The Making of a Supercar

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

Meet the team of Central Ohioians who designed the Acura NSX, the most expensive car built in the U.S.

The g-force feels like a shove in the chest ?as Jason Widmer hits the accelerator of the Acura NSX. People in other vehicles turn to look as the sleek, silver rocket of a car passes them on a long, straight stretch of I-670. The most expensive car made in the United States is hard to ignore. "It's pulling pretty hard," Widmer tells me. "It'll hit three digits in a very, very quick time." Thankfully-or maybe regrettably-I only can take his word on this point.

As the automotive reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, I've covered the NSX project since it first went public in early 2012, but this is my first time seeing the "supercar" in action. I'm struck by the car's surprising combination of road-hugging smoothness and spare interior design during the drive around Columbus in early May.

The driver, Widmer, an engineer for Honda R&D Americas, is part of the group of Ohioans doing the work to put the much-anticipated NSX on the road. The gas-electric hybrid-engineered in Raymond, Ohio, and assembled nearby in Marysville-is reasserting Honda in the high-performance market. If the car is received well, the Acura brand gets a big, positive boost to its image. Meanwhile, the new technology in the model can be adapted for use elsewhere in the Honda and Acura lineups.

This is the fun part for Widmer, on the heels of five exhausting years and a few changes of plans, as this new, second-generation NSX-the only supercar assembled in the United States-went from an idea to a finished product more than a decade after Japanese production of the first NSX was halted. Widmer, 44, smiles a lot, and you would too if you had his job. He's part of the testing team, which means his bosses at Honda buy a garage full of high-performance cars from other manufacturers, and he gets to drive the holy hell out of them to test their limits and understand how they work. He's done the same with the NSX, driving the vehicle in about a dozen countries, both on roads and on tracks.

Widmer has sacrificed for the supercar: long stretches away from his wife and three children and a break from the Indiana native's family tradition of attending the Indianapolis 500. Instead, he has made do with his own race car. The NSX-priced starting at $156,000-has a top speed of 190 mph, according to reviews, though Honda doesn't specify how fast it can go. "It's the only street car I've ever driven that actually will put you to the seat hard enough and long enough that the blood starts to rush out of your head and you start to get light-headed," Widmer says.

The original NSX was a legend with many car enthusiasts. Made in Japan, it began production in 1990, with U.S. sales peaking at 1,940 units in 1991. By 2005, however, sales had fallen to 206 units, and Honda, which owns the Acura brand, put the vehicle on hiatus. Ever since then, there have been rumors about the next generation.

It's notable that Honda decided its North American operations were ready for the complex new NSX assignment-and Ohio employees now want to make sure that confidence is well-placed. Honda's Tokyo-based executives decided to move forward with the project in 2011. Some of the first people in Ohio to learn of it were at Honda R&D's sprawling office complex in Raymond, where more than 1,500 people work just north of Marysville in Union County. Widmer and a few colleagues had just completed their part of a redesign of the Acura MDX crossover. One day, he got whisked into a meeting in which he was told that his next project was the NSX. He was one of the first four people in the office drafted. "This car has some skunk-works-like activities going on, in our office and in the Japan office," Widmer says.

Less than six months later, in January 2012, he and his team were front and center for the Acura news conference at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Honda's then-CEO, Takanobu Ito, announced the new NSX, and out came a preliminary version of the model. The automotive media and officials from other carmakers greeted the news with applause.

The audience saw an attractive outer shell of a car with no insides. It was up to the engineers to design the other components. "That always makes engineers nervous when there's a styling concept, and we haven't got the engineering done yet," Widmer says. "That becomes a challenge."

While Honda R&D set out to do the engineering design, another team-led by Clement D'Souza of Powell-was assembled to do the manufacturing. D'Souza, 52, was the manufacturing leader for the 2012 model-year redesign of the Honda CR-V. Early reviews of the model were glowing, and sales were booming.

After finishing up the CR-V redesign, D'Souza hoped to move on to Honda's aircraft-manufacturing division. He had wanted to work on planes since he was a child in India, taking apart machines and putting them back together "My father used to tell me I was going to grow up to be a destructive engineer," he says.

