Drive time: Honda NSX continues the legacy of a cult hero
For many years, the new Honda NSX was something of an automotive unicorn, trailed, preview and promised but ultimately remaining a fable. The original 1990 NSX upended Honda's rather staid image by combining its undeniable technical chops with some performance automotive purity. Up until that point there was next to no crossover between Honda's success on the track – with Formula 1 in particular – and the cars it built for the road. The NSX (New Sports Experiment) changed all that, with direct input from both the racing division and its drivers (including Ayrton Senna) and the very latest suite of materials and dynamic technologies.
The first generation car was in production for an incredible 15 years, but a replacement wasn't lined up straight away. A few conceptual forays, notably the 2007 Acura Advanced Sports Car Concept (Acura being Honda's US division) appeared to signal an arrival, but it was stymied by the economic recession. In 2012 the company tried again, and this time the concept was badged NSX from the outset, with a V10 engine. Behind the scenes engineering was teased with increasingly finished-looking show cars, and the NSX you see before you achieved its final form as far back as 2014, by which point the V10 had been swapped out for a V6 and hybrid combination.
Finally, the 2016 Honda NSX is here (it’s still badged as an Acura in the US, where it's also manufactured). In the two and half decades since the original car arrived, Honda has confidently asserted itself as a sports car maker, albeit be it with highly tuned 'Type R' versions of its multi-million selling hatches and saloons. The NSX has to take the Honda name into the world of £150k sports cars and come out on top – a tall order.
The design has suffered slightly due to the long development time and the car’s mid-engined looks tend towards the generic. There’s a lovely curve that starts on the wing mirror before following the line of the ‘A’-pillar over the roof, down the ‘B’-pillar and then kinking back sharply to form a big crease in the door beneath the engine air intake. It results in a side elevation that’s mostly resolved, whereas the front end doesn’t benefit from having to incorporate the company's latest 'face', a relatively non-descript v-form that is lost in a confusion of creases, vents, chrome and narrow headlight enclosures. Similarly, at the rear, the NSX is a tad bland, despite the wide track creating the potential for a dramatic stance.
What the NSX does best is drive. Honda is admirably direct about its commitment to technological superiority and functional simplicity – there’s no spiel about craftsmanship or passion or heritage, save for the tacit acknowledgement that the first car was something of a cult hero, albeit mostly among motoring journalists. The new car has to address a new era, and it does so with efficiency. A modern super sports machine is essentially a paradox, for however track-focused and raw it is, it will inevitably spend more time in traffic and low-speed driving. Electrically-boosted acceleration is explosive, and cleverly modulated braking makes the car corner around a track with fluidity and ease, regardless of the speed.
Like other cars in this sector, the new NSX has a sliding scale of ability. Honda has unapologetically built the kind of car that can exceed the capabilities and comfort levels of 95 per cent of drivers, giving even pro racers something to enthuse about thanks to a basket of technological trickery that shaves vital seconds off your lap times. Yet in the real world, split second timing comes a distant second to ride comfort, practicality and the ability to convert every overtaking window into a safe opportunity. The NSX also excels here, for Sport, Sport+ and Track modes are joined by a ‘Quiet’ setting that’ll give you an all-electric start – all the better for neighbourly relations. It’s easy to drive, albeit a bit wide, comfortable and straightforward. There’s not the sense of style and occasion you’d fine in a Ferrari or Aston, or even an Audi R8, but although the NSX can certainly compete, it’s pitched at the driver who isn’t bothered by branding or hung up on heritage. Besides, with just 60 cars earmarked for the UK market this year – all sold through a single dealership trained in the art of concierge-style service – it’ll stay rarer than them all. A legendary future awaits?