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FWD Champions: The Acura Vigor

October 19, 2012 by Matt

Acura Honda Vigor

I sometimes wonder why the 1992-1994 Acura Vigor is FWD.

Just look at it. The front wheels are pushed to the front corners of the car in a characteristically RWD fashion. The engine is mounted longitudinally, not sideways, and the transmission is located behind the engine—again, like a RWD car. And the whole package has distinctly BMW 3-series proportions and overtones, mimicking the RWD sports sedan benchmark.

Acura Honda Vigor Engine Motor G25A G25A1

So again, tell me why the Vigor had to be FWD? Featuring a punchy 188-hp, 2.5l 5-cylinder engine, the aforementioned rear-mounted transmission sent power to the front wheels through a sports-car-like limited-slip differential, giving the car excellent handling in spite of its FWD nature. The engine orientation and gearbox location allowed the powerplant to be advantageously located farther rearward in the chassis, greatly benefiting weight distribution, which came in at a remarkable (for a FWD car) 60:40 front-to-rear. The whole setup is actually reminiscent of that of Saab’s first-generation 900, itself a FWD Champion. I’m no engineer, but it seems like it would have been simpler to stick a driveshaft out the back of the transmission, connect it to a diff and halfshafts out back and call it a day, rather than making the power do a U-turn and cluttering up the engine bay with the kit necessary to get said power to the front wheels. Who knows; perhaps it was a parts commonality issue? Honda didn’t produce a mass-market RWD car until the much-later S2000 roadster. They may have wanted to use much of what was in the parts bin, but the result, although excellent, suffered from a sort of halfhearted, middle-of-the-road sense of execution.

Acura Honda Vigor Green Turquoise Rear Back

Positioned between Acura’s range-topping Legend and entry-level Integra, the short-lived Vigor was the automaker’s attempt to poach midsize executive car sales from Infiniti and Lexus in particular, going head-to-head with the latter’s successful ES300. Sadly, it didn’t accomplish its goal, the most common reasons cited being a smaller size and considerably firmer suspension tuning than its rival at Lexus, qualities lost on a typical American consumer.

Acura Honda Vigor Interior Inside Cockpit Console Dash Dashboard Shifter

As with so many aspects of the Japanese entry into the American luxury car market in the early ’90s, it’s a shame the Vigor wasn’t properly developed and pitched. In addition to its dynamic qualities and handsome styling, one look at the beautifully understated and driver-focused cockpit above makes it clear that it’s one FWD I wouldn’t mind rolling around in on a daily basis.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting FWD cars I think highly of, in spite of my overwhelming RWD bias. Read the other installments here:

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Honda CBX: Superbike Godfather

February 19, 2012 by Matt

Honda CBX CBX1000 Red

I’ve never been much into bikes, but this one almost made a believer out of me.

Actually, having never really experienced it, that’s not altogether true; however, I can confidently say it was the first motorcycle to actually interest me. The power, the ahead-of-its-time sophistication, the speed and the fact that it sported an inline-6 (my favorite engine configuration) all drew me in. I knew nothing about bikes at the time, and I had absolutely no idea that the ’78-’82 Honda CBX is far, far “too much bike” for a beginner to even contemplate, but I knew I wanted one. It was the equivalent of a 15-year-old lusting after a Lamborghini Countach, in other words.

Honda CBX CBX1000 Red

What made it so special? Well, just look at it. I defy any enthusiast of things mechanical to lay eyes on the six chromed exhaust pipes curling down and away from the cylinder head and not dissolve in paroxysms of desire. The bike has an undeniably vintage look, but that massive engine wedged underneath the fuel tank speaks volumes about its accelerative capabilities. Powered by a 1047cc, 24-valve, DOHC, 6-carb straight six developing 105 hp, the CBX could destroy the 1/4 mile in 11.5 seconds, and the engine’s size and refinement meant it could pull readily from lower in the rev range as well. Even if the engine’s girth meant it would never be quite as nimble as its lower-displacement, more compact stablemates such as the CB750, the CBX was beautifully flexible and brutally fast in its own right. I still want one.

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Honda’s Super Bowl Ad:
Automotive Middle Age Malaise

January 31, 2012 by Matt

I think this one might backfire on Honda. Maybe not on a conscious level for the average viewer, but there are definitely depressing undercurrents.