He got an undergraduate degree from the University of Bombay and then emigrated to the United States to attend Michigan State University. From there, he went to Honda, thinking it was a short-term stop before shifting to the aerospace industry.

His supervisors knew of his desire to work on planes, and after the CR-V launch, they took D'Souza aside and gave him two options: He could move to Honda's aviation division in Greensboro, North Carolina, or he could take the lead of the Ohio manufacturing of the NSX. "It took me all of about three seconds to respond to that," he says. "Why? [The NSX] is basically a low-flying jet."

This was far from an ordinary manufacturing job. D'Souza would need to recruit a group of about 100 of the best workers in the company, and they would set up a new assembly line in a new factory. More than 1,600 people applied.

The result is a plant that Honda calls the Performance Manufacturing Center in Marysville. Instead of using a motorized assembly line, the NSX gets moved through the process with a series of carts. Almost every step contains a technological element that is new to Honda and sometimes new to the auto industry.

The 206,000-square-foot factory is snug for an auto plant. It is less than one-20th the size of Honda's main facility, also in Marysville, which makes the Accord. "I'm excited that we could create something with a blank sheet of paper," D'Souza says in March during a media tour of the plant.

D'Souza has a manner that is both laid back and exacting, which sounds like a contradiction until you meet him. The whole plant feels like this, too. By starting from scratch, the developers could make some unusual moves. One of the most noticeable was the decision to install giant windows into the painting rooms. "I've never seen a paint shop like this," says Werner Wilson, the paint department leader. "Paint overall is kind of dirty. There's a lot of overspray, and you get particles and paint buildup, and most people don't want to show that off. Paint shops are pretty secretive about what they do."

Wilson, 53, comes across as a kind of professor of paint, with an infectious enthusiasm. He grew up in Springfield and has worked at Honda since he was 20. Most of that time, he has handled paint systems. He explains that the windows are there as part of the plant's identity as a showpiece, in which every process is visible.

Employees took some time to get used to being on display. They joked that they felt like they were in a zoo. "We call it the polar bear exhibit," Wilson says.

Back on the road with Widmer, we head toward Dodge Park in Franklinton. On surface roads, the NSX can run in all-electric mode, which is near-silent. Widmer parks the car next to the Scioto River, against a backdrop of the Columbus skyline, a spot selected by the photographer for this story.

Cars have been a passion for Widmer since childhood. As an elementary school student in West Lafayette, Indiana, he wrote a report about how he was going to be an automotive engineer when he grew up. In his teens and 20s, he raced motorcycles and jet skis. He got a job at Honda R&D right out of Purdue University.

Widmer gets out of the car and stretches, dressed in a black golf shirt with the NSX logo on the breast. He is tan and looks a decade younger than his age, even with the years of long days and nights working on this project. We talk while the photographer sets up his shot, and a group of volunteers happen to walk by, gathering litter. A few of them stop to ask about this silver car.

"It looks like it would be very, very fast," says Hilary Deason, 26. "I feel like this is the kind of car the valet would park in front of the restaurant."

The volunteers are employees of Casto, the Columbus real-estate investment firm. They are surprised to learn that this is an Acura. "It doesn't look like it was made in Marysville," says Lindsey VanMeter, 32. "No offense, Marysville."

If all had gone according to plan, the new NSX likely would have made its debut sometime last year. But nothing really ever goes according to plan. The project has had many ups and downs, and at least two changes of course. People who worked on it are quick to say that both issues have led to a better end product, even if there were some tense moments along the way.

One of the hitches had to do with a system that dunks the frame into a series of chemical baths, part of a treatment process that makes the metal resist corrosion. Honda had planned to have an outside contractor do this off site. However, project leaders decided midway through the development to do the work in house so they could have more control over it.

As a result, the company had to build an addition to the new plant, which added to the project's cost, although Honda says it did not add to the timetable. In that wing, which runs along the back side of the complex, robotic arms dip the frame into a series of liquid mixtures down the line. "It added some cost that our company had to step up and do, but we felt it was the right way to go," says Wilson, the paint expert.

The other delay, one that struck at the heart of the project, had to do with the engine. Early designs called for the NSX to have a transverse mid-mounted engine, which means it sits sideways in the area right behind the seats, as the original NSX did.

