Is Acura's NSX hybrid supercar struggling amid slow early sales?

The hotly anticipated Japanese sports car appears to be stumbling out of the gate. Here's what's going on.

Chris Paukert Former executive editor / Cars
Following stints in TV news production and as a record company publicist, Chris spent most of his career in automotive publishing. Mentored by Automobile Magazine founder David E. Davis Jr., Paukert succeeded Davis as editor-in-chief of Winding Road, a pioneering e-mag, before serving as Autoblog's executive editor from 2008 to 2015. Chris is a Webby and Telly award-winning video producer and has served on the jury of the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards. He joined the CNET team in 2015, bringing a small cache of odd, underappreciated cars with him.
Chris Paukert
6 min read
Tim Stevens/Roadshow

Acura's midengined hybrid supercar, the NSX, arrived on the market last year carrying the weight of great expectations on its athletic shoulders. The long-awaited successor of a now-iconic 1990s sports car, the 573-horsepower NSX was one of 2016's most hotly anticipated new models, with early talk of year-plus order waitlists and splashy magazine cover stories to accompany its June arrival in dealerships.

But now, just eight months after the first customers received their cars, there are early warning signs the NSX may be struggling to find traction in the marketplace. A quick search of new-car classifieds websites reveals dozens of unsold models sitting at dealers, with a sizable number being offered at or near MSRP. As of this writing, Cars.com shows 165 examples for sale around the country. Autotrader.com has 170. eBay Motors lists just 18 examples up for sale, but none of them has a registered bid. (Some of these listings are duplicates between sites, while others may be tied to dealer orders and not yet in stock, but a majority of them look to be in showrooms, ready for purchase.)

Those inventory numbers are remarkable given that Acura sold just 269 new NSX coupes in North America in 2016, and they're unusual in the rarified air of supercar sales, where new models from high-end automakers such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren or Porsche are often the subject of order queues that are months (if not years) long, and sticker prices are routinely driven up by speculators.

Acura declined to disclose how many NSX units it has in inventory.

2017 Acura NSX

Acura's dynamic NSX is thrilling to drive, but is that enough?

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

Honda's premium brand, for its part, is downplaying any concern. "In general, we're really, really happy with how NSX has been received by customers and media," said Honda spokesman Matt Sloustcher. He further notes that peak NSX production -- six to eight units per day -- was only reached in late 2016 at Acura's Performance Manufacturing Center in Marysville, Ohio.

Sloustcher also states that around half of early production cars were "dealer coverage units" instead of orders for specific customers. "There is benefit to having cars in dealerships in terms of getting eyeballs on the car, and interest in showrooms," he said. Models like the NSX are often referred to as "halo cars," vehicles designed to capture the attention of the buying public and media, in turn putting the entire brand in a more positive light. The hope is that such cars draw showroom visitors and that some drive out in less expensive new models -- perhaps an MDX crossover or TLX sedan.

Those early-build NSXes were also disproportionately highly optioned cars, and stocking such expensively specced examples may have unwittingly been a purchase deterrent for some buyers. Many early inventory cars carried sticker prices of close to $200,000, in part because they were equipped with costly carbon-ceramic brakes (conventional iron-brake cars are still not yet widely available, Sloustcher notes). That's not unusual -- automakers routinely front-load production of more expensive, high-option-count models when introducing new cars, because early customers are more likely to be willing to pay for the privilege of being first on the block with a hot new car. Additionally, having particularly well equipped models in dealers shows prospective customers the breadth of equipment that's available.

2017 Acura NSX

The NSX's driver-centric cockpit is all business.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

Even with what looks to be months' worth of inventory based on current sales rates, Sloustcher says customers are still custom-ordering cars. "They want the calipers they want, they want the seat materials they want... we're taking orders at a good pace." US built-to-order cars can take around three months to fill.

The NSX is a very ambitious product -- not just in terms of performance, but also price. Its $156,000 MSRP is nearly three times as costly as the RLX, Acura's slow-selling $54,450 flagship sedan. That pricing gulf is reason for concern, says IHS Automotive senior analyst Stephanie Brinley. "Acura's challenge with the NSX is to generate both awareness and consideration amongst the target high-dollar sports car buyers who would appreciate the technology and performance of the NSX. While the pricing is consistent for the segment and level of technology, it is a big jump for the Acura brand." Fellow industry analyst Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis for AutoPacific, agrees: "There is a huge gap here for being a halo car," he said.

Industry watchers also point to the NSX's long road to production as being a potential impediment to its sales success. As IHS' Brinley notes, "The long, slow rollout of concepts teasing the final NSX may have worked to [its] disadvantage. With its appearance on the auto show circuit for several years before the production car was available, momentum from the initial excitement may have slowed." Ken Elias, partner at industry consulting firm Maryann Keller & Associates, agrees: "The vehicle took a long time to gestate from when it was first announced so interest likely faded... and Acura really didn't promote the vehicle when it was ready for sale."

Acura's NSX on display at the 2012 Detroit Auto Show, sans turbo power.

Tim Hornyak/CNET

Indeed, the NSX had a long and tortured gestation like few other automobiles. Acura first announced it would build an NSX successor back in late 2007, a car that was developed as front-engined, V10-powered coupe. Despite reaching advanced prototype stage, that model never came to market, thanks to the worldwide economic collapse. A wholly different NSX with a naturally aspirated V6 and hybrid tech was subsequently developed and shown in 2012, but that all-wheel-drive design was again extensively changed when the decision was made to go with turbocharged power, a move that required reorienting the engine longitudinally, requiring yet more engineering time and further delaying the program.

AutoPacific's Sullivan also thinks there may also be a philosophical disconnect between the celebrated original NSX and this second-generation model: "It has no relation to what the original NSX was or even breaks new ground like the original."

North America's exotic car market segment is small, notoriously expensive to enter, and generally not kind to outsider brands. At the moment, it's also thick with talented newer entrants, including the Audi R8, BMW i8, McLaren 570S/570GT range and the Mercedes-AMG GT-R, among others. Analysts I spoke with suggest there might not be enough premium pie to go around. As Elias at MK&C notes, "The simple fact is that the exotic space has gotten crowded... with lots of choices from a variety of manufacturers. Back in the early 1990s, the NSX was somewhat more unique... and the Acura brand was on the upswing."

2017 Acura NSX on the road and the track (pictures)

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Acura may be struggling to find its way as a brand, but reviews for the fully baked production NSX have been very positive. It has won numerous awards, and indeed, the car was very favorably reviewed in Roadshow's own pages. If the NSX is struggling to find buyers, it may simply be that its small sales niche is already overcrowded. In other words, it's time to buy more sports cars, America.

Despite how long it took to get the NSX to market, Acura remains optimistic about the model's future, buoyed by December sales of 68 units and January sales of 50 units, two of the model's strongest sales months to date. Up to this point, most purchases have been sight unseen, absent of units available for test drive. "We will do more to market the car from a Tier-1 level," Sloustcher says, noting that the company's "NSX Insider Experience," which includes seeing cars built at the factory and a test drive on Acura's adjacent track, is just coming online. Plus, sports cars traditionally sell best in spring and summer.

Sloustcher says that in the end, whether the NSX is judged to be a success won't purely be a question of sales: "For us, it's about changing people's perception about who Acura is and what we can do, and there's no better way to do that than a supercar."