Credit Ayrton Senna for helping the 1991 Acura NSX become the beacon of mid-engined greatness from Asia. In 1989, Honda engineers were at Japan’s Suzuka Circuit testing their 2.0-liter V6 prototype, originally dubbed HP-X (Honda Pininfarina Experimental), when they found Senna there also, testing his McLaren-Honda Formula 1 car. Honda proffered a few laps in the test mule and the world champion obliged. Expecting a glowing review, the R&D team instead heard: “I’m not sure I can really give you appropriate advice on a mass-production car, but I feel it’s a little fragile.”
That famous feedback sent Honda into a spiral. The car was all but finalized. Press drives were scheduled to occur in a few short months. But when Senna says your supercar fails to live up to its descriptor, you go back to the drawing board. His single sentence meant an additional eight months of reworking. Among the tweaks, the chassis was made 50 percent stiffer, even though it was already as rigid as current Ferrari and Porsche offerings. When it emerged as the Acura NSX (New Sportscar Experimental), it stunned the automotive world, grabbing the European exotic manufacturers by the lapels and giving them a vigorous shake.
In other metrics: The ‘91 NSX was Gordon Murray’s benchmark for his McLaren F1. Opening this week’s installment of Jay Leno’s Garage, our host tells us Murray revered Honda’s landmark for its reliability, supreme ride and handling and stellar build quality. Leno likens opening the engine bay to opening the back of a handcrafted Swiss timepiece; beautiful and meticulously well conceived. However, over the production run, there were missteps and falters and by the time the marque ceased in 2005, many wondered if it could ever reemerge at the apex. Eleven years on, as Acura launches its successor, they’re hoping lightning will strike twice.
The new NSX features a hybrid powertrain with three electric motors and a mid-mounted twin-turbo 3.5-liter V6. That combo generates 573 horsepower and torque north of 400 lb-ft going to all four wheels. The drive is mated to a nine-speed dual clutch transmission, which boasts buttery smooth shifts upon request. However, this wasn’t the original engine. Michelle Christensen, exterior design project leader for Acura, was first told the powerplant would be a V-10 when on-boarded in 2012. That was scuttled for a smaller transverse engine, which also soon hit the cutting room floor. When they settled on the current setup, the design team was a bit daunted as to how to feed the engine the requisite larger airflow while still producing a captivating form.
Of the body, Christensen says the aim was to keep the purity of the original: lightweight and simple. Something that harkened back to the heritage of the ‘91 NSX but still offered a sublime drag coefficient, cooling and downforce. The epiphany happened during wind tunnel testing, when the team realized they wanted air to go not just over, but through the car—use the internals of the car to repurpose that bluster for good. It was a delicate dance, since when one element changed, a butterfly effect rippled issues in other sectors. There’s a fascinating 3D-rendered video in the episode that demonstrates precisely how air moves fluidly through the NSX.
Christensen’s favorite elements are the side intakes, which grew threefold as the engine evolved, from strakes to gaping maws on the rear haunches. Leno inquires as to how all those fashionable-yet-functional features play into the drag coefficient. Enter Ted Klaus, global development chief engineer. While Klaus won’t reveal the exact Cd, he says it’s on par with most Ferraris and Audi’s R10. By virtue of taking air into the vehicle, drag suffers, but the air is smartly removed in such that maximizes downforces, minimizes friction.
The NSX features two motors up front, which adds unwanted weight. Klaus explains they dealt with the added mass by putting the two motors in the center, not near the wheels, keeping the weight unsprung. Klaus claims they have one of the lightest wheels of any competitor, engineered to be lithe yet sturdy. The rear electric motor is coupled to the crankshaft of the engine and anytime the car accelerates, it spins up the crankshaft to trick the turbochargers into thinking they’re at full boost and eliminate lag time. Clever, says Leno. With a redline around 7500, there’s a broad torque curve, Klaus says, able to be felt by your body in the seat at any level of throttle application.
When it comes time for Leno to slip behind the wheel, he notes the decent pull, along with a pleasing engine lope. In quiet mode, reserved for cruising, the exhaust system closes up significantly, the engine upshifts at 4000 rpm and the car maximizes the time it spends in EV mode. In manual, the snappy shifts sound blisteringly quick. This imparts a grin on Leno’s face, as does the fact that the engine was made solely for the NSX. A hallmark of a supercar, the comic extolls, is when everything is fabricated only for that vehicle. On Los Angeles’ twisty back roads, the NSX easily slices up the esses, drawing a laugh from Leno.
While we sadly can’t get Senna’s stamp of approval, Leno imparts his, closing the episode with a promise to purchase one immediately.