A supercar showdown has broken out on the floor of the Detroit auto show.
Ford Motor Co.’s glistening blue GT sports car and Honda Motor Co.’s racy red Acura NSX hot rod generated buzz at the opening media day of the expo, with partisans picking sides as if the cars were football playoff contenders. The crush surrounding the high-priced, high-power machines contrasted with the scant attention paid to sensible sedans and eco-friendly cars.
“This is a sign that the market is back,” said Jake Fisher, cars editor for Consumer Reports magazine. “Automakers are delivering on people’s dreams instead of just meeting their needs.”
Coming off their biggest sales year since 2006, Ford and Honda are keen to show off their engineering prowess and demonstrate that supercars aren’t just the domain of German and Italian designers.
And gone are the days when automakers vied to appear the most environmentally conscious. The GT and the NSX are all about excess and exuberance, even as they showcase efficient technologies such as a light-weight carbon fiber on the Ford and a hybrid-electric propulsion system on the Acura.
As Bill Ford fielded questions from reporters mobbing the low-slung, curvaceous GT at Joe Louis arena, he scoffed a question about the fuel efficiency of the 600-plus horsepower beast.
“You don’t buy this car for fuel economy,” the executive chairman said, laughing. “There’s a lot of fuel-saving technology in here, but I’d be lying if I said this was about fuel efficiency.” The Ford car has a twin-turbocharged V-6 EcoBoost engine.
At the Acura booth, Erik Berkman, the automaker’s executive vice president of planning, expressed relief that the NSX was finally finished after years of delays. The global recession had forced the automaker to shelve development of the high-tech supercar, which pumps out 550 horsepower and is priced at $150,000.
“It was demoralizing,” Berkman said. “But now the economy is back, we’re making money, consumer confidence is up and we’ve got $2 gas. Life is good.”
NSX is key to Acura’s need to set itself apart from Honda’s namesake brand, Mike Accavitti, Acura’s senior vice president, said in an interview.
“We’re trying to break free from the mother ship,” he said. “Honda’s a great brand -- love it. But Acura’s biggest challenge is it’s too closely associated with Honda. We have got to give Acura it’s own identity.”
Automakers are expected to sell close to 17 million cars and trucks in the U.S. this year, up from 16.5 million last year and 10.4 million when the industry bottomed out in 2009. Car companies have nearly satiated the pent-up demand to replace old wheels, and buyers are starting to look for excitement, said Lacey Plache, chief economist for researcher Edmunds.com.
“The mood has very much changed,” Plache said. “People are ready and willing to spend money again.”
The automakers are happy to help them do it.
When the GT goes on sale next year, it will be priced well above the $150,000 that the car fetched when Ford discontinued the model in 2006, according to a person familiar with Ford’s plans. For that kind of money, drivers will get a mid-engine racer that is expected to go from zero to 60 miles per hour in less than 4 seconds.
“People want to look good in their vehicles, and we can never forget that as a company,” Mark Fields, Ford’s chief executive officer, said in an interview. “We will not allow our vehicles to become appliances.”
Ford and Acura will sell their pricey supercars in small numbers and may not make enough on them to cover development costs, said Fisher, of Consumer Reports.
“If they don’t make a cent on those cars, it doesn’t matter,” Fisher said. “They are a tour de force of technology. Ford can promote its EcoBoost engines, and Acura wants to tout its hybrid technology.”
Eye candy like these machines will draw shoppers to showrooms, even though buyers may go home with more sensible models.
The GT has carbon-fiber wheels and body panels, and Ford said it is researching how to bring the costly-yet-light material into everyday cars. The car also has a frame made of aluminum, a light-weight material the automaker is using more often, notably in a new version of its F-150 pickup.
The teardrop shape of the GT explores new ways to improve fuel economy by reducing wind resistance, said Raj Nair, Ford’s product development chief.
Acura mated a V-6, twin-turbocharged engine with three electric motors that drive the wheels so the NSX accelerates instantly, without the lag associated with turbo power, Berkman said. To keep the car light, Acura built the NSX on an aluminum frame. The NSX also uses carbon-fiber parts.
The car’s low center of gravity and slipstream design helps it move nimbly and efficiently, said Michelle Christensen, who designed the exterior.
“From a styling and functioning standpoint, the airflow management is the coolest feature about this car,” Christensen said.
Acura’s original NSX, produced from 1990 to 2005, was known for its aluminum body panels and a price that started below $100,000.
Honda started to develop the Acura NSX in 2011, when the company was reeling from the tsunami in Japan that delivered a crushing blow to production, Accavitti said. With sales suffering because of shortages across its lineup, the media began questioning whether the company had lost its way.
“Honda’s losing its mojo,” Accavitti said, recalling headlines from the time. “If you read that stuff repeatedly, it starts to wear on people inside the company. NSX was a rallying cry.”
Ford’s previous GT, which the company stopped selling in 2006, was priced at $150,000 and sold just more than 4,000 models in two years on the market. It traveled from zero to 60 mph in less than 4 seconds -- and managed only 12 miles per gallon in the city and 19 mpg on the highway, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Le Mans Return
The new GT will return to Le Mans next year on the 50th anniversary of Ford’s historic win at the legendary European endurance race, said the person familiar with Ford’s intentions, who asked not to be identified revealing internal plans. GT40 racers finished first, second and third at Le Mans in 1966. The GT40 was the first American car to win the race and the first U.S. car to win a major European competition since 1921.
Ford lost almost 1 percentage point of U.S. market share last year and is eager to show that it will come back in 2015. While unit sales of the GT would be small, the impact on Ford’s image for styling and engineering could be large.
“Ford wants to put some pizazz in its product line,” Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst with AutoTrader.com, said in an interview. “It’s a reflection of the mood of the market. The economy is better, people have money and it’s OK to consumer conspicuously again.”