Briefly, then, let’s discuss the clip’s highlights

  1. The car is prominently featured. In contrast to many car ads which put forth an idea or attempt to create a mood in lieu of actually showing the vehicle, we are “treated” (I use that word loosely) to some nice shots and angles of the CR-V tooling around.
  2. Exuberant pacing. The editing of the clip effectively communicates the car’s runabout, practical nature as a sort of “companion” that can keep up with a busy daily routine.
  3. All the scenes are easy to correlate with those of the original film. The ad pays homage to all the iconic scenes from the ’80s classic; I can’t think of anything from the original I wish they had paid tribute to in the TV spot.

And poor decisions:

  1. The whole premise of the ad. Matthew Broderick’s character Ferris Bueller drives a Ferrari 250GT Calfornia during his “day off” in the original film. I can’t imagine many things more singularly depressing than puttering around town in a Honda CR-V, remembering that day from my youth when I was serenaded by the dulcet tones of a six-Weber Ferrari V12 at WOT all day long. If that isn’t a metaphor for the descent into mediocrity that often accompanies middle age, I don’t know what is.
  2. Ferris is old. Yes, the ad’s concept is that Broderick—not the character he’s completely synonymous with—is experiencing a real-life Ferris-like “day off,” but who are they kidding? Viewers will immediately see Ferris, not Broderick; more than that, they’ll notice he’s aged, and as much as fans of the original film identified with and wanted to be Ferris, anyone who watches the ad is encouraged to identify with the older, squishier “Ferris.” Not a pleasant proposition.
  3. The final shot of the car shows it bottoming out in a shower of sparks. Yes, the shot recalls the inimitable Ferrari + Star Wars theme music scene from the ’80s movie, but is that really the final impression to make on your viewers? A dumpy-looking CR-V clanking down on the asphalt, rear wiper flapping ignominiously?

So, some good points and some significant debits. Overall, a thumbs-down to Honda’s too-cute effort. Give me the Seinfeld/Jay Leno Acura NSX ad instead. Even if it doesn’t really show the car all that much.

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Automotive Middle Age Malaise

New Acura NSX Concept:
Worthy of the Name?

January 13, 2012 by Matt

Acura Honda NSX NS-X Show Car Concept New Silver Gray Grey

It’s not the bolt from the blue its predecessor was. The original NSX literally redefined the supercar, introducing the notion that blistering performance and prestige didn’t have to come at the expense of usability, ergonomics and reliability, and sent Ferrari and Porsche, among others, scurrying back to their drawing boards. The new NSX concept, on the other hand, slots rather quietly into the burgeoning crowd of alternative-propulsion supercar concepts such as the Porsche 918 or Jaguar C-X75. Mid-engined shape festooned with corporate design themes? Check. One internal-combustion engine augmented by two or more electric motors? Got ’em. Shameless plundering of its marque’s history while incorporating as many trendy concepts as possible? Yessir. And so on…

Acura Honda NSX NS-X Show Car Concept New Silver Gray Grey

Forgive my cynicism. In spite of its same-ness, with respect to the raw ingredients, the NSX Concept certainly carries its namesake’s torch in key areas: It’s a usable, range-topping halo car that delivers the expected levels of performance and elevates its brand’s image accordingly. And yet—there’s something missing… The shock of the original, perhaps? But how can you engineer a revolution? And anyway, the first-generation car was an easy answer to a surprisingly obvious question; what do modern supercars lack or overlook that could bestow a point of distinction on a new arrival so ingenious as to shore up those oversights? User-friendly, reliable supercars are all around. It’s been done.

I don’t have an answer. What say you? Are you pleased with Acura’s update of the NSX concept? If not, what could they have done differently to better distinguish the car from its rivals?

And whilst you ponder, check out the promo video after the jump, put together, appropriately enough for such a technological wundercar, by the Polyphony Digital team, the same crew responsible for the Gran Turismo series:

Watch the clip!

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Worthy of the Name?

Upcoming Supra and NSX?
The New Sports Car Landscape

December 13, 2011 by Matt

Toyota FT-HS Supra White

Of all Japanese automakers, Nissan and Lexus, with their GT-R and LFA, respectively, get it.

No electric motors, please. No fuel cells, giant capacitors or kinetic energy recovery systems. Just plain old gasoline-generated horsepower, and lots of it, for our sports cars.

And yet, Honda and Lexus’ parent company Toyota, seem to want to mimic their eco-crazy European counterparts in developing hybrid sports cars. As if that weren’t bad enough, it seems likely both companies will revive storied model names to give their new creations a measure of “legitimacy” out of the starting blocks.

