Top Secret: The 2018 Acura NSX Revisited

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When we first reviewed the 3rd gen NSX, we felt that we might have been a little harsh in our review. After all, we were comparing it to cars in much higher price brackets and we still had some expectations that had been set by the first gen NSX in our minds. So when we got an invite from Honda to thrash the NSX around properly at their secret test track facility in the California desert, we leaped at the chance to really see what the NSX is on its own merits and see how our opinions might change.

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Driving a ways into the desert along the 14 freeway, past Edwards Air Force base and down some small, unmarked roads, we first thought we were being lead to either a body dump site our just into the wilderness for the sake of it. But low and behold, eventually, we found a very nice sign that read: Honda. We turned up the road and found ourselves at a security gate, which the whole experience of entry gave a feeling of entering Area 51 where we knew we’d be seeing some top secret stuff. After getting settled inside the visitors lounge, we were given a tour of the control room, which is straight out of a movie with a giant wall covered in monitors watching everything that’s happening on each section of the track. After conversing with the staff, we were led back into the lounge for a briefing by a few Acura executives and a racing instructor. We were then led outside to get acquainted with the NSX.

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Each of us was paired with a racing instructor, and before we could enter the actual track we had to have our phones inspected by security so they could tape over our cameras. With a lot of new and classified vehicles currently testing, no photograph was allowed on track (many thanks to Acura for providing most of the pictures you see in this article). Once we cleared security, we drove our NSX to a staging area deep inside the test track grounds so we could get another briefing an what specifics paces we’d be putting the car through. For the first section, we’d be doing a high speed oval test, bringing the car to speeds in excess of 130 mph. Next, we would take the car to the acceleration and handling tarmac to test the NSX’s launch control from stand still and it’s handling when put into turns at speed. Lastly, we’d be taking on the full canyon road replica course, which is modeled after some canyon roads in Southern California to provide real-world simulated driving conditions, including a steep, blind uphill climb and steeper down hill decent portion. Mission accepted.

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Taking the NSX on the high speed oval, we had the car in Sport Mode. Despite this, the pull from 40 to 140 mph was rather uneventful. The NSX is incredibly smooth, and with the techno wizardry under the hood working to shelter you from all the violent forces of nature, you don’t actually feel the speed you hitting. The 9 speed transmission responsible for that, as with so many gears the car can shift extremely seemly as you rack up the speed. So far, our initial opinion of the NSX remains the same.

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Next we took the NSX to the acceleration and handling tarmac, where there are some other Honda employees putting some minivans and civics through their paces on the handling part of the track, so we got the NSX into position behind two cones on the drag strip part of the tarmac and came to a full stop. The NSX has 573 combined horsepower from it’s turbocharged V6 and electric motor, so there should be some grunt with a full pedal mash. We hammered the pedal to the floor upon hearing our instructor say “Go,” and the NSX pulled forward at speed. Sadly, again, for something that should get our hearts racing, the full throttle pull was not as eventful as we would hope because the NSX is so smooth on take off. We came back around for another try on the drag strip, but this time we are told to use the launch control. We put the car in track mode, engaged the launch control, and then mashed the pedal just like previous run. Suddenly, the NSX has become a completely different car. Suddenly, one can feel the might of each individual horse in the 573 horse stampede as the NSX rockets forward while trying to tear its tires off. The transmission keeps the power delivery going a bit longer and so in a few quick seconds (and screams) later, we hit the braking point and bring the car to a stop. Sitting for a moment, with a very giddy grin, it seems that the NSX can show the driver its full power. Finally, we’ve gotten a proper glimpse of what the NSX can be, so now we’ve very curious to put it on the handling course.

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We get to the handling course and do a drive through it at a decent pace in track mode so we can get familiar with the car in the corners. We hit some long sweeping S turns that open into larger arcing turns to bring the course around full circle. Our second run through, when we get to the first S turn, we’re told to go full throttle in the middle of the turn. So, being the Yes Men that we are, we complied. In track mode the NSX’s traction control system goes fairly hands free until a certain point and then it manages each tire to let the car sort itself out. Translation: When we went full throttle in the middle of the turn the NSX gracefully arced sideways into a spectacular drift. Naturally, instinct tells you to counter steer, but our racing instructor had us keep the steering wheel straight, and magically, the car sorted itself out and was somehow straight again, despite the pedal being mashed the whole time. This discovery led us to drifting the NSX through the entire handling course for 3 extremely fun rubber-shredding laps (much to the amusement of the other Honda employees, we found out later). The NSX is a shockingly easy car to drift and highlights that it does know how to have some fun. So how does this all come together?

