One of the strange things about this job is that we often get to drive cars 100 times nicer than our own. In my case, that figure is probably closer to 1 million. Yesterday, when I stepped out of my beat-up 1992 Jeep Cherokee and into a 2017 Acura NSX, I had to recalibrate my mind.
I woke up early yesterday so I could build a bit of a safety factor into my hour-and-a-half drive from Troy, Michigan to Milan Dragway just south of Ann Arbor. Building some slop into your schedule is what you have to do when your daily driver is a 250,000 mile 1992 Jeep Cherokee powered by a $120 engine you bought out of a field. Especially if you don’t want to miss out on driving a supercar.
But my caution was all for naught, as the ride there was simply wonderful. Each day I experience true luxury in this machine. The 190 horsepower fuel injected inline-six was smooth, getting the Jeep to staggeringly high speeds, nearly hitting 80 MPH at one point. The electric windows were fantastic—allowing me to keep the interior cool on the warm 70 degree day (per my Jeep’s state-of-the-art digital thermometer).
The radio, too, was amazing, featuring both AM and FM channels, as well as a crown jewel that must have taken decades of development: an antenna that isn’t just fixed like on a normal car, but rather electric, deploying like a rocket out of that front fender. Just look at this magic:
Add all of those advanced features to the fact that the SUV weighs only 3,300 pounds, and I knew I was driving a marvel in engineering. But it got better: during my drive, the ride quality was a bit stiff, but body roll was almost nonexistent (thanks to my swanky Bilstein shocks and stiff springs)—the Jeep handled those curvy country roads near Milan like a Formula One car. Things got even better when I came to a stop sign, because as of last week, the Jeep has both front and rear power brakes (I replaced the rusty, leaky rear line with one from a junkyard).
Between the power brakes, the grunty fuel injected motor, the fancy shocks and also hydraulic power steering, by the time I arrived at my destination, I was just convinced my Jeep was perhaps the greatest vehicle ever built by human hands.
Once I got to Milan, I stepped out of The Greatest Vehicle Ever and Honda ushered me behind the wheel of a machine so alien, the mere fact that it and my Jeep are part of the same phylum—cars—just boggles my mind.
I checked underneath, and the NSX had no leaks whatsoever. There were very few mysterious bodily fluid stains on the seats, and not a single rust hole in the floorboards. Plus, not only did this new “thing” have power windows like my Jeep, but it actually had functional air conditioning. Even crazier than that was the fact that you could set a temperature for the driver and a different temperature for the passenger, who was only inches away.
How’s this even possible? Consider me highly skeptical of this technology; it’ll never take hold.
My skepticism for this newfangled human-cooling tech notwithstanding, I did learn a few things yesterday. Namely that, if you care about things like “facts” and “data,” my Jeep may not be the greatest vehicle on earth. Actually, it might be a piece of shit.
The first thing I did when I got to the drag strip was take a nice stroll through rural Michigan back roads. As these roads were littered with the fuzz, I found myself stabbing the brake pedal often. My passenger, Dan Hassler—an engineer who worked on the NSX—used this time as an opportunity to get nerdy (as engineers are wont to do).
He told me the NSX’s brakes are “brake by wire,” which means the pedal actually sends a signal to an electrically-actuated master cylinder, which then forces hydraulic fluid to the six-piston front and four-piston rear calipers to squeeze the carbon ceramic rotors at each corner.
Dan tried his best to convince me that this technology, which includes a new innovation known as “ABS,” was better than the rear drum brakes and super advanced vented front steel rotors (squeezed by single piston calipers) in my Jeep. Here’s his explanation of how the Acura’s system works:
Basically, there’s a potentiometer on the pedal that tells the computer the driver’s foot position, and how much force the driver is exerting (based on how much a spring with a known spring constant is compressed). That triggers the Brake By Wire system to send appropriate brake clamping force to carbon ceramic rotors to get a certain output g (deceleration).
The system, which can adjust to counter brake fade during heavy track use, works together with regenerative braking to bring the 3,800 pound beast to a halt almost instantly.
