The NSX supercar Acura unveiled at the Detroit auto show last week is drawing attention not only for its design, but also for its designer.
Michelle Christensen, exterior design project leader for the NSX, is the first woman to lead a design team working on a supercar. She joined the team for the production car shortly after Acura unveiled its NSX concept at the 2012 Detroit show.
Staying true to that concept was a key mandate for Christensen and her eight-person team. “They wanted an emotional, 3-D kind of feeling,” Christensen told Automotive News at Acura’s Torrance, Calif., design studio last month. “My priority was to keep that.”
The NSX’s unusual powertrain — a twin-turbocharged V-6 with an all-wheel-drive, three-motor gas-electric hybrid system — and a midstream switch to a midmounted engine opened new possibilities for the design team to give the car a more muscular profile, Christensen said.
The mid-engine layout was “one of the most fun proportions to work on” as the team adjusted the design to keep the cabin low and within the wheelbase, Christensen said.
“It gave us the opportunity to punch more holes in it and make it more exotic,” she said. “From a styling standpoint, we were really excited to take it to the gym and beef it up.”
Christensen’s earlier projects were hardly the kinds of vehicles immortalized on boys’ bedroom walls. Before joining the supercar team, she worked on the now-discontinued ZDX crossover and a refresh of the RLX, Acura’s staid large sedan.
The NSX, a long-awaited successor to the Acura halo car that was sold from 1990 to 2005, could change that. Although it has a smaller engine, it’s a “badass little car” that will compete with the V-10-powered Audi R8, Ferrari 458 and Porsche 911 Turbo S, Christensen said. Acura said the NSX’s sport hybrid powertrain will generate over 550 hp and herald the brand’s return to its performance roots.
Christensen, a 34-year-old graduate of the famed Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., said that growing up working on muscle cars with her father in their San Jose, Calif., garage influenced her design ethos.
“The ’32 Ford? There’s nothing on that that’s fluff,” she said. For the NSX, “we wanted to take off any extra garnishes” in order to “simplify it and cut weight.”
She said her interest in fashion also shaped the NSX’s look, comparing the process of designing the car’s exterior skin to draping couture over a mannequin. Like fashionable shoes, she said, cars are structures that are designed to appear to be moving, even when standing still.
“Shoes and cars are both these really complex shapes that need to wrap around a human element,” she said.
Designing the heir to Acura’s halo car was a lofty responsibility, Christensen said. “With a supercar, the potential is so much greater that everything is magnified,” she said. “It needed to stand out.”
“We really tried to treat it more like a sculpture,” she said, with jewel headlights showcasing a “mean, aggressive, front-end personality” and a floating C-pillar. The decklid is a nod to the original NSX’s heritage, with graphic taillights spanning the car’s width.
In between designs, the team took 40 percent scale models of the car to Honda’s wind tunnel in Raymond, Ohio. The prototypes were adjusted to reduce turbulence and drag and increase downforce. Christensen and her team refined the exterior, creating a bigger signature side intake, as well as vents for the hood and front fender, to direct airflow across the rear.
“The side intake became a really important part of the car’s profile,” Christensen said. “Visually, we want it to stand up and kick ass.”