Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan / Don Cheng
Published: August 16, 2018
Planetary alignments are extraordinarily rare and serendipitously come once in a blue moon. In fact, the next time all eight planets will be even remotely aligned will be in the year of 2492, out of our influential reach and engraved into the celestial maps of heaven and earth. But there are some aspects of space, time, and matter that we can control and manipulate to our wishes. And what we’ve gathered here is an alignment for the ages, a sight on the road that is more uncommon than a lunar eclipse, and as arousing as a supernova.
In front of us are two mid-engine supercars in an Olympian battle for civilian supremacy, but these aren’t just your Ordinary Joe supercars, if you can even call them that. These are what we label as everyday supercars, 300 km/h explosive rockets that can be utilized on a year-round basis for any type of automotive need without the penalties that normally come with their astronomical price tags. They even have a reasonable amount of cargo space, usable cupholders, all-weather traction, and above-average ground clearance.
In the red corner is the 2018 Acura NSX, a hybrid supercar at the forefront of innovative propulsive technology utilizing not one, not two, but three electric motors paired with a twin-turbo V6 to produce 573 hp and 476 lb-ft. Complete with a 9-speed dual clutch transmission, four driven wheels, and torque vectoring wizardry, the NSX is nothing like its predecessor but takes the helm as one of the most advanced supercars on the market. What piques our curiousity is how Acura touts the NSX as being comfortable and usable on an everyday basis, 365 days a year, replete with clip-on cupholders, adjustable dampers, and a sizable trunk molded to fit golf clubs. Tack on the fact that it is all-wheel drive and can run on electricity alone under light power demands. Let’s see what its four-ringed opponent has to say about that.
In the blue corner is the 2018 Audi R8 RWS, a limited-edition rear-wheel-drive-only run of their halo supercar. Only 60 are coming to Canada, and you will have to dig deep into the Audi history books to find anything else that isn’t quattro all-wheel drive. A departure from the norm, surely, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it the black sheep in the family. Rather the RWS (Rear Wheel Series) is a testament to how Audi is listening to customers and predicting specific and tailored demand. As a result, Audi has removed the multiplate clutch, center differential, propshaft, and front driveshafts, shaving off 50 kg in weight.
But it’s not as easy as hitting the backspace button - engineers have had to retune the suspension, steering, stability control, and stiffen up the anti-roll bars to account for the revisions. Think of it like an AWD exorcism, purging the demons away until a pure RWD soul is all that remains, a salute to the enthusiasts. There are no adaptive dampers, just a fixed suspension. No adaptive steering, just a fixed rack. No electronically controlled rear differential, just a mechanically controlled one. No turbos or superchargers either, just a naturally aspirated 5.2-litre V10 pushing 532 hp and 398 lb-ft. Like I said, simple and pure.
The NSX and R8 could not differ more in ethos and execution, yet they have seemingly found a similar audience: buyers seeking mid-engine balance mixed with titanic power, unlimited street presence, and a relative degree of practicality and usability on everyday roads and situations. How do these goliaths fare in traffic, are sacrifices made in an effort to preserve comfort, which offers the most rewarding drive around town at regular speeds, and which would we prefer to drive on a daily basis? Let’s find out.
2018 Audi R8 RWS - Old School Cool
There’s a certain magic to the way that atmospheric V10 howls, how the steering remains uncorrupted by torque, and how its cornering charisma transcends the R8 into another dimension, washing away any lack of confidence. The R8 is holistic and free of distractions, just like the original Acura NSX that started the supercar wars in the first place. Now, the NSX is a controversial hodgepodge of combustion and electricity while the R8 sticks to its roots, though shallow as they may be.