The brakes work so well, that once I got back into my Jeep Cherokee after my drive, I nearly killed myself. A car driving in front of me on the highway slammed its brakes, and I lightly pushed down on my left pedal to avoid a collision. But, as I was back in my car with bottle caps as brake discs up front and useless drums in the rear, I forgot that I basically had to treat the left pedal as a leg press machine at a gym to get any sort of stopping power. I pulled off onto the shoulder to avoid an accident.
All this time, I thought my Jeep’s brakes were totally fine, especially after I fixed the rears. It turns out, they sucked the whole time. Thanks a lot, NSX.
When I put together a lift kit for my Jeep many months ago, I had to make a choice: do I go with stiff or soft springs and shocks? The trade-off there, is that stiff components lead to harsh ride quality, but better handling, while soft springs and shocks give better ride quality and horrible body-roll in the corners. I went with the stiff shocks, and have been tossing my Jeep into corners like a madman ever since. My back, meanwhile, is undergoing some serious fatigue stresses.
The Acura doesn’t have to really make this compromise. Look at any NSX review and you’ll read about how livable the car’s ride quality is, but those same reviews will tell you how good the car is at handling the twisties.
Part of the reason why I had to decide between shitty ride or shitty handling (if we’re honest, after driving the NSX, they’re both shitty) is because I don’t have “Active magnetorheological coilover assemblies.” This fancy technology, which we’ve seen before in a number of GM products, basically involves a suspension of metal filings in oil-filled shocks. A computer controls a magnetic field, which rearranges the metal filings and effectively changes the oil’s viscosity, and thus, the shocks’ damping characteristics.
So instead of always hard like my Jeep, or always soft like an old Cadillac, you get the joy of both. It’s a system that I don’t fully appreciate yet, but in a few years, when my Jeep’s harsh ride forces me to have my vertebrae replaced by spares from a parts-human, I may appreciate it more.
I’ll be the first to tell you the Jeep inline-six is the greatest motor of all time—it’s not only unkillable, but it makes over 220 lb-ft of the best kind of torque known to humankind: low-end. It honestly does feel quick off the line.
But it actually isn’t, it turns out. Because when I stepped on that pedal as I launched the 2017 NSX down the drag strip, 573 HP and 476 lb-ft of torque showed me what quick really was. The 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6 mated to a hybrid all-wheel drive drivetrain does a 0-60 pull in about three seconds, or probably a quarter the time it takes my Jeep to get to that speed.
What’s more, once I got to 60, I could actually hear myself think, as the supercar managed to cut through air like something other than a giant barn door. Actually, the NSX has a number of nice aerodynamic features, like these air curtains that come off the back of the front fascias to force air around the wheel wells.
For air that does get caught in those wheel wells, there’s a vent to prevent pressure buildup and to facilitate brake cooling. (There’s also a rear brake cooling duct built into the subframe):
To keep the intake air cool for maximum horsepower, the NSX has enormous air ducts for the charge air coolers on either side:
That air gets funneled out of the NSX through two subtle little ducts right above the taillights:
Up front, the enormous holes in the hood are functional, serving the purpose of reducing underhood pressure so that more air will flow through the copious heat exchangers out front (radiators and transmission coolers) instead of around them.
Add those skinny low-profile mirrors, and it’s clear the NSX spent some time in the wind tunnel. This manifests itself in a quiet ride at speed and decent fuel economy at 22 MPG on the highway. My Jeep, meanwhile, has zero aerodynamic features, and scores 10 MPG worse than the NSX. In fact, I’d be surprised if it ever saw the inside of a wind tunnel during development. This may manifest itself in premature deafness.
Don’t get me wrong, my Jeep’s got a lot going for it. It’s got much more luggage space than the NSX, far better off-road capability, and fewer parts to go wrong. But after driving the NSX, it became clear that in every single performance metric, my Jeep really does suck.
And I know, comparing a 2017 supercar to a 25 year-old Jeep is a bit absurd, but everyone’s notion of how “good” a car is hinges upon the other cars they’ve driven. And every time I drive a car like the NSX, my Jeep just gets shittier and shittier.
And yet, for some reason, I still love it.