A supercar showdown has broken out on the floor of the Detroit auto show.
Ford’s glistening blue GT sports car and Honda’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 mph 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.