continental rubber provided enough grip on the road, but lacked some of the feeling offered by the Pirellis. Since there isn't a ton of road feel to begin with in the NSX, we'd probably keep the car's track tires fitted at all times.

Again, our only real complaint about piloting the NSX at speed is its off-putting engine note. Unlike the Lamborghini Huracan, which only gets more soulful as its pistons spin toward redline, the NSX doesn't really compel you to hold an engine note to full crescendo. But other than that, the NSX makes for a near-perfect canyon carver.

Leftlane's bottom lineIn a world flush with supercar options, the NSX manages to carve out its own unique niche. Although not as impassioned as some of its European counterparts, the NSX brings to the table a (comparatively) affordable hybrid drivetrain and the the kind of space, comfort and reliability that makes for an everyday supercar. Hopefully Acura doesn't make us wait another 10 years for another bite of the carrot.

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