First Drive: 2019 Acura NSX

MARYSVILLE, Ohio – There’s a term in aviation known as “G-LOCK” – short for G-force induced loss of consciousness – which happens when massive and sustained acceleration causes the blood to drain down from the brain.

A supercar that can be driven by anyone.

Aided by intensive training (and compression suits) fighter pilots and astronauts can withstand up to 8 g of force, while we lesser beings are lucky if we can make it to 3.

I’m trying to rationalize my first experience with the Acura NSX launch mode, a response I was too sheepish to share until overhearing the rest of my colleagues discussing it. Unlike most other supercars, who launch with a ground-churning, violently increasing ferocity, the NSX goes from zero to warp speed with an eerie silence that’s disorienting, and quite frankly, rather stomach-churning.

Honda had invited us to their Transportation Research Centre (TRC) near Columbus, Ohio, a 4,500-acre facility that’s the largest of its kind in the US. The TRC is not only home to Honda’s research and development centre, it has formed a “compliance alliance” with other manufacturers who use its vast resources for crashworthiness, emissions, dynamic, and durability testing. Therefore, the number of security staff accompanying us far outnumbered the invited media, strategically confiscating our cameras and cellphones throughout the day as prototypes of various brands passed by.

After touring the pristine, 170,000 sq ft plant devoted exclusively to the hand-built NSX, we headed to the same 1.1-mile dynamic road course where the car had put in its development laps. I’d never actually driven the NSX before, but had heard enough of the hype – the gushing accolades, and the dismissive pronouncements of “soullessness”.

It’s only three years since the NSX nameplate was resurrected and affixed to a brand-new supercar hailed as a technological tour-de-force. But a halo car bears the weight of influencing brand perception, and there’s no resting on laurels in the hyper-critical supercar realm. For 2019, the NSX has undergone a few tweaks to help it corner even flatter than before and reportedly deliver a better feel of connection with the driver.

The hybrid drivetrain continues unchanged; under a glass panel behind your head is the same twin-turbo V6 putting down 500 horsepower through a nine-speed dual-clutch automatic and an electric motor which generates 47 hp and 109 lb-ft of torque from as low as 500 rpm. Up front, a pair of electric motors mounted to the front axle deliver additional thrust to overcome any turbo lag, and bring the total power output to 573 horsepower. All that power is managed through the NSX’s unique version of Acura’s SH-AWD with a torque-vectoring system which divvies up power front-to-back and side-to-side where needed within milliseconds.

Exterior changes are small and subtle. Above the grille, the silver lip of the “beak” is now body-coloured, visually lengthening the nose, and elsewhere there’s high-gloss surfaces replacing what was previously matte trim. While grey is no longer available as a paint choice – which of course had the effect of making earlier grey cars more desirable – there’s now a blinding Thermal Orange available, with matching orange calipers for the optional $10,000-plus carbon ceramic brakes. It can be paired with a new Indigo Blue leather interior, which looks a lot better in the flesh than it sounds. Regular iron brakes can now be ordered with red calipers, and you can further dress up the exterior with flashy carbon fibre should you so desire.

Several of the more popular options – navigation, premium audio, aluminum pedals, proximity sensors, and four-way power seats – are now standard features for 2019 – which makes the $189,900 base model somewhat of a value proposition when compared to some of its competitors. It’s only 0.3 seconds slower from zero to 100 km/h than the similarly configured Porsche 918 Spyder, but a fifth of the price of the German hypercar.

One of the main claims to fame that the current-day NSX shares with its original 1990 predecessor is that it’s a supercar that can be driven by anyone. Unlike the Lamborghinis and temperamental Ferraris of the day, the first NSX was tractable enough to be a daily driver while still delivering thrilling sports car performance. Some critics considered the modern NSX a little too docile and robotic in character, and deep-pocketed customers wanted their ego served with just a bit more attitude. Competitors wanted better steering feel, flatter cornering, and a little more bite on turn-in.

