Never Short on excitement
Acura boosts the fun quotient of its supercar with a removable top
March 6-12, 1995 by Mark Vaughn
There are those who make the argument that the Acura NSX is the greatest super-car ever made. When price is factored in, they’re probably right. Here is a sleek, low, two-seater that performs exactly as well as it looks. Only a handful of cars give the same feel for the road you get piloting this aluminum monocoque gingerly through a mountain pass or around a narrow racetrack. Communication with the driver is not loud and clear, it’s just clear, perfectly clear.
The NSX was that way when it first came out and it remains that way today. Except for the 1995 model’s new open top and semi-automatic transmission, the only other big change in the five years the car has been out is in the number of people who buy it.
In the late 1980s, when the NSX was under development, the time was perfect for a super car. The economy was peaking and fat cats were lighting their cigars with disposable income. There was a whole dangerous pile of people in the marketplace with too much money – more than there had been since August of 1929. And they were trying to outspend each other on everything. They bought overpriced French impressionist art, overpriced golf resorts, artificially inflated real estate, fine wines between which they could distinguish no difference, and garagefuls of great cars they didn’t know enough to drive, much less appreciate.
It was also the height of the sports car market, particularly since the sport/ute craze hadn’t hit yet, so there was nothing to chew into the super car and sports car segments.
Into this frenzied seller’s market drove the NSX – the first domesticated super car. It looked outrageous but was so well-designed even the most klutzy commodities speculator could drive it well. It was engineered like nothing else, and it offered a new level of performance. Because of the high incomes and the relatively low price (relative to Ferraris), it was available to people who never would have thought they could afford such a car.
For about half the price of a Ferrari you could get titanium connecting rods and an aluminum monocoque, and you could actually drive the car like you knew what you were doing.
But the party was just about over by the time Acura arrived. Predicting sales of 3000 per year, the division launched the NSX into the face of a freshly minted 10 percent luxury tax on cars coasting more than $30,000 and a small war in the Persian Gulf. There was enough initial demand for sales to peak at nearly 2000 in 1991. The numbers quickly dropped off to 533 last year, victims of a value – and style-conscious market that has now embraced high-line sport/utilities.
Now comes the big question: Can a new targa top and a SportShift semi-automatic transmission save the NSX?
These two features may not seem revolutionary for the next iteration of this supercar, but they are what the market wants. Acura’s research shows that when people think of sports cars they think of a red car with an open top. And so Acura has added an open top, with the goal being to sell 1000 NSXs a year, again.
As you might expect, the chassis on the NSX-T is reinforced throughout to compensate for the structural loss of the roof panel. The area around the cabin was either made from thicker aluminum or with more layers of it molded together. The door sills received extensive shoring up, along with the A- and B-pillars, the top edge of the windshield, the dashboard cross member and basically everything else that surrounds the passengers.
The top itself, like the rest of the monocoque, fenders, hood and deck lid, is made of aluminum. It weighs less than 19 pounds including its liner and insulation, which makes it easy for one person to remove and stow, even if that person is a weakling. Two quick-release levers bring the sunshine to your face and the wind over your ears. Storage for the top is provided in a typically efficient Acura manner, under the shelf above the engine. There is no interference with rear vision and no way to tell the top is even there.
With the targa roof in place, it’s easy to forget that the car isn’t a hardtop. Except for the extra seams where the targa fits in place, the NSX-T looks exactly like the NSX non-T. Once underway, with the targa roof stowed under the engine cover, you don’t get quite the same sense you might in a cabriolet (see sidebar) but the open-air feeling is definitely there.
To go along with the quasi-cabriolet, there is a quasi-stick shift. In addition to the current five-speed manual, the 1995 NSX will have a four-speed semi-automatic transmission called SportShift, which will replace the current four-speed automatic. SportShift uses a column-mounted flipper. Its function is similar to the button on the wheel of Tiptronic Porches, allowing the driver to shift gears up or down without removing a hand from the wheel. It is engaged by moving the console-mounted shifter into the “M” position. An indicator on the instrument panel reminds you what gear you’re in. Computer controls prevent you from downshifting too far and overrevving, and match engine to transmission speed, thus making the downshifts smoother. Computer chips also quickly lock the torque converter in second, third and fourth for reduced slippage. Finally, a new “torque reactive” limited-slip differential uses a multi-plate clutch and helical-type planetary gears to produce 10 percent faster exits from corners by limiting the spin of the inside rear wheel.
The same computer controls the new drive-by-wire system, which eliminates the traditional throttle cable.
On the road – in our case the “road” was Laguna Seca – the NSC-T with five-speed manual transmission feels much the same as the 1994 NSX. It would, because the suspension, brakes and 3.0-liter VTEC V6 engine are unchanged.
