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Acura NSX Aims to Add a Halo to a Tarnished Brand

Detroit Auto Show

The 2017 Acura NSX on display at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan. Todd Korol / Toronto Star via Getty Images

Low-slung and sleek, its bulging wheel wells barely concealing the two-seater’s 573 horsepower, you won’t confuse the new 2017 Acura NSX with one of the Japanese luxury brand’s more conventional sedans and SUVs.

The NSX is making its return to the Acura line-up after a decade’s absence, and while its projected sales numbers are modest, less than 1,000 a year, it could become one of the marque’s most important offerings since the first NSX was launched a quarter century ago.

“This car represents everything that Acura is,” said Tomo Yokoi, the project’s planner, during a media drive of the new NSX.

Make that everything Acura was and would once again like to be. When the original supercar debuted it was a groundbreaking achievement on a number of levels. Acura was still a very new brand and the NSX declared it ready to go head-to-head with the best of its European competitors, even exotic makers like Porsche and Ferrari. The 1990 NSX was a technical tour de force, not only fast and sure-footed, but the first vehicle ever to use an entirely aluminum body and chassis.

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But while Acura made some modest improvements over time, the NSX was dated and all but forgotten by the time it quietly vanished from the line-up in 2005. And, in many ways, it represented what happened to Acura itself. Once known for striking designs and cutting-edge technology, the brand had become little more than an afterthought, no longer a serious challenge to either mainstream European luxury marques Mercedes-Benz and BMW, or to Japanese powerhouse Lexus.

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Of course, the fact that Acura couldn’t initially come up with an NSX replacement was only a small part of the problem. For reasons company officials still have trouble defending, once sought-after Acura Legend and Integra models were not only replaced, but the new offerings adopted inexplicable names like RL and TL. Their performance was less than stellar, and their designs were, to be charitable, best described as “controversial.”

Acura’s sedan line-up languished. Were it not for its two stronger sport-utility offerings, the MDX and RDX, demand might have dried up entirely.

Acura’s sales slid even more sharply than the industry as a whole, as the American automotive market plunged into its worst recession in decades. Effectively a U.S. brand, Acura didn’t have the booming Chinese market as a fall back.

“Starting out after the recession, we could only whisper” about the project, recalled Jon Ikeda. In 2010, as a team was formed to develop a new NSX, he was the brand’s lead designer. Last year, after an unexpected management shake-up, he was named Acura’s new general manager.

Like the original, the 2017 NSX was designed to push boundaries. Spend an hour driving on public roads and you quickly realize how effective it is at turning heads.

Then put it on a track and prepare for a thrill ride. The new sports car uses a radically different powertrain design: pairing a twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6 with three electric motors, one in back, two up front. That’s both fast and nimble. The two motors up front not only boost acceleration but allow an uncanny degree of torque vectoring. By individually slowing or speeding up, they actually help steer the car through sharp corners while also improving traction on poor surfaces.

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The NSX is the classic automotive “halo car.” Though Acura projects sales of less than 70 a month in the U.S. — and some more through the parent Honda brand in other markets — the supercar is expected to have an outside impact on the brand’s image.

And while the project was delayed by a year due to some late, and significant, technical and design changes, that timing might prove fortuitous. The car goes on sale weeks before an updated version of the brand’s best-seller, the MDX utility vehicle. That should help bring lots of new — and former Acura owners — back into showrooms, Ikeda is betting.

The NSX also hits the street just after the January debut of the new Acura Precision Concept at the North American International Auto Show. That show car pushes the boundaries of contemporary automotive styling, much as cars like the Legend, Integra and first NSX did in their day.

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Unlike the 2012 Acura NSX Concept, there are no plans to build the latest show car. That said, Ikeda stressed that it is not only providing “an internal rallying cry” for the Acura team, but it also previews what automakers like to call the brand’s new “design language.” Gone are much-maligned features like the chromed, shield-shaped grille that critics routinely derided as “the beak.”

Even more than the NSX, the new styling theme will become apparent when the MDX debuts at the New York Auto Show in March, based on initial renderings Acura has released.

If the Acura provides the halo for the Acura brand, the MDX is its volume foundation. On the plus side, it has helped the Honda luxury marque rebound from the recession and post sales increases four years in a row.

But even the successful launch of both NSX and MDX won’t ensure Acura’s turnaround. The maker is still struggling to find a formula for its sedans. Future updates will need to more directly translate the Precision Concept.

Meanwhile, Acura needs to respond to current market trends. It took a big risk when it launched the original MDX, but with SUVs, pickups and other light trucks handily outselling sedans, coupes and sports cars, Acura could use more utility vehicles in its model mix.

That will take some time, but Acura officials are hoping that they’ve bought some with the NSX debut, with the supercar garnering the brand some welcome public interest and much-needed showroom traffic.

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