Searching for Leaves and Ghosts in an Acura NSX

Trekking across Central Vermont in an unidentified flying object.

Blake Z. Rong

A spaceship landed in Montpelier, Vermont. All four wheels and three motors and twin turbos, roaring up the length of Interstate 89, past bands of red and orange and yellow. Editor Chris Perkins figured he hadn’t seen the leaves change in a long time. In true leaf-peeping fashion, he left New York City and took a weekend trip north. It was nearing the end of October, the end of an Indian summer that never seemed to end, and the leaves, already muted, were quickly fading. Just before November would be a last chance to remember what fall was actually like.

Perkins with his good taste and sense, brought along Road & Track’s long-term Acura NSX. All silver-wedged futurism, huge gaping intakes, a mid-engined wedge at full attack. Your humble chronicler moved here in August for grad school. A bizarre decision, yes, but Chris found it a good enough excuse to bring the least likely supercar to this humble corner of the woods.

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Road & Track had held on to this car for nearly 20,000 miles. On the six hours north along the scenic routes, the car picked up a little more dust. Across its rear flank was a dried water stain shaped like a skull, which was ominous. We later wiped it off.

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Blake Z. Rong

Montpelier, Vermont, population 7,535, is America’s smallest state capital. Within its city limits are 18 restaurants, four bars, eight bridges, a culinary school, the gold-capped Vermont State House that you can see from nearly every point in Montpelier; three enormously dreadlocked Bergamasco sheepdogs that loaf around on the floor of , a dozen friendly stray cats (at last count), and about five billion Subaru Outbacks and Foresters, half of which contain enormous and friendly dogs.

Easy town to live in. Even easier to leave: just point the NSX north and crest the hills into farmland.

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The intersection of Horn of the Moon Road (a great name for a post-rock band, or an alternative-medicine store) and Sanders Court, which, as we all know, has to be where Bernie Sanders lives.

There was more than one stretch of dirt that we had to contend with. Drive down any long, squiggly road in Vermont and don't be surprised if it descends into dirt, bordered by narrow skinny trees, John Carpenter territory. Surprisingly, the Acura held up well: it never scraped, lurched, bottomed-out, or radiated sounds of torture. Still, being responsible adults, we wouldn't recommend it.

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At one point, stopping for photos at Lake Elmore, we were approached by one laconic, rough-shod man who seemed unimpressed by our city-slicking ways. After staring at the car for a while, he spoke.

“Bet you can’t take that on dirt.”

“Actually, we did,” Chris said, enthusiastically, “wasn’t too bad! It’s four-wheel drive.”

He paused.

“I live on a Class Four.”

This was a road that he was talking about, one that he no doubt traversed with pride atop his diesel F-350, which he proceeded to tell us about. I didn’t even know that they rated dirt roads like whitewater rapids, or eighteen-wheelers, or tornadoes. It didn’t matter.

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Blake Z. Rong

Mount Hunger, looming 3,538 feet behind in shadow, is a 5-mile hike to the summit, where is to be believed, is home to all sorts of giants and . The name is laden with doom. But it seems to define central Vermont, as it's also the name of a , a , and a at the nearby Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Push on the heavy floor-mounted throttle and the NSX will cram your shoulders into the seats, like you’re losing a high school wrestling match. The NSX builds up forward momentum exactly like a roller coaster: same immediacy, same unwavering composure, same trembling sensation of nausea. The silence of the electric motors, the whomping of those huge Pirelli Trofeo R tires: it all vanishes with a hungry roar like a hot rod’s V8, twin turbos huffing air across those gaping side intakes, into the NSX’s six cylinders, then blowing off when you finally (finally!) let off the gas. You could keep going forever. Multiple people asked us what its top speed was, which is 191 miles per hour, and if we’ve ever taken it up there, which we haven’t, not yet anyway.

But! The NSX also has good visibility, front and back. The magnetorheological Active Damper System doesn’t beat you up around every rough patch, which is surprising, as some of Vermont’s roads look like a warzone. The seats are supple, the bolsters aren’t aggressive, the ergonomics are straightforward. And as you slow down to pass the small towns, and their small-town cops, it’s tempting to think: I could drive this every day.

