TORRANCE, California – At first glance, the new 2016 Acura NSX being readied for production seems to have nothing in common with the original Japanese supercar introduced in 1990, other than its mid-engine layout and an iconic nameplate.
The modern 2016 Acura NSX incorporates a hybrid powertrain—a twin-turbo V-6 augmented by three electric motors—a nine-speed dual-clutch transmission, all-wheel drive, and a dramatic, muscular body featuring more ductwork than an industrial HVAC system. Oh, and it was engineered and styled in the United States and will be built at a new factory in Ohio.
Making it work: Toning down the grille surround was one of the biggest changes from the first show car. A flat bottom and diffusers should produce plenty of downforce.
Despite the differences, the new 2016 Acura NSX is a philosophical throwback to the first one, a game-changer that proved that supercar performance and user friendliness didn’t have to be mutually exclusive. “We had to be true to that heritage,” chief engineer Ted Klaus says. “The original car was built around the driver. It was human-centric. It was about getting out of the way and letting the driver do what he wanted to do.”
So, too, is the NSX-to-be. As befits the halo vehicle of Japan’s most wonkish automaker, it’s bristling with innovation, from a host of exotic materials in the lightweight, ultra-rigid chassis to a pair of electric motors driving each of the front wheels, which allows torque to be vectored to all four corners of the car. (A third electric motor is nestled within the transaxle case.)
Electronic chassis control will feature four modes (Quiet, Sport, Sport+, and Track) plus launch control. But at the same time, the cockpit is roomy, luxurious, ergonomically flawless, and remarkably free of the look-at-me flourishes found in most supercars.
“Honestly, I wasn’t trying to make a statement with the interior,” says Johnathan Norman, interior-design project leader. “We’re trying to create some separation between Honda and Acura. We want it to have best-in-class materials. But the point of this car is the driver and to make the machine fade away.”
Not that the 2016 Acura NSX is self-effacing. The benchmark it was designed to exceed is the Ferrari 458 Italia, which is generally thought to offer the most compelling combination of performance, prestige, and howl-at-the-moon sex appeal of any car in its segment. With production of the Acura not slated to begin until the fall, the jury is out on whether it can deliver on that promise. Still, it’s instructive to hear Klaus describe the difference he perceives between the two cars.
Right behind the doors are what could pass for air inlets from an F-18 jet airplane. Actually, they route air to the intercoolers.
“The 458 is a car that makes you sweat,” he says. “It makes you feel alive, but you’re always on. You can never relax because it’s always being exotic. The NSX is about
accessible performance. So in everyday driving, you have that ‘wow’ experience because of the electric motors, and you get another ‘wow’ experience at the limit.”
Understated style: There’s nothing flashy about the interior, and everything just seems to fit—including
It’s easy to forgive Klaus for sounding like a proud papa because his new baby survived such a long and troubled gestation. The original NSX remained in production from 1990 to 2005, which is like a century in supercar years. In 2007, Honda announced plans to develop a follow-on NSX with a V-10 engine, but the project was stillborn. A concept version of the second-gen car debuted in 2012. Then came what Klaus dryly calls “a huge upset.”
The original bogey for the new NSX was the Audi R8, which swims in the shallow end of the supercar pool. Equipped with a V-8, the price of the Audi starts at less than $120,000, and Acura engineers figured they could take it on with a modified version of one of their company’s naturally aspirated V-6 engines. It was to be mounted transversely behind the cockpit, which harkened back to the layout of the original NSX while also allowing for more efficient packaging.
Looking forward—and up: The overall design points to where Acura is headed, but the black roof is a nod to
the styling of the original NSX.
But after some corporate soul-searching, Honda executives realized that they had to aim higher than the R8. If the NSX was supposed to be what Klaus calls “a pinnacle product,” then Acura had to take on the king of the hill. Back in 1990, the Ferrari 348 had been the target. These days, it’s the 458, and going head to head with the
Ferrari was going to require a major step up.
So Acura decided to build a bespoke engine. It’s a 75-degree, 3.5-liter twin-cam V-6, with a turbocharger bolted to each bank of cylinders. (Coincidentally, Honda is also building a hybridized and turbocharged V-6 engine to race in Formula 1 this year.) No numbers have been released, but it seems safe to assume that with the bump from the electric motors the NSX’s output will be north of 550 hp to keep pace with the 458. And the price of the car will rise as well to approximately $150,000.
“This isn’t a digital car at all. It’s an analog car.” -Ted Klaus, chief engineer
“The electric motors work from zero rpm to fill in the torque until the turbochargers take over,” Klaus says. “Also, the forced induction gives you a lot of flexibility over the life cycle of the car.” Meaning that the boost can always be dialed up in years to come if more grunt is deemed necessary.
But the turbochargers compelled Acura to reconsider the placement of the engine. To accommodate all the extra plumbing, the V-6 was rotated 90 degrees. Going to a longitudinal configuration meant that the transmission extended back under the trunk in the tail. Even so, the NSX’s wheelbase is still a relatively compact 103.5 inches.
The gearbox adds extra weight exactly where you don’t want it, especially in a car that already carries the vast majority of its weight in the rear. To keep handling relatively neutral, Acura sank the engine as low as possible in the chassis. At the same time, the height of the motor was minimized by opting for a dry-sump lubrication system. Built from a mix of aluminum, high-strength steel, and carbon fiber, the car features a weight distribution of 43/57 percent front/rear, which is slightly more balanced than the original NSX. The result, Klaus says, is that “you don’t have to trail brake to plant the front end.”
