The Acura NSX, like the BMW i8, seems like the sort of car that comes from some past vision of the future. It’s a hybrid in a world moving towards electric cars at ludicrous speed; it’s a technically complex machine that doesn’t live up to the sum of its parts. It was, seemingly, outclassed from the day it went on sale.
At least, on paper. Drive it, however, and you’ll find that it’s something the i8 never was: a coherent, delightful performance car.
The twin-turbocharged V6 and three electric motors — two on the front axle, one in the back mated to the gearbox — combine to deliver a seamless rush of acceleration, be it from a dead stop or from a roll at highway speed. 573 horsepower and 476 pound-feet of torque may not sound like much in this era of overpowered muscle cars, but the combination of instantaneous electric twist, on-boost turbo power, a tight-ratio nine-speed gearbox and four-wheel traction means the NSX punches well above its specs in the real world.
Then there’s the delightfully-named Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive system, which capitalizes on the torque-vectoring capabilities to push the car through curves with fantastic prowess. Literally, fantastic, as if from a fantasy; unlike most cars, where they often seem to lose commitment the faster you round a bend, the harder you push the Acura, the more aggressive and excited it seems. It’s a feeling just a little bit different than any other performance car; whether it’s better or worse is largely a matter of opinion (at least unless you’re looking to set absolute lap times), but it’s certainly something every car enthusiast ought to experience.
Unlike most hybrids, the NSX not shooting for fuel-economy supremacy. Crank it to life, and it defaults to Sport mode, not Comfort or Eco or anything like that. In fact, it doesn’t even have an Eco mode; the only mode more conservative than Sport to be found by cranking the centrally-mounted drive mode rheostat goes by “Quiet,” suggesting it’s designed more for sneaking up on unsuspecting pickup trucks than passing them at the gas station. (Indeed, trying to keep it running under electric power is one of the car’s few weak spots; even conservative throttle inputs.)
Still, it may not be aiming to be a fuel-saving machine, but that hybrid powertrain does provide decent fuel economy in town. Thanks to New York-area traffic, my average speed over four days of trundling about wound up at a mere 19 miles per hour — yet I managed more than 21 miles per gallon over those 100-plus miles, according to the trip computer
It looks every bit the part of a six-figure sports car, too. The attendants at my local parking garage fell into an argument about it; one loudly insisted it was a Ferrari, even though the other guy kept repeating that it was an Acura. A man riding in a taxi cab opened his door in traffic while stopped at a stoplight to ask questions about it. Everywhere I drove over the course of Labor Day weekend, people shouted out complements and queries; I lost track of the number of people who said something. Some of it, no doubt, was thanks to the Curva Red paint slathered over it — but that paint wouldn’t do much were it not for the angular, well-proportioned body beneath those layers.
Inside, the NSX suffers from a couple foibles. The infotainment system is the same one found in the Honda Fit and Civic until recently, which would be fine, were it not for the horrendously frustrating lack of buttons or knobs to adjust the stereo with. (You will wind up reaching for the drive mode selector at some point because your subconscious expects it to be a volume knob.) The push-button controls for the transmission are also frustrating, especially when trying to execute a three-point turn and continually having to look for reverse rather than depending on muscle memory.
Set all that aside, though, and you’re left with a comfortable, well-laid-out cockpit that seems equally well-suited to 10/10ths driving and highway cruising. The seats are supportive, the driving position impeccable, the steering wheel solid and resolute in your hands. The gauge cluster is a tad dated, but you can’t argue with its effectiveness. And there’s even enough room for a pair of six-foot-plus people to sit comfortably — something that can’t be said of many six-figure sports cars.
Yet in spite of the outstanding budget supercar Acura is selling…nobody seems to be buying.
That fact was made shocking clear by the badge mounted proudly, if a little sadly, to the engine that declared my 2019 test car was NSX Number 1969. Keep in mind, this is a car that went on sale in 2016; it’s been available to buyers on multiple continents for more than three years now. Yet in its best sales year of 2017, Acura moved 581 NSXs here in the United States. Porsche, on the other hand, sold 8,970 911s in the US in 2017. Hell, Ferrari sold 2,518 cars in America that year.
It’s not that Honda doesn’t want to sell them. It’s just that the buyers don’t seem to be there. NSXs have been loitering on showroom floors; as of this writing, there are 31 brand-spanking-new 2019 models available in America on Cars.com, which only seems normal until you realize that just 151 were sold Stateside in the first six months of the year. Things have gotten so bad, some dealerships have slapped discounts as high as $30,000 on showroom models to get them out the door.
Part of it, perhaps, is that as great as the second-generation NSX is, it can’t live up to the expectations set by its forefather. When the first version of Honda’s mid-engined super sports car arrived in 1990, it dropped into a world filled with unreliable, poorly-built supercars and speed machines like a thousand-pound bomb. In a single stroke, Honda redefined what a high-performance sports car could be; not just fast and fun to drive, but livable.
These days, however, Ferraris and Lamborghinis and Porsches are every bit as easy to drive as a 5 Series, and are nearly as reliable as any mainstream machine. The competitive set is simply too good for this Acura to succeed on the same virtues its predecessor did. Likewise, pure electric cars like the Porsche Taycan and Jaguar F-Pace have already stolen the alternative-energy thunder away from hybrids like this; unless you’re using electric motors to squeeze LaFerrari-type numbers out of a gas-powered car, it’s not worth the trouble.
What’s next for the NSX? Well, a racier Type R version, if the rumors are to believed; a targa-top or roadster version might be another good way to spice up interest in the rapidly-aging sports car.
But if I were Acura, I’d just have a few folks go drive around America and show the NSX off to everyone and anyone who’s interested. Call it a goodwill tour. Let people ask questions, sit in it, even drive it. Because the more people who have the chance to experience this car, the more likely some of them will buy it. Which more people very much ought to do.