The Next NSX: Honda's Top-Secret Braintrust in Ohio

The next-generation Acura NSX pre-production prototype at the Detroit Auto Show earlier this year. The actual car, under intensive development in Ohio, will debut in 2015. (Photo: Jim Motavalli).

Between 1967 and 1970, Toyota made a brave attempt to change its bread-and-butter image with something entirely new — a high-performance sports car called the 2000GT. Only a few hundred were made, and just 62 imported into the U.S., but it wasn’t the numbers that were important — Toyota showed the skeptics what it could do. And the car, featured in the James Bond film "You Only Live Twice," became a major object of desire — in fact, a 2000GT was recently listed on eBay for $650,000.

Honda tried something very similar with the ultra-cool first-generation Acura NSX, produced in small quantities between 1990 and 2005. The NSX was every bit as exotic as the 2000GT, with five-second zero to 60 times from a mid-engine layout with an all-aluminum V-6 with what were then cutting-edge techie innovations, including variable valve timing, antilock brakes and electronic throttle control. The car was on the cover of every car magazine, but by its demise eight years ago the car was selling only a few hundred NSX’s annually.

The good news is that the NSX is coming back, and as a lightweight hybrid car. In Ohio this week, I drove through Marysville (home of the Accord), where Honda is revamping a184,000-square foot building (a former logistics center) to be the NSX brain center for the next two years (see photo below). There will be a sleek visitors' center, because Acura is expecting buyers of this likely $100,000+ marvel to come to Ohio and see their car built. Honda, on the ground here since 1979, has more than 13,000 workers in Ohio, two assembly plants, a transmission factory, and the advanced engine plant that will make the 3.5-liter mid-mounted V-6 that will power the new car.

Sign saying: Future home of the all-new NSX by Acura

The NSX, on the road in 2015, will showcase Honda’s new three-motor SH-AWD system. A size-to-be-determined electric motor is attached to the V-6, and two more (20 kilowatts each) are on the rear axle, where they’ll aid in cornering. Clement D’Souza, Honda of America’s associate chief engineer and co-project leader for the NSX, said that this sophisticated car can spin the two rear motors at different speeds to help the car get around bends.

“The previous generation of the NSX used the technology of that day to take handling and drivability to a new level, and this one will do the same thing,” Honda spokesman Ron Lietzke told me. “The three-motor hybrid system provides instant torque.” A hybrid layout both aids fuel economy and gets the car off the line quicker, he said. There’s no word yet on what kind of gas mileage the NSX will deliver, but it should be impressive for a very fast car.

D’Souza pointed out that another key is lightweighting. “We’re not looking at any particular material,” he said, “but we’re considering all of them. What we want is the perfect material for the application.”

Previewing what the NSX might look like, the 2014 Acura MDX uses a combination of high-strength steel, aluminum and magnesium for 64 percent of its body structure, making it 275 pounds lighter than the earlier MDX—and the lightest in the segment. The 2013 Accord is measureably stiffer, thanks to 55.8-percent high-tensile steel. Honda has also pioneered new tech for continuously welding dissimilar metals like steel and aluminum together.

While in Ohio, I dropped by Ohio State, where Glenn Daehn (below) both heads the Honda-OSU Partnership and serves as the Mars G. Fontana Professor of Metallurgy Engineering. A good man for Honda to know. “Honda pays a lot of attention to getting the fat off,” he told me. “I expect that the company will take what it learns from lightweighting the NSX and apply it to much higher-volume cars such as the Accord.”

Glenn Daehn of Ohio State

Rich Spivey, a Honda purchasing manager on loan to the college as executive director of the Ohio Manufacturing Initiative, said that the NSX project is being located amidst “the greatest center of engineering talent in the world.” The new sports car, he said, is “a demonstration platform for trying out all kinds of innovative materials.” It’s likely that carbon fiber will be in the mix somewhere. Daehn said it’s easiest to use the material for hoods and trunks, because otherwise you have complex joining issues.

Carbon fiber is also very expensive, but D’Souza says that isn’t the key consideration. “I wasn’t presented with any limitations in the effort to create a world-class sports car that will fulfill the Honda vision,” he said.

Ohio Governor John Kasich took a look at the NSX prototype in Marysville last month and said it was “the kind of vehicle James Bond would drive,” allowing its handler to “become part of the road.” Sorry, Mr. Kasich, it was the Toyota 2000GT that James Bond drove. No word on bulletproof technology or offensive weaponry for the NSX. Here's Kasich on video exploring the car: