Ah, Acura. The reimagining, the reinventing, the remaking of Honda’s upmarket brand begins now and in earnest 25 years after Acura arrived in Canada.
It all starts with the launch of two new models, the 2013 RDX crossover utility and the 2013 ILX compact premium sedan. The RDX, in fact, went on sale April 2 ($40,990 base), while the ILX arrives in late April at a price yet to be announced, but guaranteed to be below $30,000.
Both should help Acura press the reset button in the luxury game and if you’re an Acura fan – or dealer – it’s about time. Acura, of course, has been in a downward spiral since 2007 and last year was utterly disastrous. Sales in Canada were down nearly 12 per cent to 15,272, thanks to not only a lack of new products to drive excitement in Acura’s showrooms, but also as a result of a devastating earthquake in Japan that crashed the production of Acura vehicles.
With its factories now humming and the product pipeline stocked, Acura is ready to chase buyers aggressively – buyers who long ago left Acura after years of disappointment with Acura’s products themselves and to some extent with customer satisfaction, too. They may have walked away from Honda’s luxury brand, but Acura has monstrously ambitious plans to get them back.
In Canada, Acura expects a barrage of new products and customer service initiatives to juice sales to well above 20,000 units this year. And in the United States, Acura wants to sell 180,000 vehicles this year – up from 123,299 in 2011. On the quality front, Acura is aiming for No. 1 in J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study, after placing third in 2011 (89 problems per 100 vehicles) behind Lexus (73) and Honda (86).
But honestly, quality has never been an issue for Acura. The designs of its vehicles? Now you’re onto something. In the last half-dozen years, Acura has gone wild and wacky with the look of its cars and SUVs and the result has been disastrous. The low point surely came with last full redesign of the TL mid-size car. Long-time Acura owners completely rejected the bizarre styling of what should be a bread-and-butter sedan.
It was a similar story with the outgoing RDX. Again, Acura misread the market, targeting youthful buyers with a radically designed and engineered crossover – only to be smacked in the face with disappointing sales. It turns out that the buyers of premium mid-size sedans and crossovers want comfort, simplified but comprehensive technology and, most of all, looks that are at once subdued and timeless.
So that’s where Acura is going with a barrage of new models: conservative in design and with ride comfort, though modern in terms of technological capabilities. That story starts with the launch of the 2013 RDX and 2013 ILX, and will carry on when Acura introduces a new flagship sedan to replace the current RL, likely with a new name. Acura has been planning to tease the market with some sort of early concept version of the redesigned RL flagship at this week’s New York auto show.
Then, in the spring of 2013, a redesigned TL will be joined by a reinvented MDX large crossover. The smart money is betting that the ZDX large crossover, a stunning sales disaster, will go away very soon. All these new models will be capped by the new NSX hybrid sports car likely due in late 2014 as a 2015 model.
An NSX concept has been shown already at various auto shows and it’s stunning – low-slung and dangerous-looking. Performance will come from the latest version of Acura’s hybrid technology combined with a new take on Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive or SH-AWD in Acura-speak. Needless to say, public feedback has been hugely positive.
With so much planned and so much change in the offing, it’s safe to say Acura has never come to market with such a full-scale press. It is the most complete new-model blitz in the brand’s 25-year history. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
The truth is, for far too long, Honda has treated Acura as an afterthought, a place to sell better-equipped Hondas and reap the rewards without fully committing to developing the brand completely, top to bottom. Lack of investment has hurt Acura, no question.
Oh, there have been fits and starts, and for a while Honda seemed ready to commit to moving Acura upscale in a comprehensive way, putting an end to all the half-measures and dilly dallying. But whatever Honda had planned, regardless of best intentions, everything came to a standstill with the recent financial crisis.
That catastrophe is now in the rear-view mirror. In fact, the new RDX and ILX suggest that Acura has fully thought through its products and the brand’s future and is finally ready to invest in Acura accordingly. The RDX, say officials, is a “sexy” SUV with agile performance, functional technology and an efficient V-6 engine. The ILX is aimed at Generation Y buyers with premium aspirations but not quite enough cash to go over the top financially with a new car.
