BACK IN the days when you could walk from Calais to Dover and wattle was a popular building material, Honda decided it would like to build a supercar with a V10 engine. It would, the company said, be a replacement for the old NSX, and I was very excited.
Every so often I’d call Honda to see how it was coming along, and it’d say, “Very well”, but that there’d been a bit of a delay because of the ice age, or the eruption of Krakatoa or some other geological disturbance. I seem to recall at one point it said it’d had to change the interior because modern man was a different shape from his Neanderthal predecessor.
And then there was a wobble in the Japanese economy, and the V10 engine lost its Formula One halo, so Honda announced that the new car would be some kind of hybrid with electric motors and a turbocharged V6. That sounded pretty exciting too, especially when Ferrari, McLaren and Porsche were busy demonstrating just how biblical a combination such as this could be.
I kept calling Honda to ask when I could drive its new offering and was always told the same thing. “Soon.” It said the design and engineering team in California was “benchmarking” the Chevrolet Corvette, and when this was done it would be ready.
A year later it said the team had decamped to Germany to benchmark various Porsches. And then a year after that it was in Mauritius benchmarking cocktails. I began to think the new NSX was a machine that existed only in Honda’s dreams and that it would never see the light of day.
But then last year, after a quick trip to Sydney to benchmark some surfboards and a stopover in Bali to benchmark a couple of beaches, the tanned and relaxed designers and engineers announced the car was finished.
And I must say it looked good. It’s very low and very wide — wider than almost anything else on the road, in fact. It also appeared to be very clever, since its mid-mounted twin-turbo V6 was fitted with a 47bhp electric motor that would provide power while the turbos were drawing from the well of witchcraft but were not quite ready to deliver it.
Furthermore, each front wheel was fitted with its own 36bhp electric motor, which meant this fairly conventional-looking supercar was anything but, under the skin. Can you even begin to imagine, for instance, the computing power needed simply to keep all four wheels rotating at the same speed?
When you start to consider that, you can see why it’s taken so long to get the new NSX from the doodle, “Wouldn’t it be nice?” phase and into the showrooms. Especially when you step inside and realise that despite the behind-the-scenes complexity, it comes with a normal steering wheel, normal pedals, normal paddles for the nine-speed gearbox and a normal price. I’m not being flippant. At £143,950 it’s almost five times less expensive than Porsche’s hybrid alternative.
On paper, then, this car looks like a genuinely realistic alternative to Ferrari’s 488 GTB, Lamborghini’s Huracan and whatever car McLaren has just launched. However, it isn’t.
The first problem is that it’s not that quick off the mark. If you are driving in Quiet mode — which you will be most of the time, because the other settings make the car noisy, uneconomical and bumpy — and you put your foot down, there is a very noticeable moment when you just know the computing system is having a think. “Right. Hang on. What gear should I select? Fourth? Fifth? We’ll have a meeting about that, and in the meantime let’s see if we can work out which wheel needs what amount of power. Front left to start with …”
Meanwhile, the driver of the Vauxhall Vectra you were trying to overtake is at home watching Game of Thrones.
So all the clever-clever hybrid tech doesn’t give you the power you were expecting, which would be fine if it gave extra economy, but it doesn’t really do that either. Don’t reckon on getting much more than 20mpg.
Then there’s the handling. You’d imagine that with its weird four-wheel-drive system it’d have a ton of grip, and that’s probably so. But you are never inclined to find out for sure, because you are aware this is a heavy car and nearly a ton of the weight is located in the rear end. So if you went over the limit of grip, it’d be like wrestling a grandfather clock back into line.
What’s more, the steering is numb, and there’s a curious wobble when the car settles into a bend, as though the suspension is having a bit of a row with itself about what it should be doing.
As a car for petrolheads, then, this is no match for its rivals from McLaren, Lamborghini and Ferrari. And then things get worse.
The sun visors are the size of stamps and feel as though they’ve been lifted from a Soviet bread van, the horn sounds as if it’s from a Toys R Us pedal car and the sat nav is woeful.
I suspect it’s the same unit you get in a Honda Jazz or Civic, so on the upside it could probably find the nearest beetle drive or bingo hall, but on the downside it’s a touchscreen, which doesn’t work in any car, and the software appears to have been written by Alistair MacLean or some other author of fiction. Twice it told me the road ahead was closed. And it just bloody wasn’t.
Then there’s the stereo, which sounds like Radio Caroline did in the early 1970s, and I wouldn’t mind but the engine doesn’t compensate for this. In the old NSX there was an intoxicating induction roar when you accelerated; in the new one there’s just some gravelly noise. Which you aren’t really hearing, because you’re busy seeing if the carpet is stuck under the throttle pedal.
Worst of all is the fuel gauge. I don’t have OCD, as anyone who has seen my desk will testify, but the needle isn’t centred, so it always looks ****-eyed. And that drove me mad.
You are left, once you’ve lived with an NSX for a few days, with a sense that the engineers have beavered away at the difficulties of making a high-performance hybrid and then just garnished it with parts from the factory floor. Everything you touch and look at feels either low rent or annoying.
On a recent television programme my colleague James May said he liked the NSX because he found it interesting. Later he told me that the car’s lack of apparent acceleration has something to do with Newton metres per inch per inch and that the linear nature of electric motor delivery … I’m afraid I nodded off at this point.
He is right, though. This car is interesting. And it is pretty. But that, I’m afraid, is the full extent of its repertoire.