MARYSVILLE, Ohio — For people in the market for an automobile largely built by hand and not robots, a few options come to mind. There are Rolls-Royce and Bentley, certainly. Or consider a $250,000 Ferrari made in the north of Italy or maybe a $250,000 McLaren from the south of England.
Or possibly, as of this summer, a $50,000 Acura born in central Ohio.
In Marysville, at American Honda’s Performance Manufacturing Center, “hand built” may overstate what’s unfolding on the assembly line. But a special PMC edition of the 2020 Acura TLX sports sedan is being built alongside its rich relation, the $160,000 NSX sports car.
Automation figures in, of course. But, philosophically, at least, robots are taking a back seat to the work being done by a small army of real people.
The Performance Manufacturing Center is not your churn-’em-out car mill. One may even mistake it for a hospital: white floors, white walls, white coats worn by “associates,” an air of clinical neutrality and virtually no clutter.
All the better to show off the brilliant Valencia Red gloss of the TLX’s custom paint job (the one color available for the special edition).
On any given weekday, six of the PMC edition cars may leave here for dealerships, compared with the 180 mass-produced TLX models that might originate at another Acura plant.
Those cars, which start at $34,000 for a base model, cost less in part because they don’t have many of the trim and premium features — full leather, a surround-view camera system, heated steering wheel, 10-speaker audio and more — that are standard on the special edition, which also ditches the standard four-cylinder motor in favor of the six.
Once 360 of the special-edition TLX cars have shipped this model year, the Performance Manufacturing Center will turn its attention to completing orders for a limited run of the 2020 MDX sport utility vehicle. After that, well, Acura is mum.
“We knew we would use the processes here beyond the NSX when PMC opened in 2013,” said Andrew Quillin, a spokesman for Acura. “We’re not saying what comes next. That’s the fun part of small-batch manufacturing: It gives us liberties to play around.”
At the Performance Manufacturing Center, progress is measured not in millimeters but in tenths of millimeters. During a visit by a reporter and photographer for The New York Times in late July, Tony Thompson, a manufacturing technician, opened and closed the front passenger door of a TLX a dozen times until there was just enough overhang on the rear edge to avoid wind noise at high speed.
Between each action, he slightly adjusted the latch and striker plate. “Got to be perfect,” said Thompson, a Honda employee for 30 years and one of about 100 hand-picked “MTs” at the plant.
Henry Ford, while he might applaud the fact that these special Acuras come in only one shade, most likely wouldn’t recognize the fine-tuning that happens at the plant. At the front end of a car, Jayme Cummins shuttles among bins of hardware to create the fascia, aligning the LED headlights above the bumper and measuring the hood panel gaps — the spaces between the sheet metal parts — for any deviations.
At the engine-mounting station, the car bodies are suspended, and a platform raises the engine. Technicians first turn the mounting bolts by hand into the subframe, then use sophisticated torque wrenches to tighten them. Patience is required.
Unlike any version of the TLX sedan, the high-end NSX is built at this factory on an aluminum space frame. In that case, “if you run a bolt into the aluminum very fast, the bolt and the aluminum get too hot and will almost weld,” said Jeff Britton, assembly unit manager at the Performance Manufacturing Center. “Not good.”
The TLX’s 290-horsepower V-6 engine comes from an automated assembly system at a plant in Anna, Ohio (although the NSX twin-turbo unit is assembled by humans there).
Henry Ford might also appreciate that the electronic torque wrenches measure how much twist is applied to each bolt and store the information on a computer. “We keep those torque specs on file for every car that’s built here,” Britton said.
It may take up to five days to complete a TLX, from the time the shell, or so-called body in white, is delivered from a nearby facility to the rollout into an indoor holding pen for pickup by trailers. Some of that time is to allow for paint curing.
In fact, painting the PMC-edition cars is a science of sorts. The body is first dunked into a variety of cleaning and rinse baths. “Before the color is even applied, the bodies go through three ovens,” said Keith Bullock, a paint technician. “It’s 12 minutes for dehydration, 32 minutes to bake and cooling for seven minutes.”
After that, the shell shuttles into the painting booths and the waiting arms of robots, which apply three separate coats of color and clear finish. Later, a team of polishers, buffers in hand and working in front of an array of ultrabright LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, examines the bodies for blemishes and scratches.
The penultimate stop in the process is an indoor dynamometer that calibrates the TLX’s drive system, braking performance and motor turbos. Before the car is washed and prepped, it’s docked onto a four-post “shaker,” a hydraulic gizmo that can simulate driving on a variety of surfaces, including cobblestones and severe bumps. After a water-leak test, each car is wrapped in a cover. Ostensibly, it’s not actually driven — indeed, it doesn’t see daylight — until it’s received by the dealer.
Speaking of shipping, the destination charge for the TLX PMC model is $1,995, double the sum that buyers would pay for a 2019 BMW 3 series or an Audi A5 coupe, for example. Chris Naughton, an Acura spokesman, said the fee reflected the cost of the car cover and the fact that it was shipped in an enclosed carrier.
The suggested retail price of a delivered TLX PMC sedan is $50,945. Lottery winners can consider stepping up to the NSX. NSX buyers who would like to visit the plant can opt for a version of the “Insider Experience,” which offers several packages, such as a tour, lunch and a “Performance Drive” for $2,787 for one person, $4,459 for two. Airfare, hotel and all travel accoutrements are extra. As, of course, is the NSX.