Twenty-five years and counting: What's next for Acura
The next-generation of Acura
To survive its next quarter-century, Acura is getting back in touch with its core values
Thinking back to Japan Inc.'s original entry into the global luxury-car market, it's all too easy to think of Lexus first. At its launch in 1989, Toyota's new luxury brand held nothing back. The large LS 400 sedan set its sights high — on the prestige flagships of the European luxury fleet — and landed its first salvo right on target. The speed of its acceptance as a prestige brand was almost shocking.
1986 Acura Legend
It's easy to forget that Lexus was following a course already set by Honda. Toyota's smaller rival was the first Japanese automaker to create a luxury brand when it launched Acura in 1986.
Acura wasn't as ambitious as Lexus, however. Its flagship sedan, the Legend, was a front-driver powered by a 2.7-litre V6; the Lexus LS4 00 met the European elite head-on with rear-wheel drive and a 4.0-litre V8. The Porsche-baiting NSX supercar, launched in 1991, was certainly a landmark, and cemented Acura's credibility among twenty-somethings already smitten with small, sporty Acuras like the Integra. But the Integra was gone by 2001, and the broader market remained unmoved by Acura's largest sedan offerings. Unlike Lexus, Acura never attained Tier 1 status. A luxury brand, perhaps, but never a prestige marque.
There have been good times
2006 Acura TL Type-S
In 1999 the then-new Gen-2 TL was the top-selling entry-luxury sedan and was runner-up the following two years. Between 2001 and 2005, Acura averaged almost 24,000 sales a year in Canada. Not only did the Canada-exclusive EL, the RSX, the TL and later the TSX contribute significant volume, but by then Acura was also in the SUV business with the MDX.
Even so, Acura's best year in Canada was way back in 2001 (the first full year of the MDX). Even with the MDX contributing 4,000-5,000 sales a year, passenger-car sales were on a slide, and pulling down total sales with them. In 2007 the advent of the smaller RDX doubled Acura's SUV sales — but car sales fell so sharply that total sales shrink again, to just over 20,000. For the first time, combined sales of Acura cars — now CSX, TSX, TL and RL — were outnumbered by the two SUVs.
By 2011, Acura Canada sales had swooned to 15,272 from their 2001 high of almost 26,000. Even more tellingly, passenger-car sales had shrivelled to 6,739, from almost 22,000 in 2001.
But, "We are not turning away from this thing," said executive vice-president Jerry Chenkin at a press briefing. "We expect loyal Honda owners to stay in the family (and) move up into the Acura brand."
Getting back into the car business
Acura Advanced Sports Car Concept
More than that, Acura needs conquest sales. And the renaissance clearly needs to come on the passenger-car side. "Our reliance on SUVs to push our brand forward needs to come to an end," says senior product planner, Emile Korkor.
Several years ago Acura had a turnaround plan that involved pursuing the Tier 1 goal the traditional way. At the 2007 Detroit auto show it proposed the Advanced Sports Car Concept — a classic front-engined rear-driver with a large V10 engine. Then the wheels came off the world economy in 2008, and Acura looked deep inside itself again. "The V10 supercar concept was not true to Honda and Acura values," recalls Chenkin. "Acura DNA is all about efficiency and power-to-weight ratio — performance through technology, not just a bigger engine."
So Acura still aims to be a Tier 1 competitor, but based on its own core values. No monster engines guzzling gas while generating huge outputs that the traction-control system won't let you fully use anyway; no technology overkill that drives a wedge between man and machine, leaving drivers disconnected and frustrated. "You should not need to switch off the stability-control to fully enjoy the car," says Korkor.
Instead, Acura is preaching man-machine synergy: "When Man and Machine connect, the Extraordinary Happens" is the new mantra.
Too affordable, too sensible?
2006 Acura Advanced Sedan Concept
Also on the to-do list is to insert more prestige into a model mix currently skewed too far towards entry-luxury; and to better balance the products' rational and emotional appeal. Currently, Acura sees its lineup as too heavy on the rational while the Europeans lean the opposite way. Acura thinks a 50/50 balance between left-brain and right-brain would be just right. Expect a renewed focus on sports sedans.
And no more "keen-edge" styling. The polarizing design language introduced with the 2009 TL is gone. Now the goal is timeless beauty: "We don't want designs with a short shelf life," said Korkor.
The pursuit of overwhelmingly beautiful design is one of six core principles that will guide Acura's recovery plan. On the product side, two others are: "Utilise the assets and resources of 'corporate Honda' to offer Acura original value within the luxury brand market"; and "Offer products with (far-sighted) vision and societal benefits."
Also directly touching its customers will be the commitment to "Exceed customer expectations with our dealers to provide superior customer care."
Product, product, product
2013 Acura RDX
While passenger cars will drive Acura's renaissance, the first new product out of the box will be the 2013 RDX SUV, on sale this April. With its more formal styling, and a 3.5-litre V6 replacing the previous 2.3-litre turbo four-cylinder the new compact SUV supposedly reflects the company's new direction, even though the upsized powertrain seems at odds with current industry trends.
Hard on the heels of the RDX, the ILX sedan will be in showrooms in May. The compact "gateway" car effectively replaces the previous Canada-only CSX but will also be sold (and built) Stateside. It will contest the growing near-premium compact segment with a choice of three four-cylinder powertrains: 2.0-litre/six-speed automatic; 2.4-litre/six-speed manual; and 1.5-litre hybrid/CVT.
The 2013 RDX and ILX were already shown as concepts at the Detroit auto show earlier this month, and the full production versions will be shown at the Toronto show in mid-February.
New flagship sedan coming soon
2012 Acura NSX Concept
We can also now reveal that Acura will show a concept of its new flagship sedan at the New York show this April. Scheduled to go on sale in calendar 2013, the new (let's call it) NFS recognises that the current RL flagship is too small to be a viable step up from the TL. The NFS still won't be especially large outside, but with a focus on packaging efficiency, Acura is promising full-size space (read: BMW 7 Series) with midsize agility (5 Series).
Mechanically the sedan will employ the same powertrain hardware as the mid-engined NSX Concept shown in Detroit, but rearranged to suit the basically front-drive layout. Up front, a V6 with direct injection (a technology Honda/Acura has been surprisingly slow to adopt) will be bolted to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission (ditto) with an integrated electric motor. Two more electric motors will drive the rear wheels (fronts on the NSX) with the ability to individually generate positive or negative torque to the wheels when cornering. The latter is a new twist on Acura's clever Super Handling All-Wheel Drive technology, which now becomes Sport Hybrid SH-AWD.
Like the stunning NSX, the sedan's engineering speaks to Acura's renewed commitment to performance through technology and efficiency. Promising V8 performance with four-cylinder fuel economy, the car will also tap into what Acura sees as a new sensibility among luxury-car buyers who are less invested in conspicuous consumption and more tuned in to social and environmental responsibility.
Sounds like a plan.
A 1967 Shelby GT500 Super Snake sold for $1.3 million. Do you think classic cars were made better than modern rides?
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