Japan’s Usui Pass Is The Perfect 182-Corner Test Track For The Honda NSX
Photography by Ken Saito
When Honda lent me a new NSX for a few days to explore the greater Tokyo area last fall, I knew I had to take it out of the city and into the mountains. The most famous spot to hit would be the Hakone Turnpike, but that’s too obvious and often too crowded—it’s where every enthusiast goes when they rent a car out here.
I set the sat-nav north of Tokyo to Gunma Prefecture instead. I’ve been to Gunma a couple of times to drive around and take in the scenery, and it’s a place that has a seemingly infinite supply of roads worth remembering and landscapes to buy plane tickets for. Being only a little more than a two hours’ drive from Tokyo, it was the ideal place for a day trip in the NSX.
I knew it would be a good drive, but I didn’t know what to expect from Honda’s hybrid supercar. Two years down the line and we can’t seem to come to a collective agree on whether it’s brilliant or not. Surely it wouldn’t be a dud though, and I thought that taking it on the famous Usui Pass would be a good test if not a perfect excuse for a perfect day of driving.
Leaving the forever busy Tokyo on a Saturday morning, I exited northward towards the Usui Pass, or the Nakasendo Highway, with the car in “Quiet Mode.” The drive up involved a lot of motorway slogs, with a fair amount of tunnels to keep things entertaining. In “Sport+” the NSX’s twin-turbo V6 wakes up and lets out a lovely howl that made those tunnels all the more enjoyable.
The closer I got to Gunma the harder it became to keep my eyes on the road ahead. Mountains stretched across the horizon, coated with the colors of autumn. Heading off the motorway, the route became immediately exciting. The Usui pass, and later the Usui Bypass, make up an 18-mile stretch of road that loops back around to the popular tourist town of Karuizawa.
The Usui Pass itself is only 7.5 miles long while the Bypass covers the rest, but it has no less than 182 corners crammed in. I don’t need to tell you that I was smiling more than usual as I whirled my way through them. The V6 and electric motor combination provided ample torque everywhere in the rev range, and the hybrid power plant felt very linear overall, a constant shove forwards without anything peaky in the delivery. The steering feel, for an electric setup, was fantastic, and the car cornered like soda getting sucked through a crazy straw despite the weight (it comes in at around 3800lbs). And although it’s made in America, the NSX still fits comfortably (most of the time) in its lane on a Japanese mountain road.
The constant comparisons to the original car are to be expected, and though much has changed from then to now, the big ideas behind the NSX are the same as they always were, just with a different execution. It’s still a more mature, livable supercar than its peers, and one that democratizes high-tech sports car gear—the original was a mid-engine aluminum supercar that could be driven on the morning commute in wintertime, and when the new NSX was launched it occupied its own niche as something like an entry-level alternative to the halo hybrid hypercars.
Back on the Usui Pass, there weren’t many places to stop and take photos without causing problems, but we made sure to snap a few in front of the Pass’s landmark Megane-Bashi Bridge. Later, a brief stop at a rest area along the road surprised us with a Honda Civic Type R to park next to, which somehow made the NSX look a bit more tame in comparison. That’s not a bad thing though, the relative subtlety of this supercar in the presence of more typical mountain-carving fare. Not to say the NSX flies under the radar—nearly everyone we saw on the mountain did a double take before disappearing around the next bend—but it is nice to have something with this much performance on tap without the aesthetics that scream “look” as loud as possible.
With the last of the day’s light left, I pulled over next to Lake Usui for a few parting shots and moments with the car. I loved taking it on the Pass and getting familiar with a car that I’ve been curious about for years. The common gripes with the new NSX often conclude with the price, but I won’t weigh in on that because how can you assign an accurate value to the opportunity I had? It was frankly wonderful to drive, but I’d be kidding if the road I was on didn’t have more than a little to do with that feeling.