New Acura NSX First Drive 2019: A step ahead

 

The original NSX was good, but the 2019 is nothing to sneeze at. 

I'm sitting low. Really low. Low enough that each pebble impacting the undercarriage feels like it's impacting my undercarriage. My legs are splayed out at an odd angle, my size 13, Puma-clad feet desperately trying to find a way to work the closely stacked pedals.

As I accelerate, a whistle over my left shoulder reminds me just how much air the mid-mounted V6 engine sucks down and ignites to propel me forward. This intake note is delicious, and as satisfying as dipping a spoon into a pristine crème brulee. The exhaust note, meanwhile, surrounds and comforts me. The steering wheel is large for a supercar, and it's attached to an unpowered rack that requires semi-Herculean effort to turn in a parking lot but is sheer perfection at speed. The chassis is sublime and feels like it's an extension of my nervous system as feedback comes through my butt, my feet, and my hands.


This is what it's like to drive an Acura NSX… from 1991. It's a beautiful thing, a foundational experience that every car enthusiast should get to experience. That’s something Acura would very much like people to think about the current NSX. The reborn NSX failed in that regard when it debuted in 2017, but the updated 2019 NSX is bringing this hybridized, twin-turbocharged supercar a little closer to the early 1990s in all the right ways, while pushing forward with a truly 21st century performance concept.

At least, that's how it felt after a few brief sessions on the track.


Yes, that's right, a race track. I got to run a short, 15-minute route on public roads in the 1991 NSX, but all my activities in the 2019 were on the 1.75-mile Dynamic Handling Course at the Transportation Research Center, just outside of East Liberty, Ohio. It's worth noting the NSX has home-field advantage at TRC. While Honda doesn’t own the sprawling facility, it’s effectively in the backyard of the factory that builds the hybrid supercar, and the Japanese automaker did a huge amount of development work there. Hell, there's literally a bridge from Honda's research-and-development headquarters into TRC. With this advantage and the lack of public-road driving in mind, look for a more exhaustive, on-road test of the updated NSX in the near future.

But the track suffices as a place to sample the impressive updates Acura has made to the NSX. There are stiffer front and rear sway bars (26 percent in front and 19 percent out back) while the rear toe link bushings and rear hub are firmer, too. Continental developed a version of the new SportContact 6 summer tires exclusively for the NSX in a bid to address complaints that the old ContiSportContact 5P were exhausted too easily and too quick to overheat in a track environment. And, of course, Acura fettled with the electrical nannies for the stability control, all-wheel-drive (dubbed Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive by Acura), power steering, and magnetic dampers.The result, the company claims, is a two-second improvement at Honda's home race track, the Suzuka Circuit in Japan.

The NSX's powertrain remains an absolute peach. It develops its power far differently than the old NSX, which is a bit like saying the diet of a Tyrannosaurus Rex is far different than that of a modern, world-class athlete. The old NSX begs its driver to ring out the engine – it requires a level of involvement that no turbocharged car can match. The modern powertrain is far easier to manage.
Torque is effortless, and Honda's engineers have done a fine job making power available up near the redline. In fact, peak horsepower from the twin-turbocharged V6 is available from 6,500 to the 7,500-rpm redline. While the 2019 car doesn't insist its driver keeps the engine on the boil – it's simply not necessary when the engine makes peak torque from 2,000 to 6,000 rpm and the electric motors come in below those speeds – it's all too happy to play along if its driver wants to wind things out.


That playfulness extends beyond the powertrain, too. According to Acura, dynamic improvements weren't the only goal for the updated NSX, with engineers focusing on making the car more enjoyable, too. There's an accessibility to the NSX when lapping the track, a confidence-inspiring character that makes it great fun to experiment with. By my second stint, I've switched from the Sport Plus drive mode to the Track setting, which loosens the the stability control for more freedom, cuts the shift time of the nine-speed automatic to just 40 milliseconds, adds extra steering weight, and uncorks the exhaust.
Mid-engine cars can be tricky to drive, but the NSX feels light and manageable. It's an approachable supercar. That's partially because the steering is so predictable. The weight of the tiller in Sport Plus and Track is perfect, and, along with the improved rubber, makes the NSX turn in quickly. On the DHC's fast, right-hand sweeper, I’m able to turn in late and carry plenty of speed – it all felt surefooted, with just enough drama to keep things interesting.

But ultimately, it's not the NSX's poise or outright capability that harkens back to its predecessor (although admittedly, the more modern car feels far more capable than its ancestor); it's the sound. Honda engines have always had a distinct note, whether it's the VTEC scream of the brand's four-cylinders – a mint Acura Integra Type R that Honda let me try before tossing me the keys to the 1991 NSX is still leaving me misty-eyed nearly a week later – or the smooth, sonorous note of its high-revving V6s, and it's here where the 1991 and the 2019 NSX are linked most closely.

As I lapped the DHC in the 2019 NSX, I thought back to the 1991. The two cars couldn't be more different. But when I jumped on the gas pedal in the 2019 car, it didn't matter that there were three electric motors, two turbochargers, and a nine-speed automatic at work, or that the engine was so much more modern, powerful, and efficient. The engine's exhaust and intake note still worked their way into my ear and tickled my brain stem, just as that high-mileage 1991 car had earlier in the day.
The 2019 Acura NSX is better than it's ever been. It's not the icon that its predecessor is, but if you listen, it's on the right track.

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