Honda’s super-sports icon is reborn as a ground-breaking hybrid, but is that enough to give it an edge over conventional supercars like McLaren's 570s?

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Many wonderful and stupendous cars have emerged from Japan since Soichiro Honda’s firm launched the S500 in 1963, but none of them has resonated internationally with the force or sheer mystique of the NSX.

Conceived in the mid-1980s pomp of Honda’s (and Japan’s) supreme confidence that there was nothing being done in Europe that could not be bettered domestically, the ‘New Sportscar eXperimental’ was inspired by the F-16 fighter jet, built to outmatch a Ferrari 348 and underpinned by a chassis breathed on by Ayrton Senna.

Good job the car is distinctive, because there’s not a great deal of NSX badging — just discreet decals on the rear quarterlight windows and the brake calipers

When it went on sale in 1990, the NSX’s exotic combination of materials and expertise – the monocoque was aluminium, the engine’s connecting rods were titanium, even the paint job had a 23-step process – was like nothing else on sale and certainly nothing else for the money.

When Gordon Murray drove one while developing the McLaren F1, he said all other benchmark cars vanished from his mind. It was that astonishing.

Which, of course, makes it conspicuously hard to follow up and is one of the reasons Honda hasn’t managed it until now.

A successor was planned for 2010, powered by a V10 engine, but was culled by the same economic downturn that resulted in the company quitting F1.

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The job finally fell to a small team in Honda’s US division, bolstered by engineers from Japan who had been involved with the original NSX.

This combination, underwritten by hefty investment from the manufacturer’s US-market luxury vehicle arm Acura, has produced the same result: a contemporary supercar intended to compete on price, performance and usability with anything built in the Old World.

To do that, it is a hybrid in the McLaren P1 sense (there are three electric motors dotted about the place) and uses a newly developed twin-turbo 3.5-litre V6 in the middle of a mixed-material spaceframe.

The car is intended to work just as well on the road in Palm Springs as it is does on a circuit in England – which is about as terrifyingly wide a brief as you can imagine – and it’s all-wheel drive to boot.

It’s also £143,950 on the road, meaning you could have a McLaren 570S for about £500 less. Honda’s ambitions, at least, have not diminished. But does the car at the end of them deserve its badge?

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Honda NSX rear

Honda maintains that the NSX is a globally developed car – using teams in Japan and the US – but it’s no secret that the primary market for it is North America, where it’ll be badged as an Acura and has to act as a halo model for that marque.

As a result, its appearance is intended to suit the US, so the NSX wears shiny black plastic and some chrome with no apology.

Impressed that a steering system of only 1.9 turns from lock to lock can feel so much less nervous than a similarly fast set-up on a Ferrari

It’s also low and wide, with a 1940mm-wide body (wider than a 570S), and an overall width of 2217mm, which is wider than most things on the road.

Beneath its shapely body, which is part aluminium and part plastic, lies a mixed-material spaceframe. In its make-up, it’s not unlike the aluminium spaceframe that lies beneath an Audi R8, but there are a few different materials used here and there: steel for the A-pillars, for example, so they can be narrower, and a carbonfibre floor.

Hung from both ends are aluminium subframes that hold the suspension and powertrain, which itself is rather more complicated than the first NSX of all those years ago.

There are magnetorheological dampers on the double wishbone suspension, while the power goes to all four wheels, of a fashion.

Behind the cabin is a low-slung 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine, with turbochargers sitting outside the vee in order to keep the centre of gravity lower. The engine revs to 7500rpm and produces peaks of 500bhp and 406lb ft. Fixed to the V6 is a 47bhp electric motor, and behind that a nine-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox, all of which drive the rear wheels.

At the front, meanwhile, sit two 36bhp electric motors, one driving each front wheel and giving the NSX a vast array of torque-vectoring properties (and also meaning that, along with a few of the NSX’s 10 radiators, there’s no luggage space under the bonnet).

The NSX is a hybrid, then, but you can’t plug it in, and don’t expect to go very far on electric power alone; the motors are there to boost performance and offer a marginal fuel economy increase. An eco supercar this isn’t.

Carbon-ceramic brakes are available as an option and were fitted to our test car.


Honda NSX interior

In a class where the McLaren 570S is our five-star car, it’s almost a novelty to experience a conventionally hinged door like the NSX’s.

There’s a low roofline, so you have to swing yourself down quite a long way, and once ensconced, you’re aware that the cabin you’re sitting in doesn’t come from a European manufacturer.