Acura complied, with a retuned chassis that helped shave a full 2 seconds off the NSX’s previous lap time at the Suzuka motor circuit. Those tweaks include stiffening the front stabilizer bar by 26 percent, the rear one by 19 percent and a 6 percent more rigid hub with 26 percent stiffer rear toe links. In conjunction with the hardware updates, the electronics have been recalibrated to include revised electronic steering, adaptive magnetorheological damping, all-wheel drive, and stability assist.

Although the NSX was always intended to be well-mannered enough to be driven daily, it was lambasted by critics for the mediocrity of its standard fitment Continental tires. Acura worked directly with Continental to develop a new Sport Contact6 tire with more rigid sidewalls and a softer, grippier compound, producing a 15 percent improvement in grip. Enthusiasts can still order the Pirelli Trofeo Rs for more focussed track performance, but the Contis deliver a nice balance of road comfort and grip.

Inside, the driver-centric cockpit continues unchanged. It’s sleek, but devoid of any superfluous frippery – there are no door pockets, no cubbies, and only a single USB port located between the seats. The flat-bottomed, F1 wheel feels wonderfully grippy in the hands, while the sport seats are supportive but surprisingly unobtrusive. Track-day enthusiasts would probably want to upgrade to something with a little more bolstering to hold them in place. The car silently comes to life with a push of the start button, and by turning a large rotary dial on the centre stack, the driver can choose between Sport, Sport Plus, and Track Mode, for various degrees of responsiveness and traction assistance – or Quiet Mode, which limits the revs to 4,000 rpm to keep the neighbours happy.

Generally, these manufacturer-run track events are disappointingly short; teasers of two or three laps following an instructor like a parade of ducklings. Since our group was small, we were actually afforded the time to evaluate the car with two genuinely useful track sessions. With only three cars on track, and an instructor in the left seat, I was able to push it as hard as I was comfortable – a line that pushed considerable outward as I grew more familiar with the car and track.

I drove the first session in Sport Plus, exploring the limits of the car and learning the race line of the track. The steering was nicely weighted – perhaps not as solid as Porsche or BMW, but accurate with a good on-centre feel. It’s a very forgiving car – it won’t be unsettled by clipping the rumble strip, and it recovers nicely if you apex too early and run out of track. Clipping one tight turn just a little too close, I fully expected a bit of tail-wagging oversteer, but the car came back quite easily. A lot of work went into making the regenerative braking system feel right. Although governed by electronics, the pedal resistance feels natural and does an admirable job of emulating the sensation of hydraulically controlled brakes. The bite is confidence-inspiring, and I gradually start braking later before the turns. Visibility is excellent through the wide windshield, and the engineers have done an excellent job of narrowing the A-pillars to reduce obstruction. This is a very easy car to drive fast in this mode, with the electronic overlords helping you feel like a track-day hero.

Switching to track mode turns off the nannies, dials up the throttle and transmission response, and adds a snarl of aggression to the exhaust note. For the first lap I hold back a little bit, having recently experienced a full 360-degree agricultural spin in our BMW at full speed when I’d switched the nannies off during a rainy session at Mosport. But although the car becomes looser and a lot more playful, it’s still extremely manageable. Egged on by my instructor, an affable racer named “Clete” I’m soon giggling like a banshee as we rotate around the hairpins and scream down the straight at 114 mph (the record is apparently 120).

My complaints were minor: I’m a small person and worked up a bit of a sweat staying put in my seat. A bit more bolstering would have given me the stability to concentrate better on driving. The seats appeared to lack height adjustment, which was okay for me, but might prove harder for a taller driver to adopt the “eyes up” position for track driving without being able to lower the seat.

There will be those who’ll dismiss the NSX as simply too technical to deliver the raw visceral performance of a sports car, unfettered by electronics. To each his own. It’s a car that you can drive every day (without pissing off the neighbours), yet hang comfortably on track with Ferraris – with a far lower risk of embarrassment.

Friendly neighbourhood supercar 10/26/2018 10:00:00 AM