Even up here in Vermont, across salt-torn potholes.

That was the boon of the old NSX, of course. Maybe nothing’s changed at all.

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Please do not put diesel fuel inside the 2017 Acura NSX.

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Blake Z. Rong

Harry’s Hardware is a one-room hardware store in the middle of Cabot, Vermont, population 247, a town known better for its cheese, samples of which visitors consume toothpick after toothpick as they shuffle around a table of every variety: Pepper Jack, Extra Sharp Yellow, Horseradish, Smoky Bacon, Hot Buffalo Wing, Legacy, Artisan Reserve, Founders’ Collection Private Stock.

Ostensibly a hardware store, it does not have cheese. Instead, it has a bar. It lies against the right-side wall, facing the aisles of plumbing supplies, hovels, rakes, camping fire starters. Here you can order craft beer, wine, cider, maple-infused stouts, maple syrup cocktails, and shots of maple syrup to be taken with ciders or maple-infused stouts.

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Chris gave an engineering lecture to Steve and Joanna, who were next door staining furniture, smoking, generally hanging out on a Saturday night. “You know, a buddy of mine," said Steve, "he’s got an Austin-Healy, 1959, it’s beautiful…”

Men began to spill out of the bar. They resembled off-season Santas in varying stages of beard formation. “See that Thunderbird?” one of them pointed, and we turned to see the last of the Ford Thunderbirds, a retro dreamboat, cream on cream, on chrome. He grinned. “Beautiful day. We were cruisin’!”

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When we walked back outside, Steve was waiting there with with two camera phones. “Joanna just got a Facebook page,” he said, and put a phone in my hand. “She’d be remiss if she didn’t put this on her Facebook page.”

Cars drove by as we stood on the other side of the street, and they stopped, believing that we were waiting to cross.

Joanna: “Did you get the whole car?”

Steve: “Quit asking questions and tell me who you love. Pittsburgh Steelers?”

Joanna: “Penn State, actually.”

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A combination hardware store and craft beer bar, at first glance, is a tragic hipster affectation. But here in Vermont, where nihilistic irony has not yet tainted the water supply, it’s a gathering place, it’s the life of the town, it’s a place to get 3/8ths drive socket wrenches and an Oktoberfest Märzen on draft. That afternoon, people from neighboring hamlets parked in the church lot across the street, then filtered in to watch a father play with his two girls, small and blonde, one on fiddle and one on ukulele.

“I love that it’s hardware and beer,” Chris said after we entered. “Everything we need in one place.”

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Back in Montpelier we became local celebrities at Beau, a gourmet butchery and sandwich shop that also slings drinks. Vermonters will put bars in anything, it seems. I brought Chris here for three reasons: it's within walking distance to my place, good drinks (which we experienced after parking the car and walking back down), and the possibility of seeing , though one seems to have recently disappeared.

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Gold Brook Covered Bridge, built in 1844, also known as Emily's Bridge. Legend says that a young girl named Emily waited here for her future groom, and when the rapscallion never appeared, the jilted lover hung herself from the rafters. People that drive across the bridge hear whispers, voices, the stomping of feet on car roofs, and they emerge from the other side discovering scratches down their vehicles' flanks.

Fortunately, the NSX emerged unscathed.

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Passing through Stowe, Chris’s head swiveled midsentence like an owl. “OH MY GOD WE GOTTA STOP FOR THAT!”

The old man, standing behind his British Racing Green sports car, saw us. We waved and pulled into the gas station to park behind it. An awkward 28-point turn followed. When we got out, we met John, from nearby Hardwick, who ordered this slab-sided Shelby 289 Cobra from in New Britain, Connecticut. A year later, he’s put 2,000 miles on it.

It’s not hard to see why. Side pipes, no radio, period-correct Stewart-Warner gauges, a rare Bakelite hifter from a Galaxie 500, a full-size spare, a bigger trunk than our car: imagine 300 horsepower in a car that barely weighs over a ton, on 215-width tires. It was the antithesis of the NSX and its techno-futurism. Two paths to glory.

