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Honda NSX vs Audi R8 | Dinosaur, meet hybrid

Entry-level, usable supercars are always easy to like. But which one is best...

By Dan Prosser / Saturday, March 28, 2020

It's really come to something when even entry-level supercars seem absurdly fast on the road. Use all the grip, braking performance and horsepower of a machine like the Audi R8 V10 Performance or Honda NSX on a public highway and you'll feel like a human cannonball - fired through the air at astonishing speed, praying for a soft landing. I don't really have a problem with that, except when such cars feel numb and distant unless you drive them that way.

Are the R8 and NSX really entry-level? I think they are. Both are less expensive and far less powerful than heartland supercars like the Ferrari F8 Tributo and McLaren 720S, cars that cost in excess of £200,000 and, with upwards of 700hp, somehow make the Audi and Honda look a bit puny. In the video below I ask which of these two beginner supercars is the better everyday proposition, by which I mean the least annoying in normal driving,be best to live with.

But this is PH, so let's refocus. Is the R8 the most exciting supercar here, or is it the NSX? In essence they're very similar machines: four driven wheels, engines mounted immediately behind passenger compartments, roughly 600hp on tap - enough to launch each car to 62mph in around three seconds and on to 200mph, give or take. They just go about their business in entirely different ways.

Alongside the NSX, the R8 looks a bit of a dinosaur. A naturally-aspirated V10 that revs to nine? That's so last century - and I know of no better compliment than that. The Honda is undoubtedly the cleverer and more zeitgeist-y car here, what with its trio of electric motors (one that assists the engine for instant throttle response and two more on the front axle) and its 3.5-litre V6 with turbos. The NSX doesn't have plug-in capability and the small battery will only keep you going in electric mode for a mile or two, but that sophisticated powertrain generates comparable straight-line performance to the R8's with far less of a thirst for hydrocarbons.

Clever stuff. That's exactly how the next generation of supercars will propel themselves, bigger engines making way for smaller ones, but with a number of electric motors in supporting roles. We already know Aston Martin is developing an in-house twin-turbo V6 that'll be backed up by hybrid drive. McLaren and Ferrari are busily doing something similar. The Honda is especially clever, though, in that it employs one motor on each of the front wheels not only to help project the car along the road in a straight line, but also to influence the way it deals with bendy bits.

The NSX's torque vectoring needs to be felt to be believed. That'll be the least helpful thing I'll write in a car review this year, but it's absolutely true. Mostly you appreciate it when driving out of the apex of a corner; with the front wheels scrabbling away with the kind of prand variability you only get from one electric motor per wheel, the car hauls itself through the exit of a bend as though it's being yanked along on a cable.

Both cars feel taut on the road, which is what very little wheel travel and plenty of spring rate will do. But they each have enough compliance in that small range of movement to pad delicately over bumps or depressions in the road at low speeds, then absorb the worst of the road surface beneath when travelling a little faster. Their chassis just seem to work on British B-roads, wheels rising and falling sympathetically over the shape of the blacktop, bodies kept relatively calm and level.

The R8 has an angry side too, although Audi calls it Dynamic mode. Engage that as well as the Performance setting - which just seems to ramp everything up another notch - and the car morphs into a kind of fearsome, malevolent beast. Although the steering is never particularly(certainly not the way old hydraulic systems used to be), it's so immediate and so direct that you simply flick your wrists infinitesimally to change direction. The whole car feels like a tensed muscle, twitching and jerking, darting from one corner to the next like it has no inertia at all.

But mostly it's the engine. Oh my word. Response is immediate and it rips through its rev range, pulling harder and harder the closer it gets to the redline at 9,000rpm. It's that progressive, building sense of acceleration that's so satisfying, because you're rewarded with ever more ferocity the longer you keep your boot in. The soundtrack is sort of elemental, seeming to come from the heavens and the Earth rather than just a couple of exhaust pipes.

Still, I wish there was more of the original R8 in this latest version (which was facelifted last year). An early R8 is a wonderfully supple thing with talkative steering and a playful chassis balance. Its limits are lower, so you can really toy with it on the road. The current model seems to share precisely none of that DNA. It's completely locked down; utterly nailed into the surface. You sense that to get it to move around under power on the way out of a bend you'd have to accept there's a 50:50 chance you'll have an enormous accident.

The same applies to the NSX: it isn't a fling-it-about sort of car, at least not on the road. Instead, you dare yourself to use as much of its point-to-point pace as you can. And in that regard it's on a different planet even to the R8. There's less detail in the steering but more mechanical grip, so you learn simply to throw it at a corner, knowing it'll stick.

The Honda's straight-line performance is actually shocking, and so too the response you get from that hybrid powertrain. It's as though the throttle pedal is half a second ahead of you the whole time. Have you ever driven a car so breathtakingly fast that you almost rear-end the car you're overtaking? I reckon the Honda NSX must be involved in more of those accidents per capita than anything else on the road.

There is actually a degree of musicality to the heavily turbocharged V6, but of course it's as nothing compared to the Audi's V10. The big issue I have with the NSX is that it seems to do all the hard work for you: making it shift quickly along a road is nothing at all to do with your skill as a driver, but everything to do with your bravery or, what's worse, the level of risk you're prepared to accept. It demonstrates what can be achieved with a powerful engine and a handful of electric motors these days, but it also demonstrates something we've all known all along: it isn't raw speed along a road that makes a great driver's car, but interaction. And in that regard the NSX falls short.

So the R8 takes the spoils. That wonderful engine is a huge part of the car's appeal - any engine that builds to a crescendo the way it does will always be more exciting than one that gives everything all at once - but its chassis is also more involving, if only fractionally so. And this is merely the starting point for the supercar sector nowadays? Bloody hell. World's gone mad.


SPECIFICATION - AUDI R8 V10 PERFORMANCE
Engine:
5,204cc, V10
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 620@8,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 428@6,600rpm
0-62mph: 3.1 secs
Top speed: 205mph
Weight: 1,670kg (EU, including driver)
MPG: 21.2
CO2: 298g/km
Price: from £141,295

SPECIFICATION - HONDA NSX
Engine:
3,493cc V6 turbocharged with direct-mounted electric motor/generator, 2x front axle motor/generators
Transmission: 9-speed DCT, rear-wheel drive, independently driven front axle
Power (hp): 507@6,500rpm (petrol engine only), 581hp total
Torque (lb ft): 406@2,000-6,000rpm (petrol engine only), 476lb ft total
0-62mph: 2.9 seconds
Top speed: 191mph
Weight: from 1,763kg (with fluids, not including driver; c. 1,836kg with 75kg driver)
MPG: 28.2
CO2: 228g/km
Price: from £147,425

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