Does the 2017 Acura NSX Have a Soul?

The new NSX has finally arrived, and it's a techno-colossus. Can it still charm like the original?

2017 Acura NSX

Just as in Hollywood, the troubled, twice-aborted development of the Acura NSX didn’t bode well for the finished product. Delays. Indecision. Rewrites. A Japanese director and crew dumped, then replaced by an Ohio-based team with a more ambitious vision for a big-budget, all-wheel drive hybrid supercar. It didn’t help that the NSX is the Godfather 3 of sports cars, with an 11-year-gap between the original and sequel, which tested the patience of even dedicated fans. And Acura’s design, already a mite CGI-generic, was even less Certified Fresh after a few years trotting around major auto festivals.

Add up the U-turns and hurdles, and this critic had his knife at the ready settling into the driver’s seat at The Thermal Club racecourse. Instead, I had to eat my hat: The mid-engine 2017 NSX may not be Apocalypse Now but, despite an uninspired twin-turbo V-6 soundtrack and clinical approach, it is a surprisingly effective entertainment.

The NSX is brave, too. It’s an electrified, future-glimpsing bookend to the nigh-million-dollar Porsche 918 Spyder, but priced at $157,800 to start. And Acura is only seeking 800 annual North American converts (think: the JDM fanatic who owns a Nissan GT-R, but flashier prey) to its cause.

Acura NSX

Chasing Indy driver Graham Rahal around this desert road course offered a first instructive taste of this Acura, which rotary-dials through four modes, from Sunday-church “Quiet” to all-out “Track.” There’s a 25-decibel sound range between the two—natural, variable intake sound pumped through tubes behind occupants’ heads—because Acura thinks owners may sometimes prefer to cruise below neighborhood radar. (Not the supercar customers we know—Ed.) That yin-yang quality pervades the Acura, which sometimes tries too hard to be an everyday Honda, to disguise the seriously heroic shit under its skin. Yet every oddity is countered by engineering that evokes the glory years of brainiac Honda performance and yes, the seminal, overachieving first-gen NSX. To wit:

-- The largely aluminum space-frame chassis, with a carbon-fiber floor and mixed-materials body (mostly aluminum and sheet-molded composite) feels as indomitable as anything in the class. Acura claims its exponentially more rigid than rivals, with the lowest center of gravity, despite a small lithium-ion battery behind the driver and passenger. A new “ablation casting” technique uses water to shear away the sand casting mold, quickly cooling the liquid aluminum inside to make it more ductile and crash-worthy.

Acura NSX

-- The original NSX cockpit was Armor-All Integra, and the new one still feels like an $80,000 cabin in a $160,000 car. Leather and Alacantara distracts from slumming elements, including Honda’s parts-bin Display Radio and equally clumsy console transmission switches. The Audi R8’s Bauhaus artistry blows this thing to smithereens. But outward visibility makes this the Accord of supercars, with a low cowl, enormous windshield, and ingenious A-pillars as slender as a princess’ wrists. Seats balance track-ready support with road-trip comfort. The steering wheel is a tactile masterwork, including oblong protrusions on the back that your fingers cradle like Faberge eggs. Brilliant. And the 580-watt ELS audio system is among the most spacious-sounding units ever shoehorned into a two-seat cabin.

-- The 3.5-liter quad-cam V-6, with a spread-legged 75-degree angle, dry-sump oiling and a mix of port- and direct-injection, shares nary a bolt with any production Honda. It makes 500 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque, and spins to 7,500 rpm. An electric traction motor (47 hp, 109 lb-ft.) sandwiches between the crankshaft and Honda-developed nine-speed, dual-clutch automatic gearbox. Now, add a twin-motor unit with planetary gears up front, which arguably trumps the Porsche 918’s single motor; the Acura can send 36 hp and 54 pound-feet to either front wheel, or use electrical resistance to simultaneously slow either wheel. Yes, true independent torque vectoring, which helps the car dive into turns and dig out the other side. All told, the NSX sends 573 horsepower and 476 pound-feet to pavement. Being electric, those front motors deliver maximum torque from 0 to 2,000 rpm, exactly where a turbo engine is struggling to rouse itself. You can proceed on electricity alone for maybe a half-mile, and fuel economy is a decent 21 mpg combined. One hybrid con? The Acura is a 3,800-pound heavyweight, including perhaps 400 worth of battery cells and electrified gear.