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For the final assignment, we went to the canyon road simulation course which was a mix of straights, sweeping turns, hairpin turns and elevation changes. As we made our way through the course, the most terrifying part is the about 1/3rd the way through there was a blind uphill ascent, which rocketing up a hill at 60 mph that you can’t see over the crest of is scary, but at 75 we had entered a zone of pure terror. Then getting hard on the brakes downhill into a sharp left turn, we were glad we didn’t learn that the NSX uses brake-by-wire tech, which means that the brakes aren’t physically connected to the pedal, until after we had finished the drive. Don’t get us wrong, the brakes are great and responsive, but when you’re convinced your racing instructor is trying to get you airborne off the track, the last thing you want to hear is that you’re trusting your ability to stop with a small servo that relays your brake pedal input to the braking system.

As we got more familiar with the road layout, we were able to really push the NSX around it to get a better feel for the car. But as we pushed the NSX to it’s limits, that’s where met our original problem with the car, but now we fully understood what it really was. The NSX can handle and corners very well and in some really tight turns the understeer will show up and it can start to drift a bit. That’s all good and fine, until you realize you’re using your eyes to do 100% of the driving because the NSX keeps the driving feel isolated from you.

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The NSX is a clever car and it’s loaded with all of the latest tech. But it’s almost too clever for its own good. That’s a problem because when you don’t have a good read on the driving feel of the car, it becomes very difficult to place the car exactly how you want it and you can’t physically feel where the car is. The NSX is actually a harder car to really drive at first, because you can’t feel what’s happening so you can’t feel where the car’s limits are when you’re getting near them. Unlike BMW M cars or the McLaren 570S, those cars are easier to get a sense of because you can feel where they are at all times and you get an immediate sense of the cars limits, so you know how far you can push it much sooner. So the tech makes driving the NSX extremely easy, but that same tech makes the learning curve of the NSX much harder to approach since it isolates so much of the driving feel from you.

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That being said, for what the NSX is trying to do, that approach makes sense as 95% of the owners will never dare explore the limits of the car. So it’s setup to be smooth and event free from a driver feel perspective. We did manage to get a better sense of the car as we pushed it on the canyon course lap after lap, and even managed to set a civilian blind uphill ascent speed record of 118 mph (on that particular run we basically accepted that we were going to fly off track and to our shock we didn’t because the sorcery that is downforce). After our last lap, we brought the NSX back to the staging area for a debrief session and some refreshments.

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We had to admit, we were a bit torn on the NSX after putting it through it’s proper paces. Our verdict is that it’s a supercar trapped inside a luxury car, which makes it like a tiger in a zoo. The car drives very smooth, quiet and easy. But put it in launch control, and suddenly you get a flash of the raw nature of the car, like when a tiger suddenly decides the zookeeper will make a nice snack as we all get a firsthand reminder that at heart, it’s a killing machine. The fact that the NSX is very easy to drift reminds you that in an age of socially responsible cars the NSX can have some guilt-free fun, but it also makes drifting a bit too easy in a point-and-shoot way which is fun, but not a testament of your skill as a driver. Paired with the lack of driving feel, all this adds up to a car that is a very good car. A very accessible car. And a very easy to do what you will with it car. So as a car, it’s fantastic. But this car is a reflection of itself and its engineering, not so much a reflection of your driving skill. So, to properly view the NSX, it should be thought of as a sleek luxury car and not a supercar. As a luxury car the NSX checks all the boxes. As a supercar it falls short because it’s not setup to actualize the driver’s potential.

