Inside the NSX

According to John Norman, principal designer for the NSX interior, an objective was to make the interior of the car inviting, comfortable, intuitive,
and yet nonintrusive. The car is about driving, so they worked to “support the driver and get out of the way,” but still in a way that makes the person buying the car know that they are getting something that is worth the investment.

Ted Klaus, large project leader (a.k.a., chief engineer) for the new NSX: “Our global team embraced the challenge to create a new sports car experience, leveraging new technology to deliver incredibly vivid performance in a vehicle that responds intuitively and immediately to the will of the driver. The NSX delivers pinnacle supercar performance, with zero-delay acceleration and exhilarating, confidence-inspiring driving dynamics.”

The Acura NSX first went on sale in August 1990 as a model year 1991 car. At the time, it was the first production car with an all-aluminum chassis and body. The second-generation NSX emerged in 2004 as a model year 2005 vehicle. Again, all aluminum.

When the third-generation NSX was unveiled at the 2015 North American International Auto Show, this time the structure was multi-material, with an internal frame with aluminum and ultra-high strength steel, a carbon fiber floor, and a body that combines aluminum and sheet molding compound panels.

And while much has been made of the aerodynamic shapes, the functional side intake/C-pillar, and the low-and-wide stance, let’s face it: the interior of the car matters in some ways more to the driver (and passenger) because once you’re in the car, well, you’re in it.*

So we talk with John Norman, princi-pal designer, Acura Interior Styling Manager, Acura Design, to get the proverbial and literal inside look for the new NSX.

What’s intriguing to note is what Norman was doing before he worked on the NSX interior: “I designed the interiors for the current and previous MDX, two family-oriented SUVs in a row.”

Given that the MDX was the biggest-selling (and biggest) Acura, accounting for 39% of the division’s total sales for 2014 (there were 65,603 MDX models sold; the division sold 167,843 cars and light trucks for the year), that’s not a bad vehicle to have been on.

Still, Norman says that when he heard that there was going to be a new NSX—“at some points we didn’t think we were going to redo the car”—“I jumped at the opportunity.”

While he acknowledges that “as a designer, you have to be able to design anything,” he actually was a guy who drove a sports car, a 2000 Porsche 996 was his daily driver for five years, so he had more than just assignment-knowledge of the category.

Still, there was significant benchmarking that was carried out when the new car was being developed. Norman says that early on in the program there was a ride-and-drive program which involved a collection of competitive and comparative cars ranging from a Lamborghini and a Ferrari to a Corvette and a Nissan GT-R. They started out in Hollywood, drove around that area, stayed in a swank hotel, and actually lived the lifestyle for a couple of days.

They also had the opportunity to drive the original NSX on the back roads of Malibu, which was to have an effect on what Norman designed.

Norman says that as a result of that drive on those twisty mountain roads, he got a sense of what the original NSX was about. “I had read about the ‘seamless nature between man and machine,’” he says of the way the driver of the NSX was to feel. “I experienced it.”

So as a consequence of this, when they set about to develop the interior for the new NSX, it was done in a way such that there would continue to be the seamlessness. “We had to shrink the IP as much as possible. We had to make the A-pillars as thin as possible for forward visibility. We had to strip away as many buttons as possible. We had to make it very simple. We had to strip away all of the distractions. We had to support the driver and get out of the way.”

One obvious place where this is evident is in the IP. The benchmark for high-end cars seems to be the 17-in. screen used in the Tesla Model S. Yet in the NSX, the screen is just 7 in.

Again, this gets back to the notion that it is the drive that matters. Norman explains that when you put a large screen in a vehicle, then you’re indicating that the screen is almost as important an interface as the steering wheel: “We shrunk the screen. The screen is a secondary control. The steering wheel is the primary control, because this is a sports car.”

And Norman admits that the steering wheel is his favorite part of the car. He says that when they developed the steering wheel they worked to have convex forms on the back so that there would be a tactile surface for the driver’s fingers when gripping the wheel. He explains that other steering wheels often have a flat back because there are switch packs integrated into the structure.

“We worked with the engineers for about a year on the wheel, millimeter by millimeter, until it was just perfect.”

He recalls: “Our LPL [large project leader] Ted Klaus came by my desk one night after he’d come back from a trip to Ohio.” Raymond, Ohio, is the location of a Honda development center; Marysville, Ohio, is the site of the Performance Manufacturing Center, where the NSX will be built. “I handed him the wheel, and you should have seen the look on his face. He’s a race car driver; he races on weekends. You could see how excited he was because the wheel is the primary input.”

Norman keeps a model of the steering wheel on his desk.

Although the NSX is clearly a car of and for the 21st century, the interior still has materials that are characteristic of coaches from the 18th century. There are hand-stitched leather pads on the top of the instrument panel. There is suede on the IP lower. “We tried to add just enough flourish to make it feel inviting, so you want to be there, but not ostentatious.”

But why leather and not some more advanced material? He answers, simply, “There are some things that are timeless. They don’t go out of style.” He adds, “Sometimes, as designers, we think too much and try to be too conceptual. And so you can alienate people.” So leather works.

In addition to being a sports car, the NSX is also a luxury car. The price is likely to be somewhere in the vicinity of $150,000. Norman says that when someone isn’t blasting around on a track, when they’re sitting at a stop light, he’d like them to look across 
the cabin and think, “I’ve got the best I could.”

*OK. Once you’re behind the wheel you’re also rather concerned with what’s powering the car, as in a twin-turbocharged V6 along with three-electric motors (one for the rear wheels; two for the front) that produces, according to Ted Klaus, who led the engineering development for the car “total system horsepower north of 550,” but that’s another story for another time.