Honda NSX Father Misses Rebirth as Recalls Sully Debut

Honda Motor Co. President Takanobu Ito will be a notable no-show in Detroit next week when he sends company deputies to unveil a new version of the high-end supercar that helped catapult him into the top job.

Ito, 61, whose role engineering the original NSX supercar in 1990 jump-started his rise to the top job at the Japanese automaker, won’t be attending the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The executive unveiled the concept of Honda’s Ohio-built sports car at the show three years ago.

The absence suggests Honda’s leader is keeping a low profile after a calamitous 2014, with five deaths in Honda cars linked to Takata Corp. air bags and record recalls to fix separate flaws in some of the carmaker’s most crucial models. Those setbacks have tempered enthusiasm about the NSX’s return after a decade-long hiatus and prompted Honda’s board to cut its profit forecast and pay for Ito and a dozen other executives.

“Honda has bigger things to worry about than an auto show,” Dave Sullivan, an analyst at AutoPacific Inc., said by phone. “Dealing with these recalls is more of a priority than a limited-production supercar.”

Chris Martin, a Honda spokesman, said in an e-mail that Ito’s schedule is “quite busy and complex” and “did not allow him to attend” the show this year. North America is Honda’s largest auto market, at more than 40 percent of sales.

Honda called back 5.4 million vehicles last year in the U.S. to replace air bags made by Takata, in which it has a 1.2 percent ownership stake. The devices can rupture during deployment and propel metal shards at passengers and have been linked to the deaths of four motorists in the U.S. and a pregnant woman in Malaysia.

Record Fine

While the Takata recalls affected at least nine other carmakers, scrutiny of how Honda responded to the flaws led to the U.S. government slapping the company with a record $70 million fine for failing to report 1,729 death and injury incidents to regulators over 11 years.

Honda’s quality problems go beyond the defective air bags. The Tokyo-based company has called back the Fit -- its top-selling model -- five times since its introduction in late 2013, and recalled its Vezel crossover three times. Those fixes delayed the roll-out of other new vehicles by as long as six months.

Honda’s upscale Acura brand too was hamstrung by quality challenges last year. The automaker told its U.S. dealers to stop selling some of its Acura TLX sedans in December -- the highest-volume month for the luxury-car market -- because of a transmission flaw that could allow the cars to roll away despite being in park mode.

The fault emerged even after the company pushed back the start of sales to August from the first half of last year to ensure new software and safety technology were ready.

Tangerine Box

Ito rose through Honda’s ranks as a member of its vaunted research-and-development unit and was in charge of design for the original NSX’s all-aluminum chassis. He has sought inspiration in Honda founder Soichiro Honda, who used to stand on a tangerine box to exhort employees to make good products, by replicating the ritual with workers in November in Japan.

The company has long prized what Soichiro Honda called “the racing spirit,” his belief that developing racecars such as the NSX was the ideal way to train its engineers and designers.

“Producing this high-end vehicle that’s gone through very special engineering, this all shows the commitment to racing spirit,” Patricia Moody, a management consultant and co-author of the book “Powered by Honda,” said by phone. “But then they’ve got to produce the other vehicles that keep them healthy and generate good sales, and they’ve had some tough challenges doing that lately.”

Cult Following

Honda stopped making the original NSX in 2005, when it was the most expensive Japanese vehicle sold in the U.S. at about $90,000.

The supercar had gained a cult following for its powerful six-cylinder engine paired with a lightweight, all-aluminum body. Director Quentin Tarantino featured the car in his 1994 hit movie “Pulp Fiction” as the ride of choice for the lead-footed character Winston “The Wolf” Wolfe, played by Harvey Keitel.

Soon after saying the NSX would go out of production in 2005, Honda promised a replacement model would follow within four years with a V-10 engine, the first time a powertrain originally developed for Formula One race cars would be put into a road model sold to regular customers. Then-President Takeo Fukui showed a concept at the 2007 auto show in Detroit.

Those plans were put on hold when the global recession and surging yen led Honda to axe development of NSX and withdraw from F1 racing at the end of 2008. Ito, who succeeded Fukui midway through 2009, kept the supercar’s fans waiting another 2 1/2 years before announcing at the Detroit show in 2012 that NSX would make a comeback this year.

Rather than the V-10 planned a decade ago, NSX will be a hybrid, powered by a six-cylinder engine with twin turbochargers and three electric motors.

“They’re integrating very different technologies into one vehicle which is understandably very high-end,” Moody said. “It will say something if they can pull this off despite the stumbles and the challenges they’ve had over the past year.”

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