Expectations Exceeded

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Let’s say cars are your passion. You love driving, learning to drive better, and learning how cars are developed. You’ll drive just for that mechanical duet with a car, so you can listen to its sounds, feel its responses, and appreciate how it’s put together.

And let’s say one of your favorite automakers says, “We’d like you to come to our private testing facility that we’ve never allowed the public to visit and drive our latest flagship around with a professional instructor. Would you be interested?”

Once in a great while, when you’re extremely lucky, you experience something so beyond what you expected you can hardly believe it. And you wish all your friends could experience it, which is why I’m writing about how Acura invited me to the Honda Proving Center in the California desert to drive the new Acura NSX.

The Facility

The Honda Proving Center stretches over 4,000 acres of California high desert, north of Edwards Air Force Base. The drive down long, empty desert roads conveys a sense of isolation and expectation—something located out here must have a very special purpose. They weren’t expecting a lot of visitors when they chose the location, and when we arrive at the facility, security is tight.

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Out here, you’re going to need directions.

We check in and are briefed on the site and its history, even seeing a picture of company founder Soichiro Honda and the Proving Center team standing next to the original NSX when the facility first opened almost thirty years ago. There’s a sense of reverence about Mister Honda and pride in the work done here. In their earnest, humble, Honda way, the team is quietly excited to show off this treasure for the first time.

We see an overhead view of the site, showing the giant 7.5 mile oval and the smaller tracks within: a road course simulating real-world twists, turns, and hills, a huge flat skidpad, even a dirt course for testing off-road scenarios. I can’t imagine how much time and money they spend here testing, but someone mentions they just spent $30M USD renovating the facility.

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HPC Overview

Acura and Honda use the center, and it’s easy to imagine prototypes being driven hard, hour after hour, to test their endurance, especially in hot desert conditions. The reliability we’ve come to expect from Acura and Honda comes from endless hours of development and testing in places like this. They torture their prototypes so the production models don’t let us down in the real world. It’s also a place where their racing efforts can test in controlled conditions out of sight of their competitors.

And now, for the first time, this historic proving ground becomes a playground. It’s like Area 51 decided to hold an open house.

The People

The Acura staff who greet and pamper us project a sense of welcoming and quiet pride in their work and the opportunity to share their new baby, the NSX. But none of it is over-the-top: this isn’t some outrageous wealthy reality show, but we’re made to feel welcome. There’s a sense of level-headed competence and fun about the whole event. This whole staff, including the folks running the control center, are working the weekend to make this event happen. I can hardly believe it when we’re let into the control room and allowed to take pictures!

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Every aspect of testing at HPC is monitored.

We’re briefed on the common-sense safety rules and the pro drivers introduce themselves. These are accomplished racers, testers, and instructors, but they spend about as much time talking up their colleagues’ accomplishments as their own. Bits like, “Roberto is being humble; he held the track record at Indy for four years.” My luck holds and I’m paired up with Shannon, a terrific instructor with a real talent (and patience) for teaching.

The Car

I’ve driven a lot of high-performance cars. I’m lucky enough to own a first-generation NSX, a car I’m in love with even after twenty years. Calling it a tough act to follow is like saying it might be hard for AMC to replace Breaking Bad in their schedule. So I was a little concerned the new, high-tech, hybrid-powered NSX was going to be a numb, standoffish robocar. Where’s the manual transmission?

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Are we having fun? Yes. Yes we are.

Any car like this is intensely personal—it’s well beyond the basic transportation you get from a modest economy car. You don’t justify a car like this based on a spreadsheet, you justify it based on your emotional reaction. The very best cars whisper, “come dance with me.” And when you accept their invitation, they’re great dance partners.

Professional reviewers will do a better job writing about the details and comparisons, but my time with the new NSX changed my mind. In unexpected ways, the new NSX somehow captures the “spirit” of the original in—I can’t believe I’m writing this—a better car. I even came to love that dual-clutch paddle-shifted automatic transmission.

We drove the car through the tight turns and elevation changes of the road course, around the cones of an autocross course, through a “launch control” test (0 to 100mph to 0), and around the big oval high-speed course.

My favorite part was the road course, the most challenging and where I improved the most. Shannon coached me through handling the course and the car, and every lap got faster. As I got more familiar with the car I could trust it (and myself) to brake harder, to add more speed in the straights, to pursue the apex more aggressively.

Changing the driving modes actually changed the car’s responses in ways I could feel; it wasn’t just a gimmick with barely-perceptible differences. The complex powertrain (two electric motors in the front, one more and a twin-turbo V6 behind you) worked in a way that wasn’t just seamless, it was actually fun. I wasn’t thinking about how the power was getting shifted around, I just enjoyed the results. I started with the transmission in automatic and moved to shifting manually, grinning from the perfect snorting engine blips accompanying every downshift.

The new NSX is enormously capable driven aggressively, but still fun and light on its feet at normal speeds. It can be docile and comfortable without being boring. It meets you where the conditions, your skills, and your mood are, in the moment, to give a precise, satisfying drive. It goes from virtually silent to a whooshing roar behind your head as you push harder. And here I was, in a test car that had been driven hard around the track again and again, and it felt solid and bulletproof, with never a hint of fatigue, rattles, or protest. Beautiful.

Driving the new NSX changed my point of view. I could absolutely see driving this solid, understated supercar to work every day. It can quiet down and let me take a call when I need to, and enjoy a quick zip onto the freeway or a challenging drive on a twisty mountain road when I can. The new NSX, like the old, is something special.

If you’re looking for a high-performance car you can live with and love, drive the NSX. It may sneak up on you with a whisper, and before you know it, you’ll be having a full-on conversation.

Links

Honda just posted a video celebrating the renovated Honda Proving Center:

Honda Proving Center Reborn

Automoblog wrote a nice summary:

Honda Proving Center Returns to Action

YouTube user ksquaredguy posted his video of the event:

2017 Acura NSX Driving Experience

Thanks

Many, many thanks to my instructor Shannon, the terrific team at Acura and the Honda Proving Center for organizing and running this event, and the whole NSX development team for a genuinely unforgettable experience.

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