Expert Reviews

2019 Acura NSX Track Test

In the near future, so we’re told, our basic personal transportation needs will be met by autonomous vehicles that will get us where we’re going safely and with minimal fuss. Before that happens, engineers have to harness the massive amount of computing power required to make self-driving car technology reliable enough for us to depend on it.

What the autonomous-vehicle people don’t tell us is that driver’s cars like the Acura NSX already boast serious computational chops. However, instead of using it for safe, dependable daily transportation, the NSX puts that processing power to work to help you go really, really, fast.

Last week, Acura Canada brought three of its NSX hybrid supercars to Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (CTMP; formerly Mosport) to show off what this high-tech machine can do.

Turbocharging, Electricity, and “Massive” Electronics

The Acura NSX story began in 1990, when Honda’s upscale division rolled out a mid-engine coupe intended to perform like an Italian exotic but offer Japanese-car reliability at a relatively accessible price. That car (with numerous running changes) lasted until 2005, and then the NSX took a hiatus until this second generation arrived as a 2017 model.

A lot happened in those 12 years: When it was discontinued in the mid-2000s, the NSX’s mid-mounted V6 engine made 290 hp and came matched with a six-speed manual transmission. Fast-forward to the 2015 Detroit auto show, when Acura revealed the new NSX would once again use a V6 (albeit turbocharged) backed up with a nine-speed transmission and three electric motors that provided all-wheel-drive traction and boosted the car’s power output to 573 hp.

“The NSX’s hybrid powertrain was not designed to save gas, although in theory it does,” said Hayato Mori, Senior Product Planner with Honda Canada. Instead, he said, the hybrid system was a way to get the performance of a big V8 or V10 engine without the weight of that single lump of metal bolted in behind the seats.

The NSX places one electric motor at each front wheel, and the third is integrated with the engine and dual-clutch transmission at the rear wheels. If you’ve seen Acura advertise the Super Handling AWD (shortened to SH-AWD) system used in its cars and SUVs, this is a more sophisticated version of it.

Most of the NSX’s acceleration (of which there is plenty; more on that shortly) comes from the gas engine, but the two front motors contribute through something called torque-vectoring. In simple terms, the car can send just the right amount of power to each of the front wheels to improve steering accuracy while accelerating through a turn. By adding torque to the outside front wheel in a corner, the NSX counters understeer and helps put the car where it’s pointed.

All of that is controlled by a computer Mori describes as “massive”. While that makes the NSX sound like a four-wheeled version of an overclocked video-gaming PC, the car is a serious thrill ride.

All that technology and power doesn’t come cheap. Acura’s asking price for the NSX is nearly $193,000 to start. The car I flogged around the track was done up in Nouvelle Blue Pearl paint (a $7,300 option), and carbon-ceramic brakes – the other extra-cost feature I was aware of – added $12,700. I’m glad I didn’t realize I was driving a $213,000 car (at least) until after I was done with it.

Eye-popping Power, Ready to Deploy

Acura put me in the NSX’s driver’s seat for about an hour of lap time at CTMP’s 2.88-km driver development track (DDT), a small course with a shorter straight section and lower speeds than the big Grand Prix circuit. On the DDT’s short straightaway, a punch of the NSX’s accelerator prompts a multi-gear downshift from the nine-speed gearbox, followed by a lot of speed.

Acura says the NSX’s turbo V6 makes 500 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque on its own. Hybrids are strange machines in that calculating total power output is never a matter of simply adding the gas engine’s output to that of its electric motor or motors. If that were the case, the NSX would make 619 hp and 623 lb-ft of torque, but it doesn’t. Suffice it to say the NSX’s 576 hp total is backed up by a lot of torque, made obvious by the impressive thrust the car generates: Acura claims the car will sprint 0–60 mph (96 km/h) in 2.7 seconds and is good for a 307 km/h top speed.

Newton’s third law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the NSX’s case, that reaction comes from brakes that feel every bit as powerful as its drivetrain. The optional carbon-ceramic brakes pack 380 mm front and 360 mm rear rotors that are clamped by six- and four-piston calipers, respectively. The best way I can describe their performance is this: When I braked hard to slow down for the DDT’s rapid-fire corners, it felt like my eyeballs were going to pop out of their sockets.

As a novice track driver, I stuck with the car’s Sport-plus drive mode, since the more extreme Track setting seemed like a poor life choice waiting to happen. You can shift the transmission manually with steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles, but that seemed like one more thing to worry about in a track setting, so I let the car choose gear ratios for me.

If the NSX’s stability-control system intervened, I couldn’t feel it. What I could feel was the front-wheel torque-vectoring function pull the car through the DDT’s tight turns. It felt to me like it would be easier to screw up by attempting to slow down for a corner than simply powering through it, although I’m sure the laws of physics would have something different to say about that. As a novice on the track, I appreciated how easy the NSX made the experience seem.

NSX GT3 Evo: For an Even More Visceral Workout

Mori told me Acura designed the NSX to be a supercar that’s comfortable enough to serve as a daily driver, which means you can also drive it to track days rather than having to tow it there on a trailer. If you prefer a non-street-legal sports car, Acura also makes the NSX GT3 Evo. Worldwide GT3 racing rules state that all cars in the series must be based on production models; here, Acura goes up against the Porsche 911 GT3, Bentley Continental GT3, and a host of other high-end sports cars.

Acura brought a decommissioned NSX GT3 car to our event and strapped me in for hot laps with Toronto’s Antonio Serravalle, a 16-year-old(!) who has won numerous karting championships and has his sights set on a Formula One career.

The Evo is based on the street-legal NSX, but strips out the hybrid powertrain bits to turn it into a comparatively simple rear-wheel-drive racer. That leaves the turbo V6 to do the work. It’s more powerful in GT3 form, and a lot lighter, the only concession to retirement from racing being the installation of a passenger seat. The nine-speed transmission is gone too, replaced with a six-speed sequential gearbox with an electrically assisted clutch that’s apparently quite finicky: Serravalle stalled the car a couple of times driving out of the pit lane with journalists aboard. None of us laughed.

After riding shotgun with Serravalle, now I truly understand what visceral acceleration feels like, as I could actually feel the effects of the car’s speed on my insides.

Comparing the two cars isn’t really fair, but it made me wonder: Is the street-legal NSX too easy to drive? It’s truly a lot of fun, but its performance almost felt clinical compared to a Porsche 911 Turbo I got to drive on-track a few years ago. The NSX made me feel like I really knew what I was doing, and I’ve maybe turned 100 laps around racetracks in 15 years of writing about cars.

Still, at least the NSX lets you do the driving. The day of autonomous vehicles will come soon enough. Until then, it’s nice to know cars like this one – which effectively combines everyday comfort and refinement with legitimate performance prowess – are still around.