Second Coming of a Legend? (Article)

If you’re truly a fan of cars—the type who can’t walk by an Italian sports car without wanting to lick it—then you will know that Honda was once something more than a predictable alternative to Toyota. You will know that, in the not too distant past, Honda was once a very potent force in the world of motorsport and sports cars. Universally praised machines such as the S2000, Integra and CRX will surely spring to mind. So too should the machine capable of the Ferraris of its time around the Nurburgring: the NSX. Not only did this six-cylinder samurai make the most revered car manufacturer in the world blush, but it inspired the creation of the McLaren F1 and influenced modern super-cars as a whole. Fantastic accolades, especially considering it was as reliable as an Accord, easy on fuel and comfortable. Best of all, daddy could buy one for his midlife crisis without dipping into Junior’s college fund because it cost less than the slower Corvette C5. Its handling and aerodynamics far out-classed anything of the era; courtesy of a lightweight all-aluminum body plus input from the late Formula One legend Ayrton Senna. All of these factors led to a car that managed to run with the best for most of its fifteen year lifespan.

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

A tall order awaits the new NSX then, as it is facing a new breed of competition largely built on philosophy that made the original so remarkable. It’s no longer going up against Porsche 911s that can’t turn properly; no longer facing Ferraris and Lamborghinis that will kill the driver if he blinks at the wrong time. The competition has made improvements in quality, efficiency, power and handling over the last 22 years. 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—Honda hasn’t even been in F1 since 2008. 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 slapped into the middle, the mechanical similarities go little further. Perhaps the most notable change is that the new NSX will be a hybrid. Before you scamper off to the nearest Mustang dealership, you should know that this won’t be the same manner of hybrid that you Aunt Muriel runs to the market. What the boffins at Honda have conjured up is something a bit more clever.

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 all sorts of goodies that should give it a bit of fizz.

The car has two electric motors in the front, one for each wheel, as in one powering each front wheel, so this makes it an AWD. That means it should have great traction and launch speed, and it won’t even require the car become an under-steering whale. This is courtesy of the “Super Handling All Wheel Drive” Honda developed. Instead of a limited-slip differential which allows the wheels to spin independently or shifting extra torque to the out-wheel, the system takes away power from the front inner wheel while you turn, while the outer wheel continues providing steady power. As result, the outboard side of the car won’t be overwhelmed by excessive torque and break traction. Turning and corner acceleration should prove every bit as good as a rear-wheel drive car, and its traction should rival that of any conventional AWD system. Nimble through the twiddly bits, secure, and the cleverness doesn’t stop there.

While you’re turning tightly through a corner the inside wheel will be recharging its electric motor, and it only expels the power when you put the hammer down. The main electric motor itself will work with the V6 power plant, resulting in a significant torque boost and some aid to fuel efficiency. The V6 itself will likely be based on the 3.5 liter model found in the flagship ILX, but with a twin-turbo chargers slapped onto it. Power output can be expected to range around the 500bhp area.

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. Soichiro Honda made all of his engineers work as race crew for the teams using their engine. That’s something they haven’t done for years, and to say the cars haven’t been become more clinical would be a shameless lie. Sure, they may be scrapping in Indy Car, Le Mans and are planning to return to F1, but the company doesn’t have the same philosophy. Too much technology tends to numb the driving experience. And then there’s the gorilla in the room: weight.

The late three-time F1 World Champion Ayrton Senna played a vital role in the development of the original NSX after developing close ties with the team. 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 primarily because it weighed less than a sumo wrestler’s supper. 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 additional hundreds of pounds that the hybrid and all wheel drive power trains can add. If the car has 500bhp and weighs too far over 3500lb, it won’t be a precision instrument like the first one. Too much weight and power will force Honda to choose between an car that half drives itself (not fun) or one that behaves like a horse with mustard up its bottom (very fun until you crash). Even if they keep everything true to the original, one must wonder if they’ll repeat the mistakes that killed the first one.

Too much weight and power will force Honda to choose between a car that half drives itself (not fun) or one that behaves like a horse with mustard up its bottom (very fun until you crash).

In 1990 the NSX was billed as “the common man’s super car” because, dollar-for-dollar, nothing came remotely close. Over fifteen years the price more than doubled while performance improvements were marginal, completely smiting the car’s appeal. 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, 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. That’s less than a Corvette ZR1, and it will match a Lamborghini Murcielago. Wonder where they got the idea?

On the other side, there’s the Lexus LfA, which is very impressive in its performance but struggled to sell, even with limited production. 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 is faster (and it isn’t a Lexus). 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. If Honda is smart, they will learn from the company that learned from them.

I love the idea of this car, and would love 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. Honda’s confidence speaks volumes, but they were confident in the 2012 Civic too. Whether Honda returns to their form in 1990s or continues their current vanilla trend remains to be seen.

-Brian

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

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s