Going from a transverse to a longitudinal engine also meant that the exterior design had to be changed very late in the game. As it turned out, this was a good thing. “We kept the same theme, but we made it more muscular and aggressive,” Michelle Christensen, the exterior design project leader, says of the original show-car styling. “We were able to take it to the gym and take it up a notch on the supercar scale.”
Christensen emphasized the mid-engine properties of the 2016 Acura NSX by creating powerful rear haunches and a cab-forward design that makes the car look like it’s leaping forward. The bodywork also features a new styling vocabulary that Acura calls “Interwoven Dynamic,” with surfaces weaving in and out of one another. But one of the most eye-catching aspects of the styling is the vast array of huge scoops and vents. Christensen insists these are not mere boy-racer ornaments. “Nothing that you see on the car is fluff,” she says. “A lot of the changes from the show car were made because of what they found in the wind tunnel.”
Klaus confirms that the vents feed air to or extract it from the 10 cooling units in the car: three engine coolers (two water and one oil); two intercoolers; one transaxle cooler; one for the clutch; one for the twin electric motors; one for the electric A/C compressor; and one for the power distribution unit. Right behind the doors are what could pass for air inlets from an F-18 jet airplane. Actually, they route air to the intercoolers. Being forced to enlarge these vents allowed Christensen to double down on the swoopiness of the floating C-pillars, which form the most dramatic flying buttresses this side of the Notre Dame Cathedral.
The original NSX was a seminal vehicle because it showcased an alternative paradigm of supercar design and engineering. But these are different times, so the new 2016 Acura NSX makes a different statement. For Klaus, it’s all about emotion, so that no matter how much technology goes into the car, and no matter how clever it is, the connection to the driver is never lost. “This isn’t a digital car at all,” he says. “It’s an analog car.”
An analog car for a digital age. Sounds like a proposition worth exploring.
2016 Acura NSX Specifications
- Price: $150,000 (est)
- Power Unit: Twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6; three AC synchronous motors/550 hp (est)
- Transmission: 9-speed dual-clutch automatic
- Layout: 2-door, 2-passenger, mid-engine, AWD coupe
- Suspension F/R: Control arms, coil springs/control arms, coil springs
- Brakes F/R: Carbon-ceramic vented discs
- Tires F/R: 245/35ZR-19/295/30ZR-20 Continental ContiSportContact
- L x W x H: 176.0 x 76.4 x 47.8 in
- Wheelbase: 103.5 in
- Weight Dist. F/R: 43/57%
Fresh eyes on Design
The right man for the job of designing the eagerly awaited Acura NSX turned out to be a 34-year-old woman who grew up in a family of hot rod and muscle-car fanatics.
“We always had a ’32 Ford Highboy in the garage, and my uncle drag-raced a ’73 ’Cuda,” exterior design project leader Michelle Christensen says. “To this day, a ’67 Chevelle is my dream car.”
Fittingly, she was attending a car show near her home in San Jose, California, when she discovered what would become her life’s work. “My dad said, ‘Oh, there’s Chip Foose,’ and I said, ‘Who’s that?’ ‘He’s a car designer.’ ‘He’s a what?’”
Christensen rejected a career in fashion—another great interest—and attended Foose’s alma mater, Art Center College of Design. She was hired by Acura immediately after graduating (while her husband, Jason Wilbur, who graduated with her, signed on as a designer with Honda).
Very few women work in automotive design, and most who do focus on interiors. Juliane Blasi, who styled the exterior of the BMW Z4, is a rare exception. But Christensen’s interest in sculptural forms propelled her into exterior design.
She came to public prominence after penning the Acura ZDX. Although the crossover was a polarizing vehicle, it prompted Acura chief designer Jon Ikeda to ask if she wanted to transform the NSX concept car into a production car.
“It was a no-brainer,” she says. “This is the kind of project you go to school for.”
The legend of the Acura NSX
For every teenager of the 1980s tantalized by the three seductive silhouettes of photographer Rick McBride’s famous poster, “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions”—a naked woman, a bottle of wine, and a Ferrari 308 GTB—the arrival of the 1991 Acura NSX was an answer to midnight dreams. A bold new brand, the latest, smartest technology, and the endorsement of Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna. And for those teenagers of all ages at Automobile Magazine, the Acura NSX was obviously the 1991 Automobile of the Year.
At that time the Japanese car industry could do no wrong, and Honda represented fierce corporate independence, a relentlessly clever approach to engineering, and the ability to solve problems that confounded other car companies. The 1991 Acura NSX was Honda’s tour de force of innovative technology: all-aluminum chassis, forged aluminum suspension arms, antilock brakes, forged aluminum wheels, and a high-revving, 270-hp 3.0-liter V-6 engine with lightweight titanium connecting rods and variable valve timing and lift, plus electronic throttle control. Ayrton Senna, driver of the legendary 1988 McLaren Honda MP4/4, blessed the NSX during test drives at the Honda-owned Suzuka racing circuit.
More important, the Acura NSX proved miraculously friendly to drive compared with a Ferrari 348 or Lamborghini Diablo. It was the first supercar that was accessible to everyone, in character as well as price. Ironically, the Acura NSX’s goodness conspired against it, as enthusiasts eventually persuaded themselves that the car didn’t drive with the spirit of imminent danger that tantalized them in the Rick McBride poster. And as new, more drivable mid-engine cars like the Ferrari 360 Modena came on the market, the Acura NSX lost its magic. It went out
of production in 2005 after 18,685 examples had been built.
Now the question is: Are we ready again for an untraditional brand, clever engineering, and a personality that is meant to perform, not intimidate?