In Toyota’s case, the rumors aren’t anything new—the automaker has been coy about the development of a “Mark 5” Supra for ages now—but the recent introduction of the clean-sheet, RWD GT 86/Scion FR-S has freshly stoked the fires of speculation. And with the FT-HS concept car, shown at top, all that’s left to wonder is what Toyota’s waiting for to pull the trigger. It’s understandable the collapse of the Japanese sports car market during the late ’90 would leave that country’s automakers wary of introducing any new top-of-the-line road eaters, and Toyota is a cautious company in general. That said, the automaker is the poster child for hybrid success with the runaway popularity (relatively speaking) of their Prius, so it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch for them to adapt some well-proven hybrid technology to a range-topping sports car. And Toyota’s never made a dynamically bad car, so its driving characteristics will undoubtedly be above reproach. The only question left, then, is what enthusiasts would make of a new Hybrid Supra. Would they enthusiastically embrace it? Or recoil in horror that the legacy of the canonized Mark 4 Supra would be tarnished by association with technology primarily geared toward economy?

Acura Honda NSX Purple Iron Man Tony Stark

For its part, Honda has more or less committed to introduce an NSX successor, if you can call it that. The Jalopnik report states:

Sources inside a Las Vegas dealer meeting earlier this month exclusively told us the new Acura NSX Concept would look like the vehicle from the upcoming Avengers movie (albeit in hardtop form) and feature an AWD hybrid drivetrain. If true, this would mean a radical departure from the car’s previous life as a pure, light-weight, RWD sports car.

I share the site’s sense of disappointment at Honda’s divergence from the formula that made the original so distinctive. In a way, if the automaker does decide to attach the NSX nameplate to the trunklid, they stand to lose more than Toyota would in naming an upcoming hybrid sports car Supra. Although comparable performance-wise, the NSX was an altogether more pure sports car than the Supra, offered at a higher price point, and basically unchanged (or unsullied, depending on your point of view) from its introduction through the end of its model run. The game-changing nature of the original NSX‘s arrival means a new AWD, hybrid version of the car would more radically redefine the car’s image and purpose compared to a similar situation with the Supra. For the record, I hope both Honda and Toyota come around and offer genuine GT500/Corvette/M3/911 competitors, but given industry trends toward more complex, “eco-friendly” vehicles, I’m doubtful a refreshingly conventional successor to the NSX or Supra will see the light of day.

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The New Sports Car Landscape

What Might Have Been: The Honda S2000

October 25, 2011 by Matt

Honda S2000 S-2000 Red Convertible Roadster Cabrio Cabriolet

So, what’s up? This is a great car; what about its model run could have possibly been better? Don’t I have bigger fish to fry?

Well, let me be clear: None of this will change the car’s status as one of the very few cars of recent vintage I’d seriously consider owning. Honda concentrated their strengths in the S2000; from the eager 240 hp 4-cyl to the light 2850 lb weight to the laser-beam steering and shifter, it’s a usable, focused, angry, fling-about sports car.

The design in particular is very well done. The shape is simple and monolithic, befitting such a single-minded, “pure” car. And details like the rocker panel undercuts and meager distance between the tops of the front wheel arches and tops of the fenders truly shine.

Honda S2000 S-2000 Red Convertible Roadster Cabrio Cabriolet Interior Inside Cockpit

It’s no coincidence, then, that what Honda could have done differently doesn’t include altering the existing car, only “augmenting” the concept with some add-ons, like a coupe version of the car. Cars originally designed as roadsters don’t always make a smooth transition stylistically to being enclosed, as in the case of the Triumph GT6 or the BMW Z3 Coupe. But done carefully, a coupe can breathe new life into a previously convertible-only sports car; witness the BMW Z4 M Coupe or even the sadly-unproduced Mazda Miata Coupe. A nicely-fitting hardtop was offered for the S2000, but it’s not the same. I wish they’d shown us what a smooth resolution of the roof and trunk lines into an elegant fastback could have looked like. And then made it.

