Given that it has been touted as the future of the fast car by more than a few industry commentators, it’s fair to say the formula of the mid-engined, four-wheel-drive hybrid supercar has yet to gain the traction that might be expected, considering how long it has been around.
Leaving aside limited-edition models like the Porsche 918 Spyder, the first was the BMW i8, which limped off sale a few months ago, six years after it appeared to represent the brave new world. I drove one for a year and loved every minute, but the market didn’t concur.
Nor does it appear enamoured with the only other hybrid supercar there has been since (at least until the Ferrari SF90 Stradale arrives in the UK). That car is the Honda NSX. It went on sale here at the end of 2016 and, according to DVLA data, just 79 had been taxed a year later. Today the figure stands at 117, which equates to fewer than 30 cars per year.
The truth, or at least part of it, is that it’s not good enough just to have the right idea; it has to be introduced at the right time, too. I will go to my grave convinced that the i8 was one of the most visionary mass-produced cars. But just as De Havilland’s Comet pioneered commercial jet aviation only for Boeing to steal its thunder (and profits) with the 707, so too will it be for others to learn from BMW’s courage in attempting to blaze a genuinely new trail.
The problem is the concept is fundamentally flawed, and you only need look at the NSX to know it. Despite the fact that this car is a closed-circuit hybrid rather than a plug-in hybrid, which saves weight and space, it’s still heavy and not in the least spacious. Interior room is just adequate for my 6ft 3in frame, but the boot is sufficiently tiny to challenge any notion of touring. And it weighs 1770kg, which is plenty.
Put another way, this strictly two-seat, decidedly luggage-light supercar weighs the same as the BMW 520d Touring and 300kg more than its closest rival, the McLaren 570S. So while it provides 324bhp per tonne, the 10bhp less potent V8 car has 388bhp per tonne – a difference of night-and-day proportion.
What’s that weight buying you? Traction, for one, thanks to the NSX’s front electric motors, but its 0-62mph time of 3.3sec is actually 0.1sec off that of the 570S, so it seems there’s not much to gain there. And because you can’t plug it in, it needs its engine to fire up, so you will still wake your neighbours; and while it can travel on electricity alone, it’s only for a mile or two if you’re very careful, which seems pretty pointless. And it’s not as if your tax bill is going to fall through the floor, either, because the NSX still officially produces 242g/km of CO2.
However, there’s something else: an electrically driven front axle also creates the opportunity for torque to be used to make the NSX corner as well as accelerate, because it can not only slow an inside wheel but also accelerate an outer one the moment impending understeer is sensed.
This all sounds very clever but rather sterile and, to be honest, when I first drove the NSX three years ago, I was none too impressed by it. But although a recent mid-life refresh has left the car all but unchanged visually, Honda has been hard at work mitigating what it must have known from the start were the issues stemming from its considerable mass. Hence it comes with new anti-roll bars and suspension bushes, redesigned rear wheel hubs and revised settings for the dampers, power steering, transmission and four-wheel drive. Continental even developed a brand new Conti Sport Contact 6 tyre for this car alone. The result is a considerable 2.0sec improvement in lap time at Suzuka.