Redefining An Icon

Sitting up front at the 2015 North American International Auto Show, Michelle Christensen, exterior design leader for the highly anticipated next-generation Acura NSX, turned to watch it make its entrance. Focusing past the influential crowd of journalists, critics, celebrities and industry leaders, she saw it in motion. In that moment, hopeful that her vision of a beloved classic would stand up to expectations, it got a standing ovation. The new NSX had finally arrived.

It was 2012 when Christensen was tapped to help transform an icon, and she knew she had no small task in front of her. Not only was this an automotive designer’s dream to work on, it put her in a position to capture the attention of car enthusiasts around the world. When presented with the opportunity her first question was, “When do I start?”

The next question was where to start.

She knew it had to keep traditional sports car styling cues like low, aggressive proportion, strong design, and an emotional synergy between the car and driver. She and her team also knew it needed to fuse these cues with essential features of the original NSX.

Recalling the early days on the project, Christensen says, “It was a lot of looking into the future as well as the past; what is the heritage of NSX? What can we keep? What can we learn from what the original NSX team accomplished? Because that was such an iconic car not just for the brand but for supercars in general.”

They needed to maintain a level of purity, ensuring the car was both beautiful and functional. In her eyes the key was to go crazy building up the design, and then start taking away things that didn’t need to be there. “I think that’s when you start to get something that’s timeless,” she reasons.

The design of the new NSX is impressive by any measure. Like its 1991 predecessor, it has mid-engine proportions that make it wide and low to the ground, a cabin in the middle of the car, and prominent fenders that let you aim the car in curves. Ultra thin A-pillars allow great visibility, and taillights link to a light bar that spans the whole width of the car – details that were striking on the original.

Generations later, there’s a new Acura design language. It was important for Christensen to bring all of her creative passion to the project and respect the icon – keeping some classic NSX cues while pushing Acura design further than ever. She notes that today there’s a movement to recapture Acura’s heritage of racing and performance. In many eyes, the NSX is the embodiment of that, taking the brand back to its strong performance roots.

When asked how this development will be seen in other models moving forward, Christensen stated, “I wish I was allowed to talk more about future products… All I can say is that this project, having it in the studio next to other developments we’re working on, it’s had a big impact. It has brought supercar energy to everything we’re working on.”

The way she sees it, once the NSX is in the show room, everything else has to look good next to it. That’s why, in the spirit of Mr. Honda himself, she and the entire team continually pushed through boundaries – and occasional creative tension – to innovate on everything from design to performance to packaging.

Since graduating from design school in 2005, Christensen’s career has been moving with the speed, grace and exhilaration of the car itself. She recognizes that it’s an exciting time to be with this brand. There seems to be a renaissance happening, and to have worked on the pinnacle car for it was, well, huge.

The next-generation NSX was one of the biggest debuts at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show. “When we went to Detroit for the unveiling, that was a pretty intense event for me and our whole team… It was really cool to see everybody get so excited about it. It’s such an anticipated car and I was really proud in that moment.”

Transforming an iconic supercar would justly be an intimidating assignment for any lead designer, and certainly a professional challenge of epic proportions. For a woman who grew up in a family of hot rods and artists, met and married her match in automotive-design and now leads a team where she was first hired, it’s clear the right talent was on the job.