Second Coming of a Legend?

If you’re truly a fan of cars, the type who realizes that there are quick cars other than the Mustang and the Ferrari Enzo, then you will know that Honda was once something more than a higher-quality, higher-priced alternative to Toyota. You will know that once, in the not too distant past, Honda was once a very potent force in the world of motor-sport and street-legal sports cars. There was the S2000, a roadster which packed a tiny naturally aspirated 2.0 liter engine capable of pushing out 247hp under its bonnet. (That may not sound like much, but that comes out to 123.5 horsepower per liter with no forced induction. A record that lasted from 1999 to 2009 until Ferrari’s 458 bested it.) There was also the Civic Si, which has lost luster in recent years, and the Integra/RSX line (released under the Acura moniker in North America). And then there was their most legendary achievement, a car which was capable of beating Corvette in a drag race, and the Ferraris of its time around the Nurburgring: the NSX. Not only did it make the most famous super-car manufacturers in the world blush, but it inspired the creation of the McLaren F1 and influenced modern super-cars as a whole. It was faster than a Ferrari 512 or a Corvette C5 (a Euro-spec NSX even beat a Corvette C6 Z06 in a drag race on Britain’s Top Gear in 2005), as reliable as an Accord, drivable on a daily basis, economical, comfortable, beautiful in looks and engine noise and it cost far less than anything it competed with. Its handling and aerodynamics far out-classed anything of the era; courtesy of an all-aluminum body plus input and advice from the late Formula One legend, Ayrton Senna. And more astonishing than this is it managed to beat the V8’s of its rivals with a meager 3.0 liter V6 power plant, putting out only 276hp. Later generations would see displacement up to 3.2 liters and 290 horsepower.

The original NSX was lightweight, mid-engined and had rear wheel drive, providing it with excellent track dynamics paired with reasonable practicality.

But the thing is the new NSX is facing a new breed of competition, most of which drew on the original NSX for their inspiration. It’s no longer going up against Porsche 911s that can’t turn properly. It’s no longer facing Ferraris and Lamborghinis that are constantly threatening to tear the head off of the driver if he blinks at the wrong time. The competition has made improvements in quality, efficiency, power and handling; it’s not coming into the same world it so dramatically shocked 22 years ago. It won’t even be Japan’s stand-alone super car, with the Nissan GTR and the Lexus LfA now in the scope. It doesn’t even have the presence of the greatest Formula 1 racer of all time to aid in its development. So what I’m wondering, and what I hope you are too, is if the new NSX is worthy of carrying the mantle. I’m wondering if it can succeed, if it can bring the sort of unexpected shift to the automotive world that the original did. Honda and Acura certainly seem to think so.

It will not be the same car it was; while it will still have a V6, there are numerous aesthetic changes and there are several new technologies to be found. Perhaps the most notable change is the new NSX will technically be a hybrid… Oh dear. Indeed, I know what you may be thinking, “What the hell, Honda?! You tease us for all these years with your prototypes and then you do this?! You decide to continue imitating Toyota? What else have you done to ruin what we were hoping for? Is it only available in pink?!” That’s actually something along the lines of what I thought when I first saw that bit of news. But then I decided to read on, and it turns out that it really is a bit better than a V6 version of the Insight.

The new NSX certainly is striking (in a good way) and retains the mid-engine layout of its predecessor. But it is quite different due to a complex electric AWD system and it’s also a… Hybrid?

The car has two electric motors in the front, one for each wheel, as in one powering each front wheel, and this makes it an AWD. This too had me a little turned off, as AWD cars –fantastic as their launches may be – do not handle as sharply as RWD cars. But then I discovered it would have Acura’s special “Super Handling” AWD, which really just sounds like a fancy way to describe a two-way limited slip differential, but there is more to it than that… Again. It turns out that the SH-AWD (Super Handling All Wheel Drive) doesn’t just shift the torque and lock the inner-wheel, it actually takes away power from the front inner wheel while you turn, while the outer wheel continues providing power. This should provide turning and corner acceleration that is every bit as good as a rear-wheel drive car while providing as much grip as an AWD; that, theoretically at any rate, means it should be unbelievably quick through the twisty bits. And to make this even cooler, the inactive wheel during turns will actually be charging its electric motor back up. The main electric motor itself will work with the V6 power plant, which will result in a significant torque boost and some aid to fuel efficiency. All told, the thing has the ability to be pretty quick. Of course, that’s provided everything goes according to plan.