Acura NSX

-- All supercars go, but the NSX is special for how it stops. There’s no physical connection between the brake pedal and mechanical calipers, and you're expecting the artificial, mashed-potatoes feel of hybrid stoppers. Instead, the brakes are a triumph. A brake force simulator assesses pedal forces, then feeds in natural resistance via a secondary electro-hydraulic circuit. And with those regenerative brakes helping to slow the car in every corner, the friction brakes are less likely to fade, especially on track. Iron rotors are standard; a Brembo carbon-fiber package is $9,900.

So how does it drive? That depends on which personality you choose. The NSX, like the original R8, is tuned for safe, resolute understeer, until you crank up Sport Plus or Track mode. Then, it transforms into the howling, road-clawing beast you’d expect at this price point. The NSX also struts its best stuff with optional track-capable tires, Pirelli P Zero Trofeos or Michelin Pilot Sport Cups, as opposed to longer-wearing, solid-citizen Continental ContiSport Contacts.

Departing the track for a run to Idyllwild, with its fragrant cedars and famous Suicide and Tahquitz climbing rocks, the Acura embarks on its own adventurous ascent. The threesome of electric motors fills every power gap inherent to turbocharged engines, including surges of juice to smooth gear changes. The NSX actually gets to 60 mph fastest in Sport Plus mode, because the computers will suck more battery power, knowing it’ll be instantly recovered via the constant regeneration inherent to street driving. Expect a 60-mph dash in a class-worthy 3 seconds flat, and onward to 191 mph. Yet acceleration is so linear that there’s a lack of sensation, not the bruising shove you get from, say, a Corvette Z06. It’s sneaky fast, not freaky fast. You’d swear a naturally-aspirated V-8 was reciprocating behind your head—if it wasn’t for the emphysema rasp-and-drone of the V-6. There’s an especially vexing, dentist-drill whine at extended high-rpm use, a second-order harmonic from the four whirring timing chains.

It does dive into turns with near-Italian brio, and variable-ratio steering is finely weighted, though not especially chatty about the road surface. On a fantasy two-lane descent from the San Jacinto Mountains, I catch a glimpse of green-bed valley below, a suggestion of deserved rest following this workout. The Acura slingshots from curve to fate-tempting curve. I’m driving as quickly as I’ve dared of late on public roads, letting those front wheels electrify their way into and out of every corner. Ultra-wide-range magnetic dampers stiffen or soothe the car at all four corners, pancaking the NSX to the road with extra syrup. Maybe this Acura has a heart after all, somewhere below that aluminum skin, the many-layered technology.

Yes, Acura took eons to figure out what the new NSX should be. It aimed high with technology, yet kept a big-tent approach—odd for a supercar aimed at an elite, foreign-documentary-size audience. Yet to Acura’s defense, every rival from Ferrari to Lamborghini to McLaren is proclaiming the same amateur-accessible, daily-driving goals. So ask yourself: Performance aside, which supercar do you think will be more bulletproof-reliable and readily, affordably serviced, a Ferrari, a McLaren or a Honda-Acura? The answer helped spark the original NSX and forged its reputation. Perhaps this new NSX isn't so different after all.

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2017 Acura NSX
BASE PRICE: $157,800
POWERTRAIN: 3.5-liter V-6, twin-turbo; three electric motors, total 573 hp, 476 lb-ft torque; nine-speed dual-clutch automatic, AWD
WEIGHT: 3,800 pounds
0-60 MPH: 3.0 seconds
TOP SPEED: 191 mph
MPG: 20 city / 22 highway