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2017 Acura NSX tested: Why it's the exemplar for all supercars

In 10 years, every high-performance car will be like the 2017 Acura NSX: a blend of electric motors, turbochargers, a combustion engine, and sophisticated control of traction, suspension, and acceleration. If you want to get to 60 mph in less than 3 seconds at the start of a 20-minute lapping session at the track, the NSX offers a compelling reason why a hybrid car tuned for performance rather than highest mpg is the wave of the future.

Here’s what it like to be in an NSX both on the racetrack and public roads. I was in NSX Chassis 0000, which has logged a lot of test and journalist test miles, yet remains solid and rattle-free. This $160,000 supercar gives you nine-tenths the performance of the 2015 Porsche 918 Spyder hybrid that cost $875,000. See what progress you get in two years?

Think 2017_Acura_NSX_130leather and lace, Adderall and Xanax, dessert topping and floor wax: The NSX is a supercar that morphs to a daily driver with few compromises. The seats are generously sized for American backsides, the cabin is roomy, the nav system looks transplanted from your Acura MDX, and there’s a dad-jeans sort of relaxed driving mode that won’t shake your fillings loose on bumpy roads, should you make this your daily commuter.

The personalities are accessed via the Dynamic Mode dial in the center stack (photo inset): Quiet, Sport, Sport +, and Track. They modulate engine response, shift timing, steering response, suspension stiffness, and even the amount of engine noise inducted into the cockpit and the look of the instrument panel (below). The shocks are the latest version of the GM/Delphi developed magnetically controlled dampers (MagneRide); the technology is now owned by Beijing West Industries.

NSX 2017 instrument cluster

Quiet mode runs the NSX for short distances on battery power, or limits engine and exhaust noise when, say, you’re on your home street. Sport is where most owners will do their daily driving. Sport + is for spirited driving and Track is for serious driving.

Driving on suburban and rural roads, the NSX has more than enough power to do anything you want. Tromp the throttle and it takes only one second to break most city speed limits. Out on twisty country roads, the front motors shine. They add 73 hp (for 573 hp total). Carve into a sharp left turn, and the left front motor slows a bit and feeds regenerated electricity to the right front motor, which then speeds up. It’s an extension of torque vectoring, or Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH-AWD) in Acura parlance.

At the track, as a passenger with a professional race driver behind the wheel, the NSX is insanely quick. It is especially impressive with the front motors helping pull the car into the turning point (apex) of a turn; in other cars you might have to come off the throttle a bit to shift weight forward and increase the grip of the front tires.

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The Acura NSX is among the very quickest and most composed supercars. Acura and Porsche have taken the lead in using electric motors to boost performance, and microprocessor power to keep the car stable when you’re putting down 500-plus horsepower in a straight line. A combustion engine car, that is one with a gasoline or diesel engine, develops meaningful torque (power) around 2,000 rpm. Add a turbocharger and a car delivers even more power, but only after a delay of up to a second. Bolt on one or more electric motors and it produces power instantly from standstill, because maximum torque is delivered at zero rpm. So electric motors are a perfect complement to a combustion engine.

The NSX starts with a fresh-sheet-of-paper 500-hp V6 installed behind the passengers. The 3.5-liter engine powers only the rear wheels and is unrelated to the 290-310 hp V6 engines powering other Hondas and Acuras that have the cylinder banks at a 60-degree angle; the NSX V6 uses a 75 degree-design. The NSX employs two turbochargers, one for each bank of three cylinders.  Then the NSX adds three electric motors, two in front (the Twin Motor Unit), one per front wheel. There’s one motor in back (Direct Drive Motor) sandwiched between the engine  and the nine-speed double clutch transmission (DCT).

The lithium-ion battery (Intelligent Power Unit) is located just behind the front seats. It’s small, believed to be about 1 kWh, or on the order of what’s in a Toyota Prius (the current Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid produces 16 kWh). The Power Drive Unit converts DC voltage to AC to run the electric motors. It’s in the tunnel between the seats.