I’ve made up my mind about button-operated gearboxes. A selector lever that stays where it’s put, and doesn’t just nudge back and forth, is far more intuitive — and it needn’t look old-tech

It feels part-American, part-Japanese in here, which is unsurprising but not necessarily the most reassuring feeling you’ll have at nigh on £150,000.

There are shiny black plastics and shiny silver plastics, both attempting to feel of a higher quality and a different material to the ones they actually are but without ever quite pulling it off.

Still, most of our testers found the seats comfortable, which, given that the primary market is the US, again should be no great shock. A BMW i8’s seats are narrower and flatter, a McLaren’s chairs altogether more sporty.

The NSX’s cabin, then, is a reasonable enough place in which to spend serious amounts of time. The seat adjusts well enough and, although the steering wheel would benefit from being both rounder and able to be pulled closer to the driver, it’s simple enough to find a good driving position.

The main instruments and dials are clear. Swap between the various drive modes and the instrument cluster reacts accordingly, too, but you’ll always have a rev counter front and centre, with a digital speedo alongside.

As a place to do business, then, the essentials are right. It’s just some of the immediate surroundings that could be improved.

No Honda has a particularly fine infotainment system, so we suppose it’s a bit much to expect one of the manufacturer’s low-volume models to get a bespoke set-up. As a result, then, the NSX struggles to impress. It has DAB but involves you in ensembles and takes so long to update its station lists that it might as well not bother.

The navigation system, meanwhile, looks to come from Garmin, only the interface is far less easy to use than it would be if you bought a £70 stand-alone system and stuck it to the window. And the big dial beneath the display isn’t the controller for any of it; rather, it’s for adjusting the drive modes. The infotainment is controlled by a touchscreen of irritating complexity.


3.5-litre V6 Honda NSX hybrid engine

If you’ve ever directly compared a Honda Insight and a Vauxhall Ampera from behind the wheel, you may be able to predict just how differently the new Honda NSX’s powertrain might feel and operate compared with that of, for example, a BMW i8 or a Porsche 918 Spyder.

This may be a hybrid super-sports car, but it’s not a plug-in hybrid. It doesn’t start from cold on pure electric power and seldom runs with the combustion engine off for more than a couple of hundred yards at a time. That means it doesn’t have the same duality of character or space-capsule futuristic appeal of the BMW or Porsche. A shame? Not a bit of it.

Carbon-ceramic brakes marshal the car’s mass brilliantly, lap after lap

In typical fashion, Honda has instead aimed to integrate the influence of the car’s electric motors more discreetly into its motive repertoire – to produce a more ‘by the book’ junior supercar driving experience, albeit one supported and augmented by electrification.

And that approach, as it turns out, has as many merits as the other.

A super-sports car capable of 3.3sec from rest to 60mph and an 11.4sec standing quarter may not seem exceptional by current class standards, but in the NSX’s case that’s only a hint of the full story.

The NSX’s combined system output of 476lb ft looks, on paper, like it could just as easily have been delivered by any performance car with a healthy turbocharged V8 engine.

But what the raw performance stats and Honda’s specification sheet don’t tell you is that the torque figure isn’t so much a peak as it is an almost permanent provision of pulling power.

Flatten the accelerator pedal with the car locked in gear in manual mode and you can watch the car’s ‘Assist’ gauge rise and fall as those three electric motors ‘torque fill’ through the lower and upper reaches of the rev range.

Beyond 5000rpm, where you expect a car like this to be rabidly quick, it duly is. But below 3500rpm in a low gear, where many modern rivals would be girding their loins before lunging into the distance, the NSX’s instant and considerable grunt never fails to hit you hard between the eyes.

There’s real depth to the character of this powertrain, too, although it doesn’t have, admittedly, the most seductive soundtrack you’ll ever have heard from a mid-engined exotic.

The NSX’s V6 comes across as gravelly and brusque rather than soulful or rich, while overlaying many of its dramatic solos with turbo noise.

But the more you seek to connect with it, the more this combined propulsion system gives back. Honda’s nine-speed paddle-shift gearbox is good in auto mode and quite spectacularly effective in manual, shifting gears so quickly as to almost be seamless.

Brake pedal feel is excellent, allowing you to dive deep into braking zones with confidence. And all the while, the sheer breadth of the car’s range of potency, and the many and varied ways it can feel energetic and exciting, continue to seduce.

The launch control is less violent than it might be, so the NSX takes 3.3sec to hit 60mph from rest but feels like it should be quicker — but it also feels like it could launch from your drive every morning without ever showing a service light.


