The $156,000 NSX Could Be a Game-Changer for Acura

2016 is shaping up to be a big year in Acura’s history. The NSX is due to make its return after a decade-long hiatus, and Acura is betting that the made-in-America supercar will elevate the Honda (NYSE:HMC) luxury brand and help revitalize its performance cred.

The 2017 NSX will be the standard-bearer for Acura when it launches in the spring. Acura expects the $156,000 two-seater to show potential customers what the luxury car maker can do, in addition to setting a tone for its brand marketing. As a halo car, the NSX will be most valuable if it lifts sales across Acura’s entire lineup.

“We’re using the NSX to help define our brand a little more clearly for everyone,” said Jon Ikeda, vice president and general manager of Acura. “We’re about technology and innovation, and this car represents us well.”

The 2017 NSX has already earned a degree of celebrity status. Acura will feature the NSX in a Super Bowl 50 ad on Feb. 6, 2016. The ad will mark four years since Jerry Seinfeld—with a cameo by fellow comedian and car aficionado Jay Leno—pitched the concept version of the NSX in Acura’s last Super Bowl commercial. While the two comedians will not be part of the next version, Seinfeld did appear at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit earlier this year to see the NSX for himself.

The early excitement generated by the NSX bodes well for Acura as it looks to bolster its sporty image. Acura, which got its start by producing high-performance cars, recently brought back its original tagline: “Precision Crafted Performance.”

“The NSX will bring supercar laurels to a brand that most people wouldn’t expect,” analyst Jeremy Acevedo said.

Hypercar Inspiration

Acura describes the NSX as not only a supercar, but a budget hypercar.

For one, the NSX is powered by four—yes, four—motors. The star of the show is a 500-horsepower V6 engine that is mounted behind the cockpit. Three electric motors, one in the rear and two in the front, give the NSX extra boost and all-wheel-drive capability. All told, the NSX packs 573 horsepower.

The mid-engine sports car also has high-end features like an aluminum body and a carbon-fiber roof and floor panel.

Acura has a “very different approach to high performance” Ikeda explained. “I can tell you from driving this car, and being the car nut that I am, it’s a completely different experience.”

The first NSX was designed to be original, Ikeda added, saying that fans of the original should see similarities in the next iteration.

“When that car came out, it was totally different. With the new car, we have to live up to that standard. It will live up to everything expectation-wise,” said Ikeda, formerly a top designer for Honda.

The 2017 NSX will top out at $205,700, Acura announced last week. It will compete with the likes of Porsche’s 911 and Audi’s R8 V10. Ford (NYSE:F) is also entering the ring next year at the high-end of the price range. Like Acura, Ford is reintroducing its storied supercar, but executives have said the GT will be priced to compete with the $400,000 Lamborghini Aventador.

Back to its Roots

The NSX is certainly a blast from the past, an icon from Acura’s glory days when the brand leaned heavily on its image as a performance-oriented automaker.

“If you look at the history of Acura, we never even mentioned luxury the first few years. It was all about performance,” Ikeda said.

But as its core customers got older, Acura lost some of its luster among consumers looking for both comfort and horsepower. Luxury rivals including Cadillac and Lexus experienced a similar shift, perhaps to an even greater degree. Both were among the brands with the oldest average customer in a University of Michigan survey last year.

The NSX, which ended its initial production run in late 2005, may be the answer for Acura.

“When you think Acura, you think practical and available, not necessarily exciting,” Acevedo said. “The NSX should be successful in rekindling the excitement that Acura had when the brand was chugging along quite nicely.”

According to Ikeda, the NSX will be just one of several vehicles that bring more pep to Acura’s lineup.

“We created the original NSX as a halo car. Now we have some great core products that can carry that torch for us,” he said.

Luxury Sales Battle

Although sales are moving at a faster pace this year, Acura still remains below its high mark for U.S. sales. During the same period, its mainstream sibling has grown. Acura sold 209,610 vehicles in 2005, compared to 167,843 last year. Honda posted 2005 sales of 1.25 million, a figure that ballooned to 1.37 million by 2014, setting a new record for the division.

Acura has also lagged behind its luxury peers, including Volkswagen’s surging Audi. With one month to go, sales of Acura vehicles are up 6.9% to 160,342 units so far in 2015. Lexus is up to 303,221 in the U.S., an 11.7% increase. Mercedes-Benz and BMW are battling for the lead.

Still, Acura’s sales are moving in the right direction amid a strong run for the brand and the luxury market as a whole.

“We’ve got good momentum going,” Ikeda said. “The NSX is coming out on the 30th anniversary of the brand, so it’s perfect timing for us.”

The MDX and RDX crossovers could combine to sell more than 100,000 units this year, and the new 2015 TLX sedan has gained traction. The results give credence to a turnaround strategy that should go into overdrive once the NSX arrives in showrooms.

“There’s an opportunity to show that the vehicle is part of the brand’s DNA. It also has the added benefit of trickling down to the rest of the brand,” Acevedo said.