Ironically enough, this rear-driven R8 brings back more memories of the original NSX than the new NSX. Some of our readers might wonder why we did not choose the quattro (AWD) variant of the R8. That’s because we believe the RWS better represents the old school way of doing things, bottling up the ethos of the original NSX and injecting it with modern elements. Sure it detracts away from all-weather traction but I don’t believe the R8 needs it. Even in heavy rain, the R8 and its sticky tires performed without a drop in performance, and kept us confident and begging for more drive time. It’s only when you floor the vehicle from a standstill do you slightly overwhelm the rear tires, and feel them ever-so-slightly squirming for traction, but it only takes a millisecond before it bunkers down and rockets forward like the Road Runner.
Natural aspiration remains a relic of the past but Audi refuses to let go - much to our favour as we would buy an R8 for this engine alone. High and quick revving, this V10 is a darling and though it does make less power than the NSX, down 41 hp and 78 lb-ft, the R8 is a significant 135 kg lighter, and the linearity, predictability, and windup of power is a refreshing way to squeeze every inch of pulp from the ten cylinders up to an exquisite 8,700 rpm redline. This balanced disparity translates into an R8 that feels more agile than the NSX but lacks the same whiplashing thrust at the low- and mid-range of the powerband.
At moderate speeds, the R8 RWS drives just like its AWD sibling unless you explore the limits of the chassis, which we humbly refuse to on public roads. That being said, you do get glimpses of masterstroke, a quick flash of the tail swinging out wide as the nose claws into the tarmac and the balance of this mid-engine layout quickly corrects the rotation to straighten out before the bend unwinds. The 7-speed DCT is mighty quick as well, possibly one of the quickest I’ve ever tested, and slightly faster than the NSX’s. In fact, it’s so quick that the gear has already shifted before the paddle shifter has fully retracted. Brilliant.
At low speeds in first gear, the DCT does show some rough patches, lurching under light acceleration, and jerking occupants back and forth until the gas pedal is released. We’ve experienced this plenty of times in other DCT-equipped vehicles like the BMW M3 and Audi TT RS. It doesn’t hinder the commute, and these rare moments easily go ignored once the exhaust opens up.
It’s the anti-social level of exhaust bombardment from the V10 that allows the R8 to gain the upper hand over the comparatively uninspiring NSX in the auditory department, offering more drama, emotion, and a sense of occasion. It barks on downshifts and wails in a legato symphony, rewarding the cochlea and sending a swarm of dopamine through the veins telling you to “do it again.” This V10 doesn’t quite hit the same levels of banshee screeching as the famed BMW E60 M5, but it’s nevertheless an engine on the border of extinction, making it all the more exclusive. Since the Dodge Viper left the market, the only naturally aspirated V10 left is in the more expensive Lamborghini Huracan. On the flip side, the NSX sounds impressive for a V6 but in this upper echelon of supercars, it fails to deliver a sonically unique soundtrack to set it apart and justify that premium price tag. Have a listen to our Exhaust Notes videos above to hear them for yourself.
No one does simplicity or bareness - whatever you want to call it - better than Audi. All the switchgear in the cabin has been condensed into its most compact and minimalistic form, following suit with the distillation to a pure driving experience. The R8 is not as button-intensive as the NSX, nor as cluttered. Every control have been relegated to the steering wheel, and there is no center display either - that has been relocated to the Virtual Cockpit screen on the instrument cluster. This unit bears a moderate learning curve but once settled in, is far superior to the Acura’s rather laggy and unintuitive system - if it’s not welcome in a Honda Civic, it certainly isn’t welcome here. With the R8, the graphics are crisp and the sheer amount of customizability is impressive.
As immaculate as the cabin may be, entering it is a minor obstacle. The door sill is wide, the seats are low, and the side bolsters are hard and stiff, requiring careful choreography for balletic ingress and egress. The NSX doesn’t have this problem - you can slip in and out of it like it was a TLX. Once settled in though, the R8’s standard sport seats are supportive and well bolstered, with all the controls displayed with ergonomic mastery - we had absolutely zero complaints after a daunting rush-hour commute. Visibility is excellent from all sides, though typical of mid-engine supercars, the passenger side blind spots are atrocious, and neither the R8 or NSX are available with blind spot monitoring. Storage space in the R8 is satisfactory, with a large cubby underneath the center stack, two cupholders at elbow distance, and marginal room behind the seats with a tethered net.