Additionally, between the CRX, NSX and then the S2000, Honda has an unfortunate history of “one-and-out” cult cars. Like the other two models, the S2000 had the potential to become a dynasty, but instead of continuing to develop the car, releasing a full update instead of a revision like they did in ’04, Honda unceremoniously axed the model altogether in ’09. At least the automaker didn’t let the car age into complete irrelevance (see: NSX), but there was so much potential to build on their front-mid-engined, RWD foothold, if not with a completely new model, then with a freshening of the S2000 concept. As it is, Honda is frustratingly absent from a market segment they belong in.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting key decisions I wish automakers had made differently, for divers reasons. Read the other installments here:

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FWD Champions: The Honda Prelude

August 17, 2011 by Matt

97-01 Honda Prelude

Honda really can work wonders with their front-wheel-drive architecture. Take the 5th-generation (’97-’01) Prelude—the example under consideration here—which Car and Driver declared in ’97, after a comparo, to be the best handling car available for under $30K. And even when, just for kicks, they pitted the car several months later against the $30K-and-up crop of cars, the Prelude, hampered by the inherent limitations of FWD and only 197 hp from its H22A 4-cylinder, posted a respectable mid-pack finish, garnering the same score as the brutally fast Viper GTS. It’s a remarkable achievement for a 3000 lb FWD car with 63/37 weight distribution.

97-01 Honda Prelude Interior

What makes the difference? In a word, details. As mentioned above, the ’97-’01 Prelude was the 5th incarnation of Honda’s top-of-the-line sporty coupe, so they really had perfected the formula by the time of its release. The ideal suspension setup for handling—double wishbones all around—laid a strong foundation, and the steering feel’s perfection was matched by the action of the typically slick-shifting 5-speed. And the interior, liberated of the previous generation’s universally-decried weirdness, was a paragon of no-nonsense ergonomic efficiency.

97-01 Honda Prelude

All that said, as you might expect, the attribute that moves the car from “that’s nice” to “I’d seriously consider one as a daily driver” territory is the styling. Again eschewing the hunchbacked oddity of the ’92-’96 car’s design, Honda wisely chose to normalize the proportions, free the flanks of any chunky cladding, and inject a little Nissan R32 Skyline into the profile. It gives the car an aggressive, upscale look that has aged very well indeed. The only questionable element is the portrait-orientation headlight treatment, but even that isn’t a dealbreaker. It’s an exceedingly handsome car, and between that and the universal acclaim heaped on its handling prowess, I’d drive one in a New York minute. Even if the front wheels are doing all the work.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series highlighting FWD cars I think highly of, in spite of my overwhelming RWD bias. Read the other installments here:

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Return of the Scalpel?

August 2, 2011 by Matt

Acura NSX

A few months ago, Honda kicked the rumor can a little farther down the road with renewed talk of a long-awaited successor to their groundbreaking NSX exotic. For a while, the safe money had been on a Formula 1-inspired V10 as the upcoming car’s powerplant, but as high-revving, naturally-aspirated engines are presently unfashionable in the range-topping stratum of high-end sports sedans and sports cars, lately the odds have been on yet another hybrid, this time a combination of a breathed-upon standard Honda V6 and an electric motor.

Regardless of what motivates it, an NSX sequel would be a welcome addition to Japan’s portfolio of Porsche- and Ferrari-fighters, a dossier currently containing just a pair of files in the Nissan GT-R and Lexus LFA. For their part, both Honda and Mazda have so far declined to pick up the succession of gauntlets thrown down by the Europeans.

As with the rumors of a possible Porsche 928 successor, the talk of a sequel makes me eager to revisit the original. The NSX is member of that cadre of sport cars, like the Porsche 993 Turbo or Caterham Superlight R500, that I would give a kidney to drive, or even just experience for a few minutes.

Acura NSX Interior

When the NSX burst onto the world stage in 1990, it truly shifted the paradigm for supercars. The lightweight aluminum construction, the user-friendliness and reliability, the corner-slicing purity of the handling, the choice of a high-revving, docile-but-potent naturally-aspirated V6 over a more exotic engine design—these decisions rocked the establishment. Ferrari developed the F355 in response, at the time their best all-around car, with its new (thanks to the NSX’s influence) emphasis on drivability, balance and handling. Gordon Murray even used the NSX as inspiration for his almighty McLaren F1, seeking to reproduce the flexibility, ease of use and bandwidth of the Acura, albeit with more than twice as much horsepower as the Japanese car. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the NSX would have drowned in a sea of adulation from its peers.

From a design standpoint, at least in its ’95-’01 body-colored-roof, pop-up headlight incarnation, the car is a perfect 10. Demure but shapely, reserved but absolutely unmistakable, the lines are a tour de force of functional but deeply pleasing style. I appreciate the interior design in particular—it’s exceedingly well laid out, with a businesslike but fighter-jet feel. The low cowl improves sightlines over the front corners, and the center console design seems to effortlessly sweep the car forward. It’s an environment where I could see myself spending quite some time.

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