Acura NSX: A hybrid in more ways than one
TOKYO — Honda Motor Co.’s NSX sports car is a hybrid in more ways than its sophisticated drivetrain.
It is the result of a hybrid American-Japanese vehicle development project — and it is now a hybrid of Acura and Honda branding.
Bringing the sleek, 573-hp, electric-gasoline racer to market required delicately balancing sometimes-opposing forces, since Japanese and American engineers didn’t always see eye-to-eye.
The development team also had to be mindful that the resulting halo car will do double duty for both the Japanese carmaker’s premium Acura brand and its mass-market Honda marque.
The NSX’s homecoming to Japan, where the company began taking orders last week with a laser-lit gala unveiling, underscored how Honda has evolved over the years. The original NSX, sold between 1990 and 2005, was engineered and manufactured in Japan. The second generation returns as a car developed and produced in America.
The NSX is a rare case of a Japanese automobile being developed and manufactured in the United States and shipped back to Japan. To help pitch the NSX in the Japanese market, Honda even spotlighted the car’s American chief engineer, Ted Klaus, and its India-born manufacturing head, Clement D’Souza, for the Japanese media roadshow.
The debut Thursday, Aug. 25, was a rare sight in Japan: two foreign engineers on stage before hundreds of Japanese, re-introducing a Japanese legend to its original birthplace.
Their presentations — in English with Japanese subtitles projected on a stadium screen — were complete with Japanese bows and frequent assurances to the audience that their “Japanese mentors” had duly inculcated in them a true understanding of the Honda way.
America’s role in building the NSX is a fitting story arc for Honda, they said.
Honda was the first Japanese automaker to build vehicles in the U.S. when it opened an assembly plant in Marysville, Ohio, in 1982 to build the Accord. Marysville now will hand build the NSX for global markets at its 206,000-square-foot Performance Manufacturing Center.
Honda has shipped U.S.-made cars to Japan before, beginning with the Accord Coupe in 1988.
D’Souza: “It’s a coming of age.”
But those exports have been few and far between and often derivatives of existing models — never a crown jewel like the NSX. “It’s a coming of age,” D’Souza said. “We have finally grown up and can take on this responsibility.”
It didn’t happen without some growing pains.
Klaus led NSX development out of the U.S., but work was split 50-50 with engineers in Japan. Japan took the lead in developing the sporty hybrid drivetrain. The U.S. had responsibility for most everything else, from chassis and design to production and packaging.
The division of labor was a source of friction and inspiration.
“The way in which a U.S. mind approaches a problem is different than the way a Japanese mind approaches a problem,” Klaus said. “There’s a fundamental conflict at some kind of basic cultural level. It looks like it’s negative, but that’s actually the positive.”
Clashing views actually animated teams on both sides to deliver the best results.
“We have to — a little bit — fight with each other to convince the other side of our proposal,” he said.
He said the U.S. team could not have engineered the high-tech hybrid drivetrain, which mates three electric motors to a 3.5-liter, twin-turbocharged, V-6 gasoline engine. But the Japanese team could not have conceived the NSX’s multimaterial space frame.
Japan might still have an issue with the new NSX’s “Made in the USA” label, conceded Akiyoshi Teratani, Honda’s head of domestic operations.
“There may be some customers who say it would be better if it were made in Japan,” Teratani said. “I believe we can dispel such preconceived ideas that American manufacturing is sloppy with this car.”
Some hybrid approaches are also in store for the car’s global marketing.
In some regions, such as the U.S., China and the Middle East, it will be sold as an Acura. In others, such as Japan and Europe, the flagship two-seater will sit atop the Honda brand.
Klaus said the NSX fits with both. It exudes a high-tech, emotional aura for Acura yet sits well in a Honda family that includes a diverse range of products from robots to jet planes, he said.
“For Acura, it has to be consistent, very distinct and emotional,” Klaus said. “For Honda, the meaning is slightly different. … We can widen our view. We can do any crazy idea.”
Honda has a soft target of selling 6,000 units worldwide over the next three years, Noriaki Wada, the car’s chief dynamics adviser, said in a briefing ahead of the Japan launch.
Honda sold 18,507 of the original NSX, including 9,551 in the U.S. and 7,353 in Japan.
But D’Souza said long-term demand is hard to read. He is targeting just 800 units for North America and 100 for Japan in the first year. Production is crawling at a rate of just five cars a day, and the interim goal is to lift that to eight, he said.
Many of the advanced manufacturing methods used on the car will trickle down to Honda Motor Co.’s mass-market vehicles, D’Souza added. A new zirconium body-coating process has especially good potential. It coats the welded body in white without creating a sludge byproduct left behind by the traditional coating process.
“That’s the main reason we do these things,” he said, “to learn and take that technology and cascade it down to our other products.”
NSX prices start at $157,800, including shipping, and can run past $200,000 with options.
Klaus conceded that at that bargain price — when compared with rival benchmarks such as the Ferrari 458 or Porsche 911 Turbo — the NSX is a long-term profitability play.
“We talk about direct return on investment and also indirect,” he said. “To get direct return on investment, it’s going to take a long life cycle.”
That long life will mean keeping the NSX fresh with variants, he added. Klaus declined to comment on speculation about such possibilities as an open-top targa model, a nonhybrid version or even an all-electric iteration. But fresh alternatives are on the way.
“We are already working on future ideas,” he said.
In the meantime, the NSX will deliver plenty of indirect dividends in terms of new technologies, human resource development and brand building, Klaus said.
“Anything is possible for this vehicle,” he said. “Honda really believes in the value of transporting its DNA and trying to plant it and watch it grow in some unique way outside Japan.”