The body is space frame construction, meaning the skeleton of the car provides the rigidity and crash protection rather than the body panels as in unibody construction. There is aluminum, carbon fiber, steel, ultra-high-strength steel, and molded plastic. Several nodes (junction points) of the space frame are aluminum ablation castings, a joint effort of Honda’s Ohio development group and Alotech Limited, also of Ohio. The part is cast in sand from molten aluminum. The sand has a water soluble binder that is quickly washed away by water jets that also cool the part and keep it from becoming brittle.

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New_Acura_NSXClimb into most supercars, or ultra-sporty sports cars such as the Alfa Romeo 4C, and it’s a snug fit, often with considerable engine and road noise, and a stiff ride. With the 2017 NSX, the one major compromise is getting in and out. The seats are relatively roomy. The car has navigation, USB jacks, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto. There’s even a detachable cupholder that fits outboard of the passenger side of the console.

The trunk, behind the engine, holds 4 cubic feet of soft-sided luggage. It’s enough to get you through a casual weekend. If you can afford the NSX, you can afford to send your golf clubs and tuxedo on ahead.

Driving range is reasonable: about 300-325 miles based on 21 mpg city driving, 22 mpg highway drive, and a 15.6-gallon tank. Note that while it’s a two-seater, it’s not a lightweight two-seater: 3,803 pounds without options.

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One thing the NSX is missing is the suite of driver-assistance electronics that is standard or available on virtually every high-end passenger car and SUV: adaptive cruise control, blind spot detection, lane departure warning, and forward emergency braking. Buyers probably don’t see the NSX needing them. But if buyer moods shift, Acura could offer them, the company says.

There is a rear camera and, in my opinion, it wouldn’t hurt to have a four-camera surround vision camera system for squeezing into and out of tight parking spaces.

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Acura’s greatest strength is also its weakness: This is an eminently practical supercar, as was the first-generation Acura NSX (1991-2005, image right) that was dinged for being too easy to drive, relatively easy to maintain and — possibly the worst sin of all — got by with just a six-cylinder engine.

The 2017 Acura NSX is exotic looking, but other supercars are even more so. Also, they’re a lot more costly. The base price is $156,000 plus $1,800 freight. (Some buyers may be put off by it not costing $500,000.) It’s engineered and built in Marysville, Ohio, USA. Options can bring the NSX close to $200,000. Most are go fast, weigh-less carbon fiber pieces ($21,500) or ceramic brakes ($10,600) if the stock Brembos seem inadequate. You can also spend $6,000 on Valencia Red Pearl or Nouvelle Blue Pearl paint, or $1,500 on nicer alloy wheels.

While supercars and even high-performance cars of the next decade may need electric boost — think BMW M3 or Chevrolet Corvette — it’s also true that there are a handful of gas-only cars that are a bit quicker today and cheaper, such as the Nissan GT-R, Audi R8 V10, and possibly the Corvette Z07. Emissions rules and the opinions of neighbors and co-workers may shift these performance buyers to performance hybrids.

It should be noted the all-electric Tesla Model S P100D and P90D with Ludicrous Upgrade are quicker, too (about 2.5 seconds 0-60). But they are not currently track cars and may back off the power after a hot lap or two at the track. Thermal management of the electronics is a big issue.

In all NSX modes except Quiet, Acura directs the vehicle air conditioning into the IPU’s lithium ion battery pack, junction board, high-voltage distribution bus bar, DC/DC converter, and ECUs (electronic control units) for the electric motors and battery.

There are rumors of a Type R (higher performance) NSX, a gasoline-only version, an electric-only version, and possibly a convertible. A gas-only NSX would either have to be rear-drive-only, or the car would have to be significantly re-engineered.

Other Acura buyers may see some of the fruits of NSX development: The pending 2017 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid SUV (photo right) and the now-shipping RLX Sport Hybrid sedan will have “similar components and operation of the [NSX] three-motor Sport Hybrid AWD system.”

So the lasting impact of the Acura NSX, beyond the handful of hundreds of buyers in the first year, is that it sets a standard other hot cars can aspire to: both for performance and for some amount of environmental concern. Electric motors can make a car frugal, such as with the Prius. But it can also make other cars blazingly fast.

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