WHEN you think of hybrid cars, the chances are that you’re picturing a Toyota Prius, pootling around steadily and economically. But not all hybrids are the same.
There’s this new Honda NSX, for example. A £138,000 supercar, the NSX is not the kind of car that springs to mind when you talk about hybrids. But that’s exactly what it is, blending a high-performance petrol engine with three electric motors to produce outstanding performance.
Then again, the NSX is no stranger to surprises. Back in 1989, when Honda introduced the original NSX, with Formula One legend Ayrton Senna helping with its development, it shook up the establishment. The NSX was a groundbreaker, a goalposts shifter, a wake-up call showing that mainstream brands could also build highly desirable sports cars.
Die-hard petrolheads loved it, despite its flaws, and have been waiting for a replacement since it went out of production in 2005.
Well the wait is over. Kind of. Because the new NSX will be like hens’ teeth, with only 60 each year coming to the UK – and the first two years’ allocation are already sold out.
And that’s a shame, because it most ways, this is an exceptional car that many enthusiasts would love to get their hands on.
For a start, it looks fantastic. Sleek, compact and modern, this is unmistakably a supercar, with its 10 air intakes around the car (and sharp creases to help the air flow into them), short overhangs and a body made primarily of aluminium, to minimise weight.
So far, so supercar. But it’s under the metal skin where things start get a bit different, with the aforementioned hybrid powertrain, which Honda calls its Sport Hybrid SH-AWD (Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive). The primary element is a 3.5-litre V6 engine mid-mounted behind the cabin producing 500bhp.
Obviously, 500bhp isn’t enough, so this petrol engine is augmented by three electric motors. One of those is at the rear working with the nine-speed twin-clutch automatic gearbox to provide instant engine response, while a further two are at the front to maintain optimal cornering grip and aid the car’s stability and agility.
The overall effect is a total 573bhp under the driver’s right foot, which enables a phenomenal 0 to 60mph time of 2.9 seconds. Make no mistake: this is a rapid car – a point that it hammers home if you use the NSX’s launch control function, which is fearsomely fast in its effect.
The combined sound of the engine and the electric motors is unconventional for a supercar, with hints of whirring – but the NSX’s innovative technology mean that even this isn’t straightforward. Because the car’s sound is one of a number of aspects of the NSX that vary according to the mode chosen from its Integrated Dynamics System, which features four selectable modes: Quiet, Sport, Sport Plus and Track.
These four modes affect settings for the steering, throttle, electronic stability system, suspension, engine and the brakes that can switch between energy-recuperating regenerative or conventional braking. Switching between modes is easy via a large rotating dial in the centre console, and the effects are noticeable.
Apart from the noise (Quiet mode means you don’t have to wake up your neighbourhood early in the morning or late at night), the ride gets firmer, the sportier you get, as does the response from the throttle pedal. Track mode is, as suggested, for a race circuit, which also means the amount of electronic intervention is limited (but not non-existent). It’s also the (gloriously) loudest mode.
Driving the NSX on a track demonstrates just how capable it is, with inordinate amounts of grip at high speed, fantastic balance and agility, and direct, accurate steering.
On the road, the ride is firm in Sport and Sport Plus settings, although not overly so: but the low ride height means that drivers have to be careful over speed humps, even at low speeds.
The cabin is sadly where the NSX falls down. The leather and Alcantara on the sports seats and dashboard trim are fine, but a car that costs this much should be outstanding, rather than just fine.
The plastics aren’t the best we’ve ever encountered and the switchgear just doesn’t feel special to touch. And then there’s the infotainment system.
As good as the NSX is to drive – and it is superb – that’s how bad the infotainment system is. The display is small and unintuitive, and the sat nav system is awful to the point of being disgraceful. Honda seems to think that a cheap system bought in from Garmin is good enough for a supercar, but it isn’t. Not by a long chalk.
And that’s a real shame, because in almost every other way, the NSX is a match for rivals such as the Audi R8, BMW i8 (another hybrid) or Porsche 911.
On the road, it’s a convincing supercar, but the clever, innovative hybrid system does offer a real point of difference, a uniqueness that will appeal to many buyers.
It’s also easy to drive on a daily basis, and can do the business on a track, which is a flexibility that isn’t always achieved by some rivals.
But for 50 quid short of £138,000, the buyer needs to feel that they’ve bought something special. The NSX is indeed, special in many ways – particularly as there are only 60 available to British drivers every year – but the cabin undermines its case compared to, say, the R8.
Not all hybrids are the same – and neither are all supercars.