Identity Theft: Acura and its Brand

2014 Acura RDX

Acura’s 2014 RDX is more competitive, capable than sheetmetal would suggest.

In the spring of 1986 executives at American Honda were perhaps the only collective outside of Reagan’s Cabinet still willing to place a bet on Ronnie’s trickle-down economics. Believing that a market existed for something above Honda’s best-selling Accords and Civics, but still well below the 5-Series BMWs and midsize Mercedes, Honda execs launched an all-new, near-luxury franchise they dubbed Acura. And while sales of the new franchise – originally but two models available in just 60 showrooms – accelerated, the momentum, such as it was, proved temporary. Rarely has a new automotive brand suffered the ups and downs and starts and stops that Honda’s upscale franchise has enjoyed and/or suffered. And it ain’t over yet…

As recently reported by Bloomberg, following a ten percent drop in U.S. Acura sedan sales (yes, they still sell the occasional sedan) last year, American Honda is in the process of forming a new group to plan business development for the Acura brand. And from this casual observer of Acura, and enthusiast of most things Honda, a business plan that would actual imply business planning can’t come soon enough. Acura’s most recent launches, the near-luxury ILX and top-of-the-line RLX, haven’t moved the needle, and while recent drives in the MDX and RDX CUVs demonstrate the value and competence of those offerings, you don’t compete against the vast array of models from BMW, M-B, Lexus and Audi with two CUVs; at least, you won’t do it in my lifetime.

Acura TL 2004

When times were better…Acura’s 2004 TL

More recently, this planning-of-a-plan has led to the formal split of Honda Motor Company’s sales and marketing efforts into separate divisions, one for Honda and Acura receiving its own. And why that process should have taken 25+ years is anyone’s guess. With reported sales of but 165,000 vehicles in 2013, Acura is not only significantly behind BMW, Mercedes and Lexus, but is allowing Audi to catch up. Michael Accavitti, an alum of Chrysler Corporation, will be named senior vice president and general manager of the new Acura Division. As one who has been in the trenches at Chrysler, he should – at the very least – be adept at not digging the hole deeper.

We could spend several thousand words documenting Acura’s missteps. Better – we think – to write a prescription for the fix, one that needs to be far more comprehensive than the upcoming/incoming Acura NSX. Admittedly, Jerry Seinfeld has confirmed his interest, but it’ll take more than aging comedians (and coffee) to revive this patient;  the suits at Honda can only be so patient.

Acura TL 2014

Acura’s TL: Fighting for attention – from Honda!

In the last year we’ve enjoyed time behind the wheel of Acura’s evergreen TL, redesigned MDX and reconfigured RDX. Of the three, the RDX was the most pleasant surprise. With its turbocharged four discarded and a well-mannered 3.5 liter V6 put in its place, the RDX no longer seems like a CR-V with a surge of adrenaline (or, depending on rpm, crack…). Instead, if comes across as a refined crossover capable of comfortably accommodating four and – in a pinch – five.

We liked its relatively low step-in height, tight build, responsive powertrain and (generally) civilized road manners. We didn’t like the absence of SH-AWD (an engineering feature that should be retained), as well as sheetmetal every bit as anonymous as that of Mitsubishi’s Outlander Sport. And if a $40K Acura can’t express itself better than a $20K Mitsu the ‘Rising Sun’ will have stopped rising.

The TL and the at-one-time-entry-level TSX are to be discontinued, replaced with the almost-splits-the-difference TLX. And as we found in our week with the TL, this should be a competent entry in the near-lux sweepstakes. The TLX will be available with both a Honda-sourced four with front-wheel drive and a direct-injected V6 with (we’ll assume) both front and all-wheel-drive. But every TLX (in our view) should come with all-wheel drive in a ‘Super Handling’ configuration; leave midsize front-wheel drive to your Honda brethren.

So, in a simplified lineup of ILX, TLX and RLX, both entry-level ILX and uplevel RLX need to do more than simply sit there. For the ILX I’d look to Audi’s A3 and Benz’s CLA for inspiration, taking the A3’s competent platform and the CLA’s heightened level of expressiveness. Acura’s product execs could even reference the new Mazda3 – forgawdsake – as an example of combining a compelling, premium (and compellingly premium) package for under $30K. The 2-door RSX, back in the day, synthesized this beautifully (until Honda/Acura execs dropped it.) And while you’re at it, offer but one drivetrain – the hotter 2.4 – and performance-oriented all-wheel drive for those wanting a Subaru, but not wanting the psychographic baggage that goes with it.

The RLX is tougher, given the typically higher investment required by a new model in the luxury segment. And while SH-AWD has been retained, the emphasis is on technology where – we think – the emphasis should be on performance. Take Honda’s drivetrain expertise and give consumers a pinch of Autobahn in their $60K investment. The RLX’s menu is chock full of innovation, but who cares when no one notices? Ultimately, I’d enjoy Acura morphing into a Japanese-spec Audi – vehicles you can enjoy both driving and owning beyond the warranty period.

Of course, if you’ve been watching the Super Bowl you know an all-new NSX is in the wings. But like Audi’s R8, it’s gonna’ take more than a low-volume, 2-passenger wedge to move the retail needle. Audi offers the R8 on top of the TT and A5/S5. If Acura can’t get its arms – at least figuratively – around a TT, the Accord platform could at least underpin a legitimate A5/S5 competitor. Our time at a track – roughly a year ago – with a V6-equipped Accord manual was a revelation. With more compelling sheetmetal, perhaps a drop in weight and – again – SH-AWD, I think Acura could make a very compelling argument against the A5 and BMW’s various iterations of the 4-Series.

In short, the challenges are many – and it will take more (as one analyst suggested) than simply finding the secret sauce. The pieces for an Acura success story aren’t in place, but those pieces can be found on Honda’s product shelf. Clothe them in something compelling, continue to offer best-in-class value, and tune up the retail environment to resemble something selling high-end cars. Do those things and I think you have yourself a franchise. One that is – perhaps – even legendary.