1991 Acura NSX: Thoughts on Mark II
January 13, 2012
When we look back at the cars shown at the 2012 Detroit Auto Show, I'd argue the one that shall stand out as the most ultimately important to its segment, its manufacturer and the car scene in total will be the Ford Fusion. Unless it drives like crap (which seems very unlikely), this is the car we're going to be talking about for the next year.
At the moment, however, the biggest car at this year's Detroit show was without question the Acura NSX Concept. It was what everyone was talking about there and on the Internet as well. Our NSX Concept video on YouTube already has 500,000 views, which makes it already the most view auto show video we've ever done. People love the old NSX (you guys begged us to get one), they love the idea of a new NSX, and apparently they love what Honda came up with for its concept.
However, what does this new NSX need to do to match the success of the first and more importantly, learn from its missteps?
First of all, the new NSX needs to be a catalyst for engineering advancement throughout Honda and Acura. The 1991 NSX was the first production car to feature all-aluminum construction, titanium connecting rods and even electric power steering (on the automatic model). It was also the first U.S. production car to feature VTEC. It was a halo car that represented the world-leading capabilities that Honda was capable of back in the day. It was a Ferrari fighter from the people who brought you the Civic. Frankly, Honda has been lacking anything close to that unless you count the FCX Clarity or something.
Second, the new NSX needs to chisel a niche for itself amongst high-end sports cars. The 1991 NSX was noteworthy because it uniquely put a priority on comfort, usability and reliability as much for its performance and engineering attributes listed above. This is a priority we can attest to on a daily basis -- I never took our long-term Ferrari, I never take our long-term Porsche, I routinely take the NSX. In other words, the NSX needs to move the ball forward beyond what the Nissan GT-R, Audi R8 and others have achieved in recent years.
Third, the new NSX needs to match the original's success in its early years. In 1991, Acura sold 3,163 NSXs in the United States. That seems pretty puny compared to normal cars, but consider the first-year numbers for the GT-R and R8, which I consider to be the modern, spiritual heirs to the NSX (technological advancement, afordability, livability). Nissan sold 1,730 Godzillas back in 2008, while Audi moved only 900 in the R8's first full year.
However, here's where the "learning from past missteps" comes in. In the NSX's second year on the market, that sales number was slashed to 1,271. Year 3, it was 598; year 4 513 and by 1997 it was down to 338. It went down even more after that.
Compare that trend to the GT-R and R8, which have remained fairly consistent. The reason? Well, I theorize it differs for both, but each represents means of hanging onto sports car buyers.
The R8 benefits from more than just its capabilities as a driving machine. There is a desirability of the Audi name, the R8's awareness outside car guy circles thanks to Iron Man and other placements, and the freshness of styling that still catches eyes years on. The R8 could drive like a TT, but owning one would still make you cool. Frankly, our Acura NSX never enjoyed this type of longevity, and I can't fathom the new version could as well. It would initially (just as the original did), but once it's no longer the hot new thing, everyone would move on. It would just be another Acura to most people, correct and/or snobbish as it seems.
The GT-R's continued success is more attainable. Its sales dropped after initial demand was satisfied just like the NSX did; however, Nissan chose to update the GT-R for 2012. This (I contend) led to sales rising almost to launch levels in 2011. We'll see if further improvements for 2013 create a similar continuation of success, but the value of keeping the ball rolling is important. People buy GT-R's because they are incredible to drive and for the cache of engineering superiority appreciated by the owner and car guys "in the know." None of the R8's pop and fashion appeal could ever appeal to something as ugly as the GT-R badged as a humble Nissan. Instead, continued innovation must drive success. After the NSX was introduced, its innovation pretty much ended -- unless you count a six-speed gearbox, standard EPS and exposed headlights as innovation.
Really, the Acura NSX Mark II can draw from both cars. As we saw at Detroit, it definitely has the styling to stay desirable from an aesthetic stand point. Unlike the GT-R, people who aren't badge snobs will still drool over the prospect of being seen in it. Yet, Honda must make running improvements just as Nissan did to the GT-R in order to make it continually relevant to the marketplace and car guys like you and me. They need people to say "I like my 2015 NSX, but I HAVE to have the (insert fancy futuristic thingamajig) they added for 2018."
So, will we look back at the 2012 Detroit Auto Show as the beginning of a rejuvenation for Honda and Acura? Will it be, as before, the beginning of a fleeting moment of success? And finally, can the new NSX really live up to its predecessor and the lofty expectations thousands of car fans have for it and what it could mean for a car company that many see as losing their way?
I don't know, but it'll take longer than the new NSX's three-year gestation period to find out.
James Riswick, Automotive Editor