Around Laguna Seca we’re instantly reminded that this is one of the world’s truly great cars, not just because of its capabilities on the circuit, but because it allows almost anyone to feel like a racing hero. The rev limiter, traction control, ABS and 215/45ZR-16s frond and 245/40ZR-17s rear make the NSX practically foolproof to drive. All a driver has to do is get the lines and braking points right; the actual control of the throttle and brake is done by computer. Mash each of the pedals at the appropriate times, and the car will make the most of it. After several laps around Laguna Seca flipping the SportShift up and down between second and third, all we needed to think about was the proper line and the best braking points.
Acura says the SportShift transmission is 0.2 seconds quicker in both 0-60 mph and quarter mile times than the old automatic. Those numbers sound right but it is not as quick in actually shifting the gears as Porsche’s Tiptronic. Gear changes in the SportShift take what seems like over half a second, and this can be disconcerting at first.
On the track, you have to anticipate the lag, much as you used to have to do with early turbocharged cars.
Earlier in the day we had driven a SportShift-equipped NSX on a beautifully empty Pacific Coast Highway, south of Carmel. Downshifting on that road was difficult to master at first. On that run with the new transmission, gear changes seemed to take forever. When we flipped the lever down going into a corner, it wouldn’t downshift until about halfway through the turn. It was a long, slow change. It felt twice as long as the Tiptronic and maybe a third as quick as the old automatic did when it was shifted manually.
Once we realized how long it took to go into gear we timed to corners better. Later, around Laguna Seca, the shifter was a lot easier to use effectively.
A SportShift-equipped NSX would probably be handy if you had only one car and had to commute to work in traffic every day. Then you could have adequate fun on the weekends while being a little more comfortable during the week. But who among the financial elite of NSX owner has only one car? Given the money, a five-speed manual NSX-T for the weekends and a nice Legend sedan during the week would make a fine stable.
Acura plans to eventually sell 10 o 15 percent SportShift automatics, as opposed to the 5 percent automatics it sells now. The SportShift will appeal to “aficionados” vs. “enthusiasts,” one spokesman said. Talk about overdefining your niches! Maybe he just meant there would be more women buyers, but was afraid of being accused of sexism.
Acura hopes the SportShift will help NSX sales, but the targa top will do lion’s share of the recovery work. Acura plans to move 80 to 85 percent of its NSXs with the removable roof.
The new NSX-T will be available this month. Prices have not been released yet but in addition to a new model-year markup of maybe 3 percent across the board, you can expect to pay from $2,000 to $5,000 more for the T. Apart from the model-year price increase, there should be no separate increase for the SportShift transmission. The current NSX base price is $75,000 for a five-speed and $79,000 for an automatic.
“Is the NSX profitable now?” we asked.
“We really love driving the NSX,” answered executive vice president Rich Thomas.
“Will the NSX be profitable at 1000 sales a year?” we asked.
“We’d really love driving the NSX at 1000 sales a year,” he replied.
We really love it either way.
A topless, turbo NSX
Teaming up to make an exoticar even more exotic
By Steve Statham
Most “tuner cars” spring from the vision of one person and are the product of one shop, but sometimes competing visions can be combined to great effect. Recently, Bell Engineering in San Antonio, Texas, maker of turbo kits, and Newport Car Conversions Inc., in Norwalk, Calif., which specializes in convertible conversions, worked together for a customer who wanted both for his Acura NSX.
Newport’s efforts are the most visible. The company has been doing convertible conversions for nearly 11 years, and NSX fits right in with the prestige cars on which the company built its reputation. “People have really responded well,” says Newport’s Mathew Kahn, who estimates his company is converting 20 to 25 NSXs a year. To do the job, Newport needs the car for about four weeks. The convertible top consists of a targa roof section and a rear piece made from canvas. The roof and canvas fit in the trunk, while the overhead top support bar folds up neatly under a fiberglass boot. The chassis, naturally, is reinforced.
Even though Acura has an NSX with factory targa top waiting in the wings, Kahn figures that few NSX owners will trade in their still-newish cars on an expensive new targa model, but they might be enticed to pop for his targa conversion at $14,500.
Invisible externally, but certainly noticeable from behind the wheel is Bell’s twin-turbo conversion. Corky bell has been creating turbo kits for 20 years, the last three under the Bell Engineering name. So far, the company has sold12 of the $7,850 NSX twin-turbo kits. CARB certification is pending for the NSX system, but since the turbos and intercoolers are located aft of the catalytic converters and no emission controls have been disconnected, the company anticipates few problems with legality.
During our brief ride-and-drive we found the thrust from the turbos intoxicating, not to mention license-threatening. The power delivery was smooth, with no hiccups or glitches, and there was only a slight shushing sound to let us know the turbos were in use. The convertible top seemed well-made and was reasonably quiet at speed, but headroom will be tight for a six-footer. Still, there’s little arguing with the visual, and visceral, impact this car makes. Perhaps two tuners are better than one.