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So our final thoughts? As a luxury car we like it, it makes total sense when viewed under that lens. If you want a hardcore supercar, this isn’t the car for you. If you want a sleek coupe that’s easy and comfortable to drive with some fun tech, and highly accessible performance, than this is the car you’re looking for. For our taste we prefer the true supercars, so while we enjoyed the NSX for a day, it would not be the car we’d take home for the long term. If our driving style was had a different set of priorities, then this car would be a no-brainer, and we feel this car will steal a lot of business from Porsche and potential Audi R8 buyers.

Most importantly, want to extend our thanks to Acura for having us, for hosting one of the best driving events we’ve ever been too, and for their insanely awesome staff. We’d honestly go back in a heart beat just to hang with the staff, we wouldn’t even need to drive, they are just that fun to be around and passionate about cars. It was a treat to give the NSX a proper thrashing and review, especially on a top secret test site seldom seen by civilians eyes. As the NSX is a great luxury car, our hope is that as we departed for home during the sunset, in an unmarked garage on the far side of the top secret facility, a more hardcore version of the NSX is being worked on, because while presently the car is more beauty than beast, we know there is a wild animal at the heart of this car that’s trying to claw its way out.

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Cheers,

-JB

 

BMW ///Master Class: M2 vs M3 vs M4 vs X6 M vs i8

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We had a very exciting start to our week, as Valencia BMW, Center BMW and Pacific BMW were kind enough to host us at  BMW M drive event and dine event. The idea was to drive the new M and Alpina range and then enjoy a celebrity chef tasting afterward. We can tell that this story has wet your appetite, so let’s dive into it. For us, we wanted to see how the M cars all stacked against each other, so with Santa Anita Raceway to play around, we did just that.

The i8

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We’ve driven the i8 before, so we where very familiar with it going in. However, it was interesting to see how it compares when directly pitted against other M cars. The i8 is set up a bit differently and feels very different as well. It feels much more futuristic yet somehow still familiar. As we noted the entire car is all about gimmicks…the doors go up to be dramatic, the dash lights up red when put into sport mode, and the was the car feels in motion is a little over the top. But that’s part of the appeal and what makes this car work…it’s a bunch of things that individually seem like gimmicks, but added up they all work together to create a fun and unique driving experience.

It’s a hard trick to pull off and many other car makers fail at this, but BMW does a brilliant job of hitting the mark. Stacked against the other M cars the i8 is a different machine all together: It doesn’t really fit in. It’s more of it’s own flavor and spin on what a car is, so it’s not better or worse, it’s just different. That might be a middle of the road answer, but you’ll have to take it for what it is. If you want proper, old-school M fun, then you’ll want to stick with an M car. If you want a unique and refined driving experience on the other hand, the i8 is not a bad way to go.

The M3 Competition Package

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What can we say that hasn’t been said before? The M3 is a benchmark for performance cars and there’s a good reason for it: It does everything that well. Can you take it for a grocery store run? Check. Can you tack it for a hardcore track day? Double check. Can you comfortably transport your buddies on a night out? Triple check. The M3 is fast, powerful and feels properly dialed in like the M cars of old. With the competition package everything has a little extra boost. There’s a little bump in horsepower and torque, the steering a bit sharper and there’s some bits of extra carbonfiber goodness as well.

While some people have issues with the turbo-charged engine, we found it sublime as the performance exhaust gives a deep, burbling roar as we pushed the car through its paces. There was no turbo lag and the car feels balanced and direct: You point it one way and the car goes that way. Admittedly, we’re not the biggest fans of the dual-clutch transmission paired with paddles. We think that with a manual, the M3 would feel truly special, but we will admit that the DSG is light-years ahead of the old SMG transmission. All in all the M3 is a proper M car and great modern successor in a legendary lineage of M cars.

The M4 Competition Package

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You know everything we said about the M3? Well repeat that except for now it’s on an M3 that looks a little sexier and sleeker with two doors. We love the M4, and with the competition package we love it even more. One of the things we’ve heard is that BMW M has lost it’s edge as other cars in the category are giving them legitimate runs for their money. What we see is that M cars are actually still M cars, they are dialed in racing machines you can use every day on the street, but when they first came on the scene no one else was doing anything near their level. However, as time has progressed and we’ve reached the modern era, everyone has stepped  their game so the field is now more packed than before. So this doesn’t means that M cars have somehow gotten worse, it means that everyone else has gotten better and reached the near M level, so the real question is how do the M cars manage to stand higher than the rest of field despite the fierce competition? We think it’s a mix of utilizing the same DNA as their predecessors and good old fashioned BMW witchcraft.

