Payne: Clarion NSX, a classic remixed

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Want to melt your ear drums? Rolling onto I-696’s Orchard Lake on-ramp, I put the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” on full volume. Then I unleash the supercharged Acura NSX’s 340 supercharged horses. With Jagger screaming and the twin pipes roaring, I enter the freeway with the throttle wide open at 8000 RPM.

Eat your heart out Beyonce. The 1991 “Clarion Builds” Acura NSX is the hottest musical act in Detroit this summer.

By updating vintage cars with cutting-edge audio systems, Clarion Audio’s Clarion Builds is giving classics new life. Leaders in automotive audio systems for 82 years, Clarion launched its annual Builds program last year with a 1972 BMW 2002 that fetched $125,000 at Barrett-Jackson Auctions. “Builds Part Two: The NSX” is now on national tour — its ultimate concert date set for Barrett-Jackson sometime later this year.

The NSX stop in Detroit in June was also a timely opportunity to sample the classic NSX just as Acura’s own sequel — the 2017 Acura NSX — is hitting dealer lots. I say sequel loosely, because the two generations of NSX share a badge and almost nothing else. The 2001 BMW M3 and 2016 BMW M2 I reviewed recently may be 15 years apart, but their shared DNA is instantly familiar: inline-6 engines, taut 3,500-pound chassis, aggressive kidney grilles.

The two NSX are supercars for different times.

The first generation, born in 1989 in Japan, was the first aluminum supercar made — and for much less than luxurious brands like Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche. Jump forward a quarter century and NSX II once again does supercar on the cheap — but this time it’s Made in America (Marysville, Ohio) in the e-Age with a hybrid powertrain.

True to its Clarion Builds mission, the “Caelum Blu” ’91 NSX — rebuilt from the ground up by Autowave in California — is significantly updated. Lower, wider, with 18-inch-front/19-rear wheels and front spoiler and rear wing off the track-tuned, 1992 NSX-R, it looks hungrier, more modern even with its oh-so-20th century pop-up headlamps.

Inside, I sit in a cocoon of luxury, cradled by leather seats and surrounded by Clarion’s five-speaker, all-digital audio system. Coming soon to a galaxy near you.

But turn the key and roll out of Clarion’s Farmington Hills garage, and I’m transformed back to the early ’90s when Macaulay Culkin was adorable, Joe Montana dominated the NFL, and the Clintons were sleazing American politics. Well, some things never change.

This car feels more like my ol’ 1979 BMW M1 supercar than the 21st century NSX cyborg. No head room. No power steering, No squared-off steering wheel. Clarion head unit aside, the NSX’s console is pedestrian compared to the ’17 car’s sci-fi layout. No sport-mode dial. No Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Only a slanted, multi-media display that is blinded by sunlight.

Clarion yanked the tired, 230,000-mile (!), 207-horse 3.0-liter V6 and stuffed in the 3.2-liter V6 found in 2004 NSX models. Add supercharger and output is now a beefy 344-horsepower. But the engine’s character is still that of the high-revving, normal aspirated engine of old. Row the classic NSX’s tight manual box (kids, ask grandpa to explain a manual shifter to you), and the car accelerates to a glorious 8-grand crescendo.

Floor the new NSX and instant torque flattens your face. Zero-to-60 for the oldster: 4.8 seconds. For the new, second-gen hybrid NSX? Three-point-oh.

The new, “jewel-eyed” car is better in every measure, including its road-hugging, torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system. How spoiled I felt in the new NSX with its grip-fitted, electronic steering compared to the old car’s heavy, hydraulic steering. NSX II’s style is cleaner and more sculpted, though the new car does pay homage to its forebear with horizontal rear lights and a view into the mid-mounted engine.

The ’91 car is more cab-forward in its design — illustrative of an era of cab-forward Chrysler LH cars and Formula One racers of the day — yet with Clarion’s subtle visual tweaks (and barking exhaust courtesy of AEM Induction Systems) it turned heads wherever I went in Metro Detroit.

I parked next to a new, Porsche Panamera GTS in Bloomfield Hills. German sports sedan meets Japanese sports coupe. A nice pair in the garage.

A new, hybrid 2017 NSX doesn’t come cheap. It may be well south of the $900,000 you’ll shell out for a hybrid Porsche 918, but — at $160,000 base — it is a $60,000 dearer than the (inflation-adjusted) cost of a ’91 NSX today. Of course, the Clarion Builds version should go for well north of that at Barrett-Jackson.

But isn’t digital Jagger at 8,000 rpm worth the premium?

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

1991 Clarion Builds Acura NSX


Vehicle type: Mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-passenger sports car

Price: TBD at auction

Power plant: 3.2-liter supercharged V-6

Power: 344 horsepower, 247 pound-feet torque

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.8 seconds (Clarion)

Weight: 3,200 pounds

Fuel economy: NA

Report card

Highs: Wicked, updated styling; one-of-a-kind

Lows: Sure you don’t want the new, superquick 2017 NSX?


Grading scale: Excellent ★★★★ Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★