2018 Acura NSX - New Kid on the Block
It must have been quite a spectacle, seeing these two supercars dueling it out on the street for maximum public attention. It was the Acura NSX however that triggered the majority of rubbernecking - okay pretty much all the attention whereas the “generic” R8 sulked behind and remained rather invisible. Don’t get me wrong, the R8 is a welcome sight with distinctive side blades and an unforgettable rear end but relative to the NSX, it lacks that supercar sparkle. Side by side, the R8 doesn’t command as much street presence nor does it have that special sauce that makes supercars not only beautiful, but dazzling. The NSX on the other hand appears lower, wider, and there is really no angle that doesn’t warrant a place on a bedroom wall, especially in this Valencia Red paint.
Aesthetics aside and after a day’s worth of spirited back-to-back driving, it is the NSX that delivers the better daily driver experience. Overall it’s a more complaint, softer, and friendlier giant on the road than the R8 with just as much verve and vigour. First, the suspension. The R8 RWS comes with a fixed setup that becomes taxing on bumpy country roads but not jarring enough to call it terribly uncomfortable. On smooth roads, it’s actually very supple compared to other vehicles in this category like the McLaren 570S. The NSX on the other hand is equipped with adaptive dampers, but even its firmest setting is not as stiff or as unsettling as the R8’s. The NSX will simply glide over the same bumps like a rolling pin over warm butter. It’s comfortable, off puttingly comfortable. I sat there in the midst of traffic thinking to myself, “I could actually drive this every day of the week and not trigger an arthritic flare-up.”
Better yet, dial the NSX to Quiet mode and the exhaust will barely make a sound, offering a huge advantage when it comes to sneaking through the neighbourhood late at night. Under light loads, the NSX can run on electricity alone and cruise silently, further cementing its place as an everyday supercar that not only tears up tarmac but saves you money at the pump by emitting nothing but fairy dust. Of course, you do have to feather the throttle very lightly, as the engine will use any excuse to fire up for assistance but while hovering through town, this seamless swap between combustion and electricity offers a sensible, guilt-free, and eco-friendly way of getting to your destination.
But the NSX does not trade any of these positive “comfort” attributes for an inferior drive. In fact, I enjoyed carving up back roads in the NSX far more than the R8. Reason being are those electric motors that raised so many eyebrows in the first place. While turbocharged motors are known for their initial lag, electric motors have solved the problem by offering propulsion while the turbos take their time spooling. As a result, the NSX is wickedly quick off the line, thrusting occupants forward in a violent manner that the R8 simply cannot replicate, as the majority of the Audi's power lives in the mid to upper range. The NSX builds speed instantaneously and effortlessly, and the intensity never seems to fade. Not only that, but it never struggles to summon this multi-elemental power, whereas the R8 always requires a bit of elbow grease and unwinding to extract its potential on the street. At low speeds, the R8 just didn’t feel all that special, but the NSX felt memorable at all velocities.
The speed is painless to manage, and while I found the NSX to be more reactive and fluid than the R8 through its steering, it is numbed out like a Playstation controller without rumble feedback. It’s light, perhaps too light, but feels appropriate when maneuvering the NSX on a day-to-day basis. The rear-driven R8 on the other hand delivers more feedback in terms of available grip through its uncorrupted steering, purified and released from the chains of torque, and thus gave us more confidence behind the wheel when traction dwindled.
Many are quick to judge the NSX’s interior, calling it a non-premium cabin lacking the luxurious amenities expected with a $189,900 price tag, and yes you can dock a few points for sharing parts with lesser Hondas and Acuras but in my experience, this is the most comfortable supercar cockpit I have been in. Typical of this automaker, the ergonomics are without peer. The seating position is much higher up than the R8 but it gives drivers an outstanding view out the already-expansive front windshield. The footwell is enormous as well, accommodating taller passengers - I stand six-feet tall and I still have extra wiggle room, and there is much more lean on the seatback than the R8. The steering wheel may look familiar to previous Acura owners but it has never felt this contoured under grip.
