The wail. You know the wail.
Axl Rose's voice is an otherworldly thing, with a range and strength that any other rock vocalist would kill for. His signature has always been the ability to hit notes that humans aren't supposed to hit, notes no other band could replicate. His upper register has always been what made Guns N' Roses what it is.
That upper register has also been the calling card of every memorable performance Honda. Cars that made approximately no torque but could scream to 9000 rpm over and over and over again. Cars like the S2000, Integra Type R, and NSX, known for how they sound when that VTEC kicked in, yo and how that combined with a compliant chassis to make a truly unique experience.
Honda's distinctly Japanese take on performance was like a bizarro BMW M, making cars for the masses with screaming engines and front-wheel drive that actually handled. The company changed car culture in the process. High schools and late night car meets were full of blue Civic Sis bouncing off their rev limiters as they left the lot. Autocrosses that were once dominated by the Mazda Miata saw an influx of S2000s. Videos of the NSX being thrashed to hell on track by some random guy in loafers named Ayrton Senna went viral before going viral was a thing. They were the cars you drove in Gran Turismo that you actually had a chance of owning in real life.
These were cars that responded the more you thrashed them on track, cars that needed to be bossed around, thrown up on curbs, and revved to a million to get the best out of them. And then they wouldn't break. They wouldn't need extra service. They'd do their job and then drive you home. They provided all the joy of a more expensive track day car without the headaches.
They created a legion of die-hard brand loyalists, people who lived for VTEC. These cars imbued everything else in Honda and Acura's lineup with performance cred, too. The Accord and Fit? Fun to drive family cars. The TL and CL? Legitimately nice pseudo-luxury cars. The RL? A tech powerhouse.
But Honda canceled the NSX in 2005 after 15 years in production. The promised replacement was a victim of the global economic crisis, its ridiculous-sounding V10 relegated to race tracks. The Acura RSX (an Integra in everything but name) went away in 2006, later replaced by a Civic-based sedan dubbed ILX. The S2000 went away in 2009 without mention of a replacement.
The 2012 Civic was a massive misstep, so bad that it needed to be refreshed after just one year of production. That year's Civic Si also eschewed the K20Z3, Honda’s high-revving 2.0 liter four. Instead, the new Si used a torquier, lower-revving 2.4 liter engine dubbed K24.
For performance fans, Honda entered a dark age. The Si got bigger and lost its edge. Acura had nothing that appealed to fans of its performance past. There wasn't really anything left in the range that could be considered a sports car or even sporty. Promises of a returning NSX seemed to be broken as many times as a bad father cancels a fishing trip. Honda was lost.
But promises of a return to form started to appear when the TLX went racing in World Challenge. Then the 2017 Civic Si debuted to rave reviews. The NSX made its long-awaited return and the Civic Type R entered the US for the first time. They are, by all accounts, brilliant to drive. Honda once again had a formidable performance lineup, but there was one huge difference.
That difference? All of these cars are turbocharged, something that would be anathema to the high-revving performance Hondas of days gone by. Those cars didn't need forced induction to make power; they worked better without it. But times change. Axl Rose was 25 when Appetite for Destruction was released in 1987. Now he's 55. Notes that were previously effortless require work. You have to look for the brilliance in his voice.
We wanted to see if we could still find that Honda magic, so we brought both cars to for a day with the on the full road course and autocross.
Lime Rock Park might look simple since it's a bunch of right hand turns and a single left. But this is a bull ring, one of America's great tracks. There's nuance here that a track designed on a computer doesn't have. Placing a wheel wrong doesn't lead to a mile of runoff, it leads to a barrier. It's a track with a mix of urgency and patience, where you need time to learn what the track wants, and it rewards a good setup and good driver.
It's the sort of place where the 306 hp Type R should impress.
At first, it doesn't. Working up to speed, the engine makes no sound. VTEC is there, but it's all in the midrange, and the power is gone well before redline. It feels distant, lifeless. The gearbox, while direct, is auto rev-matching on downshifts, which is the biggest buzzkill ever.
So I bring it into the pits after a few sighting laps to figure out what I'm missing. Everyone else at R&T who had a shot in the Type R has said that it's brilliant on track, but I'm not seeing it. A dig through the infotainment system turns off the rev-matching. A flick of a console switch puts it in the more aggressive R mode. I ask LRDC's ace chief instructor Simon Kirkby to take the Type R out for a few laps, and he comes in impressed where I was underwhelmed.
I text Type R fan and R&T editor-at-large Sam Smith to see what he thinks can get the best out of the hatch. He tells me to thrash the hell out of it. That it responds when you boss it around, when you throw it on curbs, when you drive it like you hate it. Like an old Honda.