Getting back o the M4, it’s everything the M3 is minus two doors, so if you like the sleek look of a coupe, this is the car for you. We’ll state it again for the record, we think that with a manual transmission the M4 would feel even more special, but we’re not going to complain about powering around with the DSG. All in all the M4 is the same winning formula as the M3 just in a slightly sexier package.

The M2

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The M2 is a car we’ve been waiting to drive for a while now because we’re intrigued by the idea…a smaller, lighter version of the current M3 & M4 would make for a really fun car. We’re a bit annoyed by the marketing, as the folks at BMW are trying to convince us that this is the “real” M car, much like when they had the 1 Series M launched against the E92 M3. But we got to examine and drive the M2 and we must say, we were a bit perplexed.

The M2 is sold as the “smaller and lighter” car but looking at it right next to an M4, the M2 is not that much smaller and it only weighs roughly 80 pounds less (with no options) so it’s not that much lighter either. The dimensions are a little odd on the car too, and one thing we take issue with is that the signature M engine outlets on the side fender that started with the E46 M3, on the M2 are they actually fake and non-functional. This upsets us since the mantra of M cars has been form is function, so an M car with non-functional bits is a violation of that philosophy. Driving the M2 was a disappointment because the car still feels soft and not as hard-dialed in as the M3 and M4. It really feels like a slightly more powerful version of the M235i. And that’s what disappoints us: When you drive a regular 3 or 4 series and then you drive and M3 or and M4, the M car feels very different and very maximized. When you drive a 2 Series, then an M235i and then the M2, they all feel too closely similar. On it’s own the M2 is a fun and a bit playful, but when stacked directly against it’s bigger brothers the M3 and M4, it becomes clear that the M2 is a training car to get you ready for the properly dialed in ones. the M2 is a car that we’re told is one thing when in reality it’s something else: It’s not a hardcore, dialed in M car of old. It’s a soft, playful modern car that speaks to a different segment of drivers.

The X6M

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The X6M can be summed up in one word: Why? Why does this car exist? The answer: Why not? Why does this car have 580 horsepower and enough torque to rip the skin off your face? Why shouldn’t it? The X6M is the sleeper hit of the day, because it is literally a stupid amount of fun. When we were driving it we could not help but smile and laugh, because the car sits so high up, it’s cozy and comfortable, yet it drives like a bull at full charge and shockingly handles like a dialed in sports car. The whole experience is so absurd because your brain knows this shouldn’t be, and yet it is.

The X6M offers a master class in ridiculousness because it’s a usable sport activity vehicle (whatever that means), but it’s also a hardcore driving machine. The M3 and M4 are much more serious cars for serious drivers, the i8 in it’s own eco-future dimension and the M2 is a soft trainer car, but the X6M is just a barrel of jolly monkeys strapped to  rocket. There’s no way to fully describe the X6M with words, it’s just something you have to drive and experience for yourself. Well done BMW, the joke is on us this time and we love you for it.

 

 

 

After the drives we enjoyed a some refreshments and three-course tasting menus provided by a few celerity chefs. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon, and we want to again thank Center BMW, Valencia BMW, and Pacific BMW for hosting us.

Final Verdicts

i8 – It’s gimmicky, but all the gimmicks work which makes it cool. It’s fun to drive and looks really awesome, so it’s a winner in our book.

M3 – A legend with 4 doors, nuff said. It’s properly dialed in a with extra doors so you can claim it’s “family friendly.”

M4 – If we could only take one home today, it’s be this one. It’s an a proper M3 it but sleeker and sexier with the 2 doors.

M2 – A huge disappointment for us. It still feels too soft like the 2 series and not properly dialed in. On it’s own it’s a great car, but compared head to head wit the M3 and M4 you realize it’s a good training car but not a proper M.

X6M – Literally a stupid amount of fun. It should not exist, and yet it does, which makes us giddy. A sleeper hit, and a hard hit at that.

Cheers,

-JB