Compared to the R8, the NSX cabin is a mishmash of differently textured buttons, dials, and switchgear. Be that as it may, the NSX has the upper hand with creature comforts such as memory seating, a notable feature lacking in the R8. A shame that Sirius XM Radio and Navigation aren’t standard like they are in the Audi, though. Cargo wise, the NSX does not have a frunk but a proper trunk instead, an elongated space capable of slotting in golf clubs, a claim the R8 could only dream of. The slot is wide but shallow, whereas the R8’s frunk is deep but narrow. Storage cubbies are lacking inside the NSX as well as dedicated cupholders, but there are Miata-style clip-ons that can attach to the passenger side of the center console.
The R8 wins in material quality, fit and finish, as well as the quality texture of the switchgear, but what both vehicles peculiarly lack are expensive feeling paddle shifters, arguably a high traffic area with this type of car. The pair in the R8 RWS are plasticky and ripped straight out of a Volkswagen Golf, and the knobs and rotary dials, though high quality as they may be, are the same ones you will find in a base Audi A4, rendering the “spare parts bin” argument from the NSX moot.
Winner: 2018 Acura NSX
The Audi R8 RWS and Acura NSX may seem similar on paper but are worlds apart in application and execution. Mid-engine balance is a wonder to behold, and though this Faustian layout sacrifices practicality for performance, these two heavyweights have managed to harbour enough comfort, cargo, and mannerisms to be used on a daily basis without strife. Both are victors in their own way, but the NSX is ultimately the supercar we prefer.
The R8 is undoubtedly more unique, the one with the epic V10 engine, thrilling exhaust, and overwhelming sense of occasion. It may sound like a one trick pony but its steering is sublime and the infotainment system is possibly the best in the market. Parked next the NSX though and the R8’s conversative looks falls short of supercar status, and when evaluating from a daily-driver perspective, the R8 is let down by a stiff ride, compromising ingress and egress, inferior fuel economy, and underwhelming drive at low speeds.
The NSX on the other hand takes supercar duality to the next level. Endowed with a mastery of hybrid technology, the NSX harbours the ability to blast through canyon roads in high fashion but with a simple twist of a dial, turns into a silent ninja. Add on top of that a cozier interior, softer suspension, and unmatched road manners, and the Acura NSX takes the crown as the most practical and usable supercar on this side of our solar system.
Model: 2018 Acura NSX
Base Price: $189,900
Price as Tested: $244,800
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,470 / 2,217 / 1,214
Curb weight (kg): 1,725
Powertrain: 3.5L twin-turbo longitudinally mid-mounted V6 + three electric motors
Combined Output: 573 hp, 476 lb-ft
Engine Horsepower: 500 hp @ 6,500 rpm - 7,500 rpm
Engine Torque: 406 lb-ft @ 2,000 - 6,000 rpm
Front Twin-Motor Unit Horsepower: 36 + 36 hp @ 4,000 rpm
Front Twin-Motor Unit Torque: 54 + 54 lb-ft @ 0 - 2,000 rpm
Rear Direct Drive Motor Horsepower: 47 hp @ 3,000 rpm
Rear Direct Drive Motor Torque: 109 @ 500 - 2,000 rpm
Transmission: 9-speed dual-clutch automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Mid-engine, AWD
Model: 2018 Audi R8 RWS
Paint Type: Ibis White
Base Price: $163,000
Price as Tested: $163,000
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,426 / 1,940 / 1,240
Curb weight (kg): 1,590
Engine: 5.2-litre V10
Horsepower: 532 hp @ 7,800 rpm
Torque: 398 lb-ft @ 6,500 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Mid-engine, RWD
Tires: Front 245/35R19, Rear 295/35R19