He's right. Don't coddle it; "smooth is fast" doesn't apply. Make abrupt transitions to the brakes, get weight over the front end, toss it up on a curb. Cyber bully the steering wheel into each corner. Go quicker than you think you can on corner entry and the car will work out the rest. Power into Lime Rock's uphill section and let the elevation change compress the suspension and shoot you over the crest, getting light as it hits the top. Steering is still distant, but it's accurate. The chassis is classic Honda, possibly even better than its ancestors. It needs to be; it has to make up for the engine.
It doesn't feel special, a letdown compared to the screamers of old. Remember that this motor is closely related to the 2.0-liter turbo that does duty in the new Accord. An engine that has to do more than scream will be inherently compromised. But the engine in the NSX has a mandate to be special.
The NSX concept and development mules all used a transversely-mounted, naturally aspirated, 90-degree, 3.5 liter V6 that's ubiquitous in the Acura lineup. That isn't the engine in the car now. During development, the NSX team realized it wasn't right for a supercar.
Acura's production NSX has a longitudinal twin-turbo V6 with a 75 degree V-angle. It's the only car Honda builds with this engine. Combine that with three electric motors and you get 573 horsepower, 406 lb-ft of torque, and real torque vectoring. It also has a nine-speed dual-clutch gearbox, making the NSX the pre-calc class you got a D in on wheels.
It also stands in stark contrast to the NSX that came before. That was simplicity at its best, Honda showing that you could have Ferrari F355 or Lotus Esprit performance without the worry of it constantly breaking. This NSX's tech overload might make the Ferrari 488 or Lamborghini Huracan look simple, but it shows that you can have Porsche 918 or McLaren P1 technology for one-tenth of the price. In a way, it fulfills a similar mission to the original.
It's also something that you'd expect to be more machine than car, a device that separates you from the experience, insulates you from the road, and does all the work for you. Somehow, it doesn't.
When the NSX won our 2017 Performance Car of the Year competition, we were impressed by how Honda had engineered something so obviously digital to feel analog. The car is brake-by-wire, but the pedal can get longer based on wear or brake condition. You can feel the torque vectoring work through the wheel. It's engaging instead of isolating.
And nuttily quick, topping 140 mph heading in to Lime Rock's signature Big Bend. With the electric motors and turbos working together, there isn't an iota of lag. It's composed, with steering that has actual feel combined with miles of lateral grip, much of that thanks to the optional Pirelli Trofeo R tires fitted to our test car. The nine-speed gearbox is responsive in manual mode, but it's so smart that there's no reason to use the paddles. Automatic chooses the right gear every time to keep you in the middle of the powerband. And you're moving so quickly that maybe you want to concentrate on something else rather than ripping off five downshifts.
Like the Civic, there's a lack of high-revving VTEC excitement, but there's so much going on in the background that VTEC is probably the last thing you'll think about.
It's also a hooligan. Haas Formula One test driver Santino Ferrucci happened to be at the track and took interest in the NSX. We got him in the car at the autocross and went though about 75 steps to turn the traction control completely off. The NSX, which is almost overly tidy on track, transformed. Ferrucci ripped off huge power slides, plumes of smoke flying off the tires. Acura likely didn't have drifting in mind when designing this NSX.
If all you want is a high-revving engine with clever valve timing, these cars aren't for you, and you can continue to bemoan the death of performance Hondas. But look beyond that. Ignore the badge for a second. The Type R is one of the most impressive front-wheel drive cars of all time. One of the wildest hot hatches ever. And a screaming bargain.
But it's nothing compared to the NSX, a car that costs something like $800,000 less than other cars with comparable tech. The only other somewhat similar hybrid out there today is the BMW i8, but that isn't really in the same league when it comes to performance. Acura has found a way to trickle down tech found in some of the highest-performing cars of all time and, in some ways, execute it better. In the same way that the original NSX forced supercar makers to build more reliable cars, this NSX challenges them to bring the tech of halo models to the rest of the lineup.
I saw the original lineup of Guns N' Roses live this past October. Dubbed the "Not In This Lifetime" tour, it was the concert that nobody ever expected to happen. The band members were older and there were a couple new members. Axl Rose looked like a hard rock Donald Trump. Who cares? They sounded amazing, played every hit, and even rolled out a few unexpected numbers that were more than welcome. There were bigger screens than the past, and they showed up on time, but it was still GnR.
People thought GnR was irrevocably damaged, nothing could save it. Much like fast Hondas. And even though the Type R and NSX aren't as simple or rev happy as fast Hondas of the past, it doesn't matter. They're still brilliant.
Special thanks to the for kindly granting us track time!