Jerry Chenkin, executive vice-president of Honda Canada, says Acura has been a little slow to restock the Acura product pipeline for several reasons, not least of which was the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers which triggered the dominos in a global financial crisis that continues to unfold.
“The world changed and has changed forever,” says Chenkin.
That includes the world of luxury buyers, many of whom now openly court more rational decisions when it comes to new cars. Conspicuous consumption, say the Chenkins of the world, is almost passé – perhaps even an embarrassment. Gen Y, the Millennials out there, do aspire to luxury, but they don’t want to go over the top into Gordon Gekko mode. Green, at least obvious greed, is not good.
For the near term, Acura’s sedan lineup will include four models: ILX, TSX, TL and RL. The TSX seems most likely to disappear, given that in some ways it competes with the new ILX. Meantime, the over-reliance on sport-utilities – nearly 60 per cent of Acura Canada’s sales are SUVs – should diminish.
Chenkin says Acura plans to take on the best of the best in the luxury game, including Lexus, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. To do so, he says Acura will focus on offering “value for money” – a prime concern of Gen Y, versus the baby boomer focus on quality, reliability and performance.
Thus, the new Acura models are connected cars, boasting Bluetooth and SMS text messaging on even entry-level models. That said, the new RDX is primarily aimed at empty nesters and DINKs – double income, no kids. In remaking Acura, the plan is to reach down and appeal to Gen Y without abandoning boomers and even older buyers.
Oh, yes, reinventing Acura is no simple matter. But for once and perhaps the first time in history, Honda is putting some real skin in this game.
2013 Acura ILX
The new ILX premium compact sedan is based on the new Honda Civic. That’s true. But the two cars look very different and the ILX is far better equipped in base form.
That said, there are similarities. For instance, the ILX comes with a choice of three powertrains: standard 150-horsepower 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine; 201-hp 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine and Acura's first hybrid, with a 1.5-litre four-cylinder boosted by a small electric motor. The hybrid is rated 5.0 litres/100 km in the city, 4.8 on the highway and is aimed at the most mature of ILX buyers – those with a particularly “green” perspective.
Acura won’t announce pricing until late April, but the target is to start the ILX range at less than $30,000. There, Acura hopes to compete successfully with the Audi A3 and the least-expensive versions of the BMW 3-Series and even the 1-Series, as well as the Mercedes C-Class. The ILX Hybrid is aimed primarily at the Lexus CT200h hybrid.
In any event, all versions of the ILX will have a long roster of premium features, the details of which will be shared with the final pricing.
Prediction: The ILX is not overly ambitious, but it is well executed and comes loaded. It will be successful because it’s not reaching too far.
2013 Acura RDX
The redesigned RDX crossover has a longer wheelbase and wider track than the outgoing 2012 model, but what matters most of all is under the hood. A 273-horsepower V-6 replaces the jittery, thirsty turbo-four engine that had few fans and many detractors.
Pricing: the basic model at $40,990 comes well equipped with standard all-wheel drive, heated leather seats, a long list of high-tech features and even a 360-watt audio system. The RDX Tech Package at $43,990 adds voice-activated navigation, an eight-inch LED display, 410-watt surround sound with 15 Gb music storage and a power tailgate. Both models get a six-speed automatic transmission geared for quick acceleration in the first five gears, and freeway cruising in sixth.
In the cabin, a telling step for Acura is how the designers have cleaned up and simplified the controls. The former excess of redundant controls has been simplified without any loss of functionality. The instrument panel, too, is smartly laid out.
Throughout the cabin. Acura’s designers have focused on installing richer-looking and -feeling materials. Hard plastics are not the way of this RDX. There is plenty of room for adults in back and the rear seatbacks split and fold easily. In fact, handle releases in the cargo area send the seatback down to a flat position. Very simple.
While it’s true the RDX has some commonality with Honda’s CR-V, the engine, front sub-frame, rear sub-frame and suspension are all different – as are many other aspects of the RDX. Side by side, in fact, the two look quite different and the RDX appears notably larger.
Prediction: Acura now has a legitimate alternative to the Audi Q5 and BMW X3, to name two.