The Acura NSX Haters Are Wrong

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Photo: Andrew P Collins
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Comments about the new Acura NSX tend to get qualified as apologies. “It’s not the old NSX, but...” is usually how those sentences start, even when they accompany a rousing defense of the car.

So you might be tempted to write the car off as a soulless marketing exercise. But driving it would convince you otherwise. The 2019 Acura NSX is not only an impressive car in its own right, but its predecessor’s spirit is stronger than you think.

(Full Disclosure: Acura loaned me an NSX for a few days, let me gorge myself at the luxury box buffet at the Long Beach Grand Prix, and also drive one of these cars around the course a few times before the racing happened.)

A 1991 NSX, an early production model
A 1991 NSX, an early production model
Photo: Acura

The OG wedge-shaped NSX was indeed a revelation when it was new, a Ferrari-fighter shaped by Bubble Era hubris that’s been exalted to sacred-cow status on the wave of Radwood and the car community’s newfound love for all things from the 1980s and ’90s.

It was known as a true driver’s car in its day, but the NSX’s original value proposition was more “practical performance” than “ultra-hardcore sports car.”

Road & Track, 1990: “Its fresh, clean-sheet design is about to offer other exotic cars a lesson in civility.”

Car & Driver, 1994: “It’s exotic and rare... but it doesn’t have to prove it by beating me up.”

More recently, before the current NSX came out, Road & Track’s Sam Smith wrote a retrospective which basically posits that the original car was, well, a supercar with the bland simplicity and user-friendliness of a Honda, for better or worse.

The Acura NSX Haters Are Wrong

If you don’t see where I’m going with this yet, let’s just go ahead and copy-paste a passage from that ’94 Car & Driver review, since it applies as accurately to today’s NSX as it did to the first one:

“...against the NSX is the perception that it lacks intensity. There’s a half-truth here. ‘For a quick blast, the Ferrari F40 is more fun. But in a half hour I’m done with it,’ says one of our crew. The NSX, on the other hand, is a splendid partner for a quickie and we’re never done with it. We would drive it every day. We’d happily commute in it.”

Not long after the new NSX launched, our own Patrick George reached a similar conclusion, saying it’s still a spaceship you can drive everyday and in that way, it carries on the character of the first one—just with better and faster technology.

Yet in 2019 “a supercar you can drive everyday” is a tagline we’ve heard from people repping Porsche, McLaren and even Lamborghini. They’re not wrong–some of those companies even build grocery-getting crossovers now. But it’s rarely completely true–McLarens are still a lot of work to drive and a Lamborghinis’ user experience is littered with idiosyncrasies.

A Porsche 911 is still stiffer than any Acura. Those are good things, I think, but let’s stay focused.

The latest NSX, on the other hand, is really, truly, absolutely as docile and dummy-proof as a real nice version of a Honda Civic when you’re puttering around town.

The Acura NSX Haters Are Wrong

This creates an easy opportunity for the car to feel like a letdown. The exterior design, especially when it’s sprayed in a color as hot as Thermal Orange, encourages you to anticipate a cerebrum-shattering driving experience straightaway. But after you complete the contortions required to install yourself in the driver’s seat, the NSX is almost disappointingly comfortable and user-friendly.

The interior, especially the gauge cluster, is logically laid out but artistically bland. The engine, incessantly popping on and off in low-speed maneuvering and parking, has more of an annoying drone at idle than the baleful breathing you’d expect to hear from a supercar.

From an enthusiast’s perspective, the NSX doesn’t make a great first impression. I found myself in, yeah, a supercar with the bland simplicity and user-friendliness of a Honda.

The Acura NSX Haters Are Wrong

Despite the fact that the NSX’s look has been seen and pretty much known since 2012, or earlier if you count Tony Stark’s concept car, the Acura attracted a lot more attention than I expected. Even in Hollywood, even at night. “Cooler than Lamborghini,” somebody yelled to it at a stoplight. “Bad ass car, dude,” from people in line at The Roxy.

In some ways it makes sense–Ferrari convertibles, Lamborghini Huracáns and Rolls-Royces are common characters on Sunset Boulevard. But I’ve been car spotting in Los Angeles for almost four years, and I’ve seen new NSXs, like, a few times at most.

As much as I appreciated the adoration of strangers, I was getting a little worried by how bored I was sitting in traffic in this $200,000 marvel of engineering though. My favorite piece of the human-machine interface at that point was the heated seat button. (It does have great haptic feedback, actually.)

Meanwhile, the cockpit is so tight that with the seat in a raised position, I could lean my head gingerly to the left and take a little nap resting on the top of the door frame.

The Acura NSX Haters Are Wrong

Sam Smith essentially concluded the original NSX was overrated, because it just kind of felt like “a car,” and so does the new one in Quiet, or even Sport mode in town. So I headed into the mountains to see if the NSX could grow some personality.

Switching the giant knob in the Acura’s center console to Sport + mode sets the car up for “faster shifting, aggressive throttle mapping, explosive acceleration and increased agility,” according to the brochure. 

My gut and butt can confirm this. Left-tap down a gear, roll into the gas pedal, and suddenly a mild-mannered Bruce Banner tears through a t-shirt and your ass better be ready to get flung forward by the Hulk.

There’s more power and performance than any responsible citizen should ever wield in public hidden by the NSX’s technology. Drive it at a spirited pace and you feel rewarded, confident, secure. The downside is, you’re liable to look down and see very antisocial numbers on the speedometer without realizing it.

But anyone who says the NSX is too digitized or boring just hasn’t had the chance to actually push the car. There’s a Track mode too–which lets the car run really wild, relaxing the grip of traction control a little. I didn’t tempt fate enough to be able to report on its limit, but the car does encourage the driver to exercise it aggressively.

A lot of supercars are so capable that they can trick you into thinking you’ve got moves, until you break beyond where the safety systems can take care of you, by which point you’re going too fast to be saved. In that way, modern performance cars can be deceptively dangerous–it’s easy to make a catastrophic mistake when everything’s going great until it isn’t.

What I like about the NSX is how linear its progression from Fast to Holy Shit actually feels. The car seemed to communicate when I was going to run out of talent well before it dropped me off a cliff; it would get just a tiny bit unsettled but be easy to reel back in. The NSX’s consistency was as much of a confidence-builder as it its litany of traction-assistance tech.

I got my most aggressive NSXing in at the Long Beach Gran Prix track, taking a few laps days before the race cars. But I also got to test the car a little more realistically on Angeles Crest Highway; my ride home from there was where I realized just how wonderful the duality of the NSX really is.

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Once you’re able to experience just how vivacious this car can be when provoked, its boring Quiet mode is not only a welcome reprieve, it actually seems a lot more impressive from a technological standpoint.

When you’re done turning fuel into noise, the NSX gracefully rejoins traffic and settles you down as smoothly as it got its hackles up in Sport + or Track mode. In other words, it’s a Honda again.

The Acura NSX Haters Are Wrong

The original NSX was a civilized supercar, and a showcase of technology that existed to serve that purpose. The new one is the same damn thing–it’s just faster, or gentler, than ever, depending on how you treat it.