Honda NSX cornering

The original NSX set a spectacularly high standard in this department, being to this day one of the most absorbing and perfectly judged fast road cars you’re ever likely to drive.

The new version is 400kg heavier. It needs much stouter suspension settings, wider tyres, more power steering assistance and a host of other things just to level with its current crop of rivals on handling response, lateral grip and body control.

Responsive steering and rear weight bias force you to be smooth at the limit

The chances of achieving all that, and matching the car’s legendary predecessor on fluency and tactile feel – even accounting for the low centre of gravity conferred by the new NSX’s low-set electric motors and the engine’s dry sump – were always vanishingly small.

And so, sure enough, the new NSX isn’t quite as fluent-riding, tender-handling or easy to place as the old one was.

It’s much more directionally responsive than its forebear, being flatter handling, quicker steering, better balanced and more adhesive through any corner – enough in every case to feel every bit as agile, poised and hunkered down as an Audi R8 or a Mercedes-AMG GT, despite that near 1.8-tonne kerb weight.

But the Honda is also more trustworthy and confidence-inspiring than either of those rivals, thanks to steering that’s as weighty and communicative as it is direct, and fine on-throttle stability.

In Sport+ and Track modes, you’ll find the ride quite aggressively damped and abrupt over sharper intrusions. It’s not enough to make it bump steer down a B-road taken at any sane speed, but it will make you aware of how hard the suspension has to work to keep the car’s mass in check.

In Sport, those dampers allow more vertical body movement, making the car quieter and more comfortable but a little too soft for our tastes. The upshot? That the ideal on-road ride compromise for a car like this isn’t quite on offer here.

Never mind, because what you do get is damned close to brilliant in any case: handling that’s pin-sharp but still predictable and natural feeling once you’re acclimatised, manners that are a wee bit coarse at times but never wearisome or wayward, and lots of connectedness and reward.

A wide front track and independent torque-vectoring front electric motors keep a tight lid on understeer, which only presents once the tyres are asked to work miracles. The car’s attitude is nicely throttle-adjustable when cornering on the limit and its steering remains uncorrupted, precise and gently communicative.

Bigger slip angles aren’t advisable; that rear axle is carrying more than a tonne, so it breaks away quite quickly when you take liberties.

Condition of the drive battery is more robust than we’ve found in other performance hybrids. It charges very quickly and, six laps in, was still showing more than 50% charge.


Honda NSX

The NSX falls well within the category where we consider ‘buying’ and ‘owning’ mere adjuncts to ‘possessing’ and ‘driving’, but it’s worth reiterating where the sticker price has landed it.

As mentioned, the NSX is eyeball to eyeball with a McLaren 570S, which means it’s significantly cheaper than a Ferrari 488 in the mid-engined supercar stakes and significantly more expensive than a BMW i8 in the hybrid sports car equation.

NSX is hugely fast out of the hairpin as electric motors fill in for off-boost V6

Similarly, it manages to emit considerably less CO2 than the Ferrari – some 32g/km of it – but nearly five times as much as Munich claims for the i8.

Being in the middle of these two examples is probably where the NSX belongs and how one should think of it in efficiency terms.

For the record (not, sadly, the True MPG one, but our testers’ own experience), the Honda guzzled its super-unleaded at a rate of 7.2mpg at the track – roughly the same as a Porsche 911 Turbo – and returned 31.7mpg at a constant cruise, again loosely matching the Porsche.


4.5 star Honda NSX

The last thing you expect to get from a cutting-edge hybrid super-sports car is an abiding sense of familiarity.

And yet, where a less carefully considered car maker might have used the NSX’s pioneering powertrain to create tricks and gimmicks in the driving experience and force it onto the fringes of its class, Honda has managed to deploy world-first powertrain technology with a superb lightness of touch.

Honda returns to the supercar fold as if it had never been away

It has used unconventional means to perfect, rather than reinvent, the conventional junior supercar.

And it has produced a very rare breed of mid-engined exotic as a result: one that doesn’t shout about its potential or impose itself on your senses but is instead a very mature and complete driver’s car that simply says: “I’ve got the bases covered. Go on, enjoy yourself.”

Which, albeit via different routes, is exactly what the last NSX did.

It could be better equipped, nicer to travel in and a touch more luridly exciting at times, but for its fusion of remarkable pace, innovative technology, dynamic sophistication and natural, tactile driver appeal, the NSX gets our nod over every rival but one – and that is the formidable McLaren 570S.

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Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Honda NSX First drives