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Just a couple of wedges, hangin' out. It's

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Blake Z. Rong

Lake Champlain, which divides Vermont and Upstate New York, has its very own lake monster, . Last spotted in 2005, it once garnered the attention of P.T. Barnum and the Abenaki Native Americans but now serves as the of the Vermont Lake Monsters. In 2005, the minor-league baseball team considered changing its name to the Vermont Champs, in honor of the cryptid. But the idea was shot down—because the team hadn't entered the playoffs in ten years.

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Blake Z. Rong

On paper, the philosophy of the NSX’s drivetrain should lead to handling perfection. With individual electric motors, the front wheels can split the balance between power and traction. With a bigger electric motor in back, the torque is instantaneous, the high-speed shove from the twin-turbos accentuating it. Last year, at NCM Motorsports Park, we said: "Probably the first vectoring hybrid I've driven that isn't more interested in its own work than in yours…just does that spooky instant-response thing in the middle of a corner."

We also said: “For the first time…technology has been placed firmly in the service of emotional involvement rather than in place of it.”

Then, we voted the NSX 2017’s Performance Car of the Year.

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Blake Z. Rong

Ramble on.

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Blake Z. Rong

There's a Nineties resurgence happening at the moment, riding the coattails of the Eighties resurgence: witness the and the , bright colors and millennial pink, MOOGs and 808s. The late Eighties/early Nineties was a time when Midship Runabout—to borrow a rival carmaker's title—seemed like the future, and it could finally happen with the help of computers! And the old NSX, aided by computers and tasseled loafers, made that happen.

A case can be made that the current NSX is truly the most Nineties car being produced today, in aesthetics as well as philosophy. It is a wedge, pared down to a sharp point. It has buttresses. Its AWD hybrid drivetrain is nothing short of cutting-edge. And it was built with the help of computers.

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Blake Z. Rong

The NSX is LED headlights cutting across a neon jungle, a soundtrack, prowling across a city at night. If they ever make OutRun and lose the Ferrari license, SEGA could do no worse than to remake it with this.

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If you want any semblance of nightlife head to Burlington, 40 minutes north of Montpelier, where the bars actually stay open late. Burlington's heart is the Church Street Marketplace, encompassing four blocks of lackadaisical pedestrian strolling, al fresco dining, various architectural styles, an L.L. Bean flagship store, , and a soon-to-be-abandoned mall once built on the remnants of an Italian-American immigrant neighborhood during that frenzied midcentury epidemic of "urban renewal." Fortunately, neither cold weather nor gentrification can stop the stalwart Vermonter.

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Blake Z. Rong

I must confess that when the NSX was announced, I wasn’t enamored with the concept. Gone was the lightweight vision that the old NSX encapsulated, gone were manual transmissions and high-revving engines and a philosophy of simplicity both traditional and cutting-edge. Instead, here were a bunch of motors, and angry styling—I’m still not enamored with the front visage of the NSX—and for what, exactly: to revive a name in the midst of a disjointed brand, just to stoke nostalgic tendencies?

But hybrids and all-wheel drive and lightning-quick dual-clutch transmissions are the epitome of modern tech—just like space-frame aluminum was the dream of the Nineties. This is a very complicated car, equal parts subtle and dazzling, capable of tremendous violence. “It’s like a normal car,” said Chris, relaying another auto journalist’s musings, “until you look in the back and see those huge intakes.”

Old cars will always exist—and God bless John from Hardwick and his slabside Cobra, and all 2,200 pounds of fear it elicits—but the new must push the limits, it must keep evolving, otherwise the sports car is doomed. It must attack NCM Motorsports Park and cruise up to Burlington on a clear Sunday night, past the Flynn Theater, in “Quiet” mode. (That night the Flynn was hosting celebrity chef Alton Brown, a noted graduate of Montpelier’s New England Culinary Institute.) And on the freeway back to Montpelier, in the dark, through the woods, one gets the impression that the NSX could actually take off.

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