For the last couple of years, I’ve wanted to spend some time with an Acura NSX. After all, it’s a hybrid, which I like, and a supercar, which I also like. Despite a strong suspicion that I’d like a car that combined both of those things, for one reason or another the stars never aligned save for a brief 20 minutes back in 2017, which was not long enough to really form an impression. But in January, Acura asked me and three other journalists to ferry four NSXes from Ohio, where these mid-engined hybrid supercars are built, down to Florida. The only catch: we had just two days to get there—a distance of about 1,200 miles (1,931km), according to the route we were to take.
Future cars It’s not like the first one
Honda, which owns the Acura brand and uses it for high-end US vehicles, introduced the NSX in 1990, and it really did shake up the established order. Until then, the mid-engined sports car had mainly been the preserve of small European outfits, most notably Ferrari. The cars looked great and sometimes handled well, but they were expensive to buy and expensive to maintain. The NSX proved you could have your cake and eat it, too. It looked the part, with relatively simple but elegant lines that left no doubt as to where the engine was in relation to the driver, along with a black roof meant to evoke the canopy of an F-16 fighter jet.
The car was a technological tour de force, with a lightweight aluminum construction and a high-revving, naturally aspirated 3.0L V6 engine mounted sideways behind the cabin. It made more expensive cars like the Ferrari 348 look positively antiquarian by comparison. In addition to the car’s F1-inspired tech, Honda even recruited F1 drivers Ayrton Senna and Satoru Nakajima to help hone the car’s handling on track. The first-generation NSX lived on until 2005, and while it never sold in massive numbers, it became a cult favorite thanks to video games like Gran Turismo.
A successor was far from assured. A front-engined V10 replacement died in the same corporate cull that killed Honda’s F1 team in the wake of 2008’s financial meltdown. By 2011, a new NSX was back on and would again use a mid-mounted V6. But the car would be much more complicated, an all-wheel-drive hybrid with three electric motors to go with its internal combustion engine. This car—again badged as an Acura in the US—arrived in 2016 and was radically different from the old fan favorite.
In 1990, the first one cost $60,000—which is $118,500 in 2020 dollars—and weighed a mere 3,010lbs (1,370kg). Four-channel antilock brakes and electronic throttle control were about as much digital assistance as you got, and although a four-speed automatic transmission was an option, only the unwise chose this instead of a wonderfully tactile five-speed manual.
Today, a new NSX starts at $157,500 and weighs a hefty 3,803lbs (1,725kg), although with a power output of 573hp (427kW), the 21st-century version has nearly twice the power-to-weight ratio. Much of that extra weight and a fair amount of the added power is courtesy of the hybrid system, and when it comes to electronic assistance, the car features an appendix’s worth of acronyms like SH-AWD, TMU, IDS, VSA, and AHA.
Each front wheel is connected to a 36hp (27kW) permanent magnet electric motor, which can apply positive or negative torque in the corners. Together, these motors provide much of the initial acceleration from a standstill, as well as battery-charging regenerative braking. (Together, this bit is called the Twin Motor Unit.) Ahead of the rear axle, a third 47hp (35kW) permanent magnet motor is located between the V6 engine and the nine-speed dual clutch transmission. Like the twin front motors, this motor comes into play during initial acceleration, but it also serves as the NSX’s starter motor and as a generator using surplus engine power to keep the batteries topped up.
Compared to contemporaneous all-wheel mid-engined hybrids like the BMW i8 or Porsche 918 Spyder, the lithium-ion battery pack is small—just 1.3kWh. Unlike either of those cars, the NSX is not a plug-in and does not offer miles and miles of electric-only range. The electric motors deliver a performance boost when the car needs it, and if you are stuck in traffic, you can inch forward in serene peace and quiet and know that the V6 isn’t needlessly melting the planet.
Future cars Made in the Midwest
About that V6. Like the rest of the NSX, it’s actually built in Ohio. The cars are assembled at Acura’s Performance Manufacturing Center (PMC) in Marysville, but the engines themselves come from Honda’s Anna engine plant, about 90 minutes northwest of Columbus. The factory is a busy one, churning out more than a million four- and six-cylinder engines a year. The build time for most of those engines can be measured in minutes; that’s not the case for the NSX’s V6 engine, each of which is carefully put together over the course of about five hours. Only a handful of master builders work in this sparklingly clean workshop, each a veteran of the plant with around thirty years of experience.
Originally the plan was to adapt the powertrain from a front-engined Acura sedan called the RLX Sport Hybrid. But the engineers realized that the RLX’s 377hp (281kW) just wouldn’t be enough. The NSX would require an all-new powertrain, with an all-new 500hp (373kW), 406lb-ft (550Nm) 3.5L V6 engine. Although it shares some of the same dimensions, qualities, and even components with the mass-produced V6es that also get made at Anna, the NSX’s engine is notably different in a few regards.
For one thing, the blocks and heads are actually cast by Cosworth in the UK. The V-angle is wider—75˚ versus 60˚—which means the engine’s mass is lower down in the car. It also has a dry sump oiling system, again to reduce its height but also because wet sumps can lead to oil starvation under heavy G loads. And although Honda is widely recognized as one of the best when it comes to naturally aspirated engines, this one wears a pair of single-scroll turbochargers to force air into the combustion chambers at 15.23psi (1.05bar).
Each step in the build process is digitally logged, and, once complete, each engine is dressed with ancillaries and run over the course of an hour on a dyno. Next, the engine is balanced, then crated up and sent over to PMC to be installed in a car. The practical upshot of those last stages is that, if someone hands you the keys to an NSX with, say, 115 miles (185km) on the clock, you don’t have to worry about keeping it below 4,000 revs for the next 400 miles (640km).
Future cars Driving 24 hours to watch a 24-hour race
Which was pretty much our scenario after a visit with the master engine builders and a subsequent tour of PMC. (PMC had recently switched over to building a PMC edition Acura MDX SUV, which is why there isn’t another 500-word section here on how the NSX gets put together.)
Outside the facility sat a quartet of 2020 NSXes, two in yellow and a pair in different shades of red. The tweaks for this model year include refined software tuning and some stiffer suspension components, which translate to a prodigious decrease in lap time around Suzuka, Honda’s famous test track and home of F1 racing in Japan. There’s also a new Continental tire as the default, but given that our journey would start in Ohio in January, all four cars wore Pirelli Sottozero winter tires. Yes, you can get low-profile winter tires for a supercar, and if you plan to use one when the mercury is below 45˚F (7˚C), you should—at those temperatures, sticky summer rubber is far from its comfort zone.
As my colleagues jostled to see who would get to drive the two yellow cars, Ars went for the dark red car. This turned out to be the most highly optioned of the bunch, with carbon ceramic brakes and bits of carbon fiber shaving its weight down by about 70lbs (31kg) while simultaneously bumping its price up to the $200,000 mark.
It was a Tuesday, and our job was to get the cars to Daytona Beach by Thursday evening, ahead of that weekend’s Rolex 24. This is a 24-hour endurance race contested by a mix of specialized DPi prototype race cars as well as so-called GTs, which started life as road cars before being modded for high-pressure life at the track. Last year, Acura’s ARX-05 won the DPi championship, an NSX GT3 took home top honors in its class, and each was powered by a close cousin of the V6 that would propel me to Florida.
Our route would take us to Cincinnati for the night, then down through Kentucky and into Tennessee, skirting west of Knoxville before ending up in Asheville, North Carolina. Thursday would be simple, if tedious—a straight shot down I-26 and then I-95, 530 miles (852km) of straight highway cruising.
Listing image by Elle Cayabyab Gitlin