All along, some people on the design team had concerns that the new engine was not adventurous enough, and not true to the NSX's tradition of leading-edge technology. In 2013, about two years into the car's development, engineers came up with a new plan in which the engine would be turned lengthwise, and they added two turbochargers. On a technical level, this was a significant swerve-particularly the turbochargers, which pump air into the engine to provide more power.

"We threw away the whole thing and started over," Widmer said. "If you know anything about turbocharging, you know they generate a lot of heat. Heat in the back of the car, where the engine is, is a challenging thing. It upped the complexity by tenfold."

A supercar is a high-performance sports car, with a price tag and pedigree far removed from the market that most people know. The category includes brands such as Ferrari and Lamborghini, made in Italy, and the top-of-the-line offerings of Audi and Porsche, made in Germany. Pricing starts around $100,000 and goes up, way up.

Buyers tend to be wealthy auto enthusiasts. Some are drivers at heart, who take their cars to the track or to winding mountain roads. Others are collectors who want the slick new thing, even if they may not drive it much.

The new NSX, which has a 2017 model year, is competing against other supercars and trying to live up to the reputation of its predecessor. It's a tall order. "It put Japanese high-performance on the map and put Honda on the map as a serious sports car manufacturer," says Motor Trend editor Edward Loh of the first NSX.

Early reviews have praised many aspects of the new NSX, but these are far from unreserved raves. Some critics have said the new NSX does not live up to its namesake, illustrating the near-impossible challenge faced by the Honda Ohio team. "When the bar is set so high, anything that's not a super slobbery 'that's-the-best-vehicle-on-the-planet' review might be considered to be a failure," Loh says.

He has driven the NSX on the road and on a track. "It's a lot of fun to drive, and it's very fast," he says. "But the buyer who comes into this vehicle is going to have to clear their mind, erase any preconceived ideas and approach it as a clean-slate performance car. I wouldn't approach this by asking, 'What is it like?' because it isn't like any other performance car."

In late May, about a month after my drive with Widmer, the plant holds a ceremony to mark the production of vehicle number 001. Until then, the plant's workers had been doing test production. Now, every vehicle is built for a dealer or a customer who pre-ordered.

With lights dimmed and music playing, D'Souza drives the red car onto a small stage. He gets out and hands the keys to the man who had paid $1.2 million at auction: auto dealer and NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick.

The place was packed with cheering Honda employees, alongside state officials. After the ceremony, I weave through the crowd and find D'Souza near the stage. "It is crazy," he says. "It's been insane the last four years." And he is not ready to rest. In many ways, the real job begins now with regular production.

Widmer is nearby, standing with colleagues from Honda R&D. "This is one of those moments when we just can be proud," he says.

The following Friday, he took the day off to renew his family tradition-a trip to the Indianapolis 500. Even when he's away from work, there are fast cars.

Top Gear

The NSX is packed with technological advancements and add-on options. Here are a few:

The Sport Hybrid: The car has three electric motors, two in front and one in back, that work with the gasoline engine. Unlike most gas-electric hybrids like the Toyota Prius, the main purpose of this hybrid system is to improve performance. The electric motors provide an instant response when the vehicle is moving from a stop and help to manage the feel when going around corners.

Multi-Material Body: The NSX's body is mostly aluminum, with some carbon fiber and steel. In order to use the different materials, Honda developed new methods of joining, including a way to make aluminum join with steel. As a result, the NSX has the strength of steel in selected areas, while using aluminum to help keep most of the body lightweight.

Four Modes: Drivers can choose between four different performance settings for the engine and transmission, controlled by a small dial on the center console. First is "quiet mode," which uses all-electric power at low speeds and is nearly silent. Next are "sport mode" and "sport mode plus," which allow for more aggressive acceleration. Last is "track mode," which is the most aggressive.

Options: Customers can spend much more than the base price of $156,000, with a long list of add-ons. Among them: carbon fiber decklid spoiler, $3,000; special brake calipers, available in black ($9,600), silver or red (both $10,600); special exterior colors, with $700 for white or metallic colors and $6,000 for "Andaro" premium versions of red and blue colors.