2019 Acura NSX first drive: The north North Loop of the Nurburgring is in Japan

I realize after the fact, calmly catching a slide at 90 mph while my right foot stays on throttle, that something isn’t normal. Then the next bend is entered at 95 mph and the rear gets light and then drifts out a few degrees again. I correct without thinking about it, maintain pace and carry on. 

Weird. There’s no sudden jump in heart rate, blood pressure seems fine, muscles stay relaxed. None of the typical pucker factor reactions when you realize you’re entering a moment of high consequence if you make a mistake. Not my usual response.

Is it the setting? Just yesterday, the afternoon included quiet gardens filled with the lovely fragrance of lavender and a beautiful cobalt blue river and waterfall. But not today. Today is Takasu, a proving ground just outside of Asahikawa, about an hour from Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido in Northern Japan that was opened in 1993. A place of work, not tranquility. 

And the road, known simply as The Winding Course, is a 3.9-mile, 17 corner carnival of constant high-speed, high-lateral g driving that dips and climbs nearly 200 feet over one lap with precious little run-off or room for error, but plenty of opportunity for pucker. This road was modeled after sections of the Nordschleife, or North Loop, of the Nurburgring. Not your typical place to become calm.

Part of the credit, then, must go to the car, a refreshed for model year 2019 Acura NSX. Engineers quickly got itchy fingers after finishing the 2017, second-generation Japanese supercar and started fiddling with the chassis (the powertrain largely remains the same). And everything went in one direction. Compared to the 2017 car, the front anti-roll bar is 26 percent stiffer, the rear 19 percent. The control arm bushing is also stiffer, by 21 percent, and the hub itself is 6 percent more rigid.

And you can feel it: The 2019 NSX feels harder edged, less compromised and more focused. But all of the above comes secondary to another change made on the car. Gone are the Continental ContiSportContact 5p tires, replaced with SportContact 6 tires, 245/35ZR19 in front, and 305/30ZR20 in back. Continental developed this tire solely for the NSX and took the tire in a much more supercar-worthy direction. I’m certain the Sport Contact 6 plays the lion’s share of improving the NSX’s lap time around Suzuka, the Formula 1 circuit, by 1.9 seconds, a claim Acura was happy to tout. The Conti is still no Pirelli Trofeo R, but it now suits the NSX much better than before (and the R is still available). 

It isn’t all hardware, however, as ones and zeros got a reshuffle as well. Engineers changed the calibration of the hybrid system and chassis controls. They gave me a thorough explanation, but essentially they admit to playing it safe on the 2017 car and felt confident in pushing the unchanged electric motors and battery harder to extract more performance more quickly. Now they work harder, especially the two motors powering the front axle. At any given throttle point, you can bet that, as long as the battery has the juice, they’re putting in more effort than they did in the 2017 car. And, while cornering, the inside front motor will pull harder than the outside motor to aid attacking the apex. Of course, of the four modes: Quiet, Sport, Sport+ and Track, these changes are more apparent in the middle two because Quiet Mode is exactly that, and still out of place on an NSX, and Track already pushed the limits.

Engineers changed a few minor things to the powertrain to meet stricter emissions standards in Europe and upcoming standards here in the States, but it’s effectively the same 3.5-liter twin-turbocharged V6 and three electric motor hybrid system making a total of 573 hp. That power is still channeled to the rear through a nine-speed dual-clutch transmission. Yes, the NSX is all-wheel drive, but there’s no driveshaft between the front and rear axle — it’s all-electric up front.

And when tuning the final package together, Acura added sharpness to the response, more immediacy to requests from your right foot, and more exchanges of balance between the front and rear axle. The 2019 NSX is the culmination of a lot of little improvements that nets a genuine result. And it feels right at home at Takasu because, well, that is home. In addition to endless laps on the Nurburgring, the NSX spends a lot of time exercising in Northern Japan.

And they wanted me to see that. The Winding Course has enough flair that the comparison to the Nordschleife is reasonable. Here, the NSX feels amazing. As I get moving, the thoughts of brake points, turn-in, apex and track-out blur into one continuous motion of driving. All thinking goes sub-conscious — the 2019 NSX provides feel and response to all inputs quickly enough to speed up your brain. All electronic wizardry happens in the background and seamlessly, such that, for example, you never notice the front right motor tugging you in to the tight right sweeper.

By the third lap, the NSX feels so comfortable that throwing it into a bend at 90 mph while cresting a hill feels natural. A wiggling rear-end means nothing more than a tiny correction. And responses now have appropriate immediacy. Whereas the 2017 car didn’t want to offend anyone, it’s the clear the 2019 is itself offended that you entered that aforementioned sweeper too slowly. And that throttle, man oh man…of course the NSX is a fast car, but it’s so consistently fast in all situations. Making the electric side of the hybrid system work harder means a stab of the gas pushes you against the seatback like a blitzing linebacker. It’s glorious. Brakes too, match whatever the throttle brings. Again, the best word here is consistent. And I think that’s the gold standard to strive for in braking. Consistency breeds confidence, which breeds happiness. 

Acura did more than tweak the chassis. Part of adding aggression to a car is perceived aggression. Accordingly, the 2019 car changed from 2017 by painting the mesh grille gloss black instead of matte and making the upper portion of the grille body color instead of silver. The NSX’s carbon body parts are now gloss black as well and, if you want to stand out even more, you can have the brake calipers painted orange. There’s also an indigo blue interior trim option. Maybe you’re starting to notice a theme. For me, the body-color grille is a win, as are the newly designed polished-aluminum split five-spoke wheels. And I’m pretty indifferent about the rest.

I liked the 2017 NSX. It was not the pure machine of the original, but in today’s world, it served as a worthy spiritual successor. But I didn’t love it. The 2017 car tried to suit too many situations: a calm freeway commuter, a canyon road carver and a track toy. That felt off, like it was trying to be a jack of all trades, which is the wrong path for a supercar. The 2019 NSX corrects course. Glossy paint, stiffer suspension, and sharper tuning sands away some of the civility to make it feel more supercar, more of the time. I’m starting to feel what may be love. And, somehow, still staying calm.

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