I’m not going to lie; cool as all of this sounds and excited as I am for it, I do have my doubts. The original NSX was so great because it received input from a bunch of engineers at a time when Honda was highly active in the world of Formula 1, and it had input from Ayrton Senna. But Ayrton Senna isn’t around anymore to give input, and Honda isn’t producing the greatest engines in the world of motor sport, they aren’t advising F1 teams on aerodynamics. Sure, they may be highly successful in the Super GT series and they may be providing engines for the Indy Car series, but that’s not enough to really convince me that this car is going to have the pedigree of its ancestor. And then there’s the gorilla in the room: weight.

The late three-time F1 world cup champion Ayrton Senna played a vital role in the development of the original NSX. Can the new one be as successful without input from the greatest race car driver of all time?

The original NSX was able to punch above its power class not only because it out-handled everything else, but it was very light. Carbon fiber and aluminum were used extensively in the construction of the original, and I’m expecting the new one to be primarily carbon fiber, but that may not be enough to compensate for the added weight that comes courtesy of the AWD and hybrid systems. AWD adds weight to the powertrain and the hybrid system brings with it the weight of the electric motors and the batteries. This could result in the new car being hundreds of pounds heavier than the original, and that could seriously harm performance. Have the engineers at Honda and Acura found a way around this? I’m not sure. Even if they have there is still one last concern I must address; the price.

In 1990 the NSX was billed as “the common man’s super car” because it provided super-car performance for a lot less than the competition. Over the years the price increased to the point where it was no longer feasible – hence the demise of the first generation in 2005 – and it is price that will determine the fate of the new version. One need only look at the other Japanese super cars to see how dramatically price can influence a car’s success. There is the Nissan GTR, which provides pummeling performance that can stand on par with the best in the world (being one of only three road-legal cars that can do 0-60 in 3 seconds or less), and it does so with a starting price of –hang on, I’ll give you a moment to guess… Nope, you’re wrong- $96,820. And while that may be out of my budget right now, I recognize that it’s a car that can go like a Lamborghini for a fraction of the price. As a result of this massive bang-for-buck value the GTR has seen remarkable success. Then you look at the Lexus LfA, which is very impressive in its performance but is struggling to sell because of its price. Care to guess what sticker price is on this one? Nope, you’re wrong again. It costs $375,000, that’s nearly $100,000 more than the Ferrari 458 Italia, and the Ferrari will rip the Lexus in half on the track. So again, I return to my main concern of whether or not Honda/Acura recognizes that they need to price the vehicle competitively.

The Lexus LfA (left) is struggling largely due to it’s absurd price tag, as where the Nissan GTR (right) is succeeding due to its high performance and relatively low price. A clever Acura would do well to keep the price tag low.

I love the idea of this car, and I want to see the NSX finally return, I want to see it succeed, but I recognize that it’s not going to be easy for it to do so. It has to bring new innovation paired with performance and a good price to truly be deserving of the mantle. Honda and Acura are claiming that it shall. Will it? I don’t know. I’ll be saving money for it, just in case.

-Brian

You can expect me to post details as they become known to me. In the meantime, to help tide you over here are some video links. It was the show stealer at this year’s Detroit Auto Show and you can also look forward to seeing it in the upcoming Avengers movie.

Image sources (in order of appearance):
http://timtrott.co.uk/japfest-2008-pictures/
http://www.acura.com/future/NSX#1
http://web.inter.nl.net/users/dekloet/senna.htm
http://jdm-racing.blogspot.com/2010/10/lexus-lfa-vs-nissan-gt-r.html

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