You likely do not know Michelle Christensen and it's just as likely very few people inside Acura, Honda's premium brand, know much about her, either.
So it's interesting and not a little ironic to see Acura putting its future - at least the future of the brand's image - into the hands of this effervescent young woman from California. Yes, she is blonde and pretty, but don't be misled; she apparently possesses not-inconsiderable talent.
Three years ago, Christensen, at the time a 25-year-old new hire fresh out of design school, penned a sketch that has become the 2010 Acura ZDX crossover utility vehicle. The car will go on sale in December for a price somewhere between $55,000-$60,000. And some would argue that it's the most important Acura model ever.
Acura ZDX chief engineer Gary Evert, a 20-year Honda engineering veteran and the former chief engineer of the Acura RDX small CUV, says the ZDX is the brand's "statement vehicle."
"It's a statement about where Acura is going," he says in Los Angeles at a press preview for the assembled-in-Ontario ZDX. "This vehicle is all about image. If we had lost that, we might as well not have done the vehicle."
Acura expects, or at least hopes, the ZDX will change public perceptions of what has long been a slightly down-market premium brand.
Acura has never really and truly aspired to push against the big luxury players like Germany's BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi. And unlike the other Japanese premium brands such as Lexus (Toyota) and Infiniti (Nissan), Acura has never tried to challenge the Germans with bold designs, novel technologies and bad-boy performance.
Acura's niche has been what you might call the "budget premium" segment. Essentially, that meant dressing up Honda vehicles with more equipment, bigger wheels and tires, more horsepower and often only slightly modified designs and calling them Acuras.
By not being overly bold, Acura has tried to carve out its own little corner of affordable upscale cars delivered through an exclusive dealer network. One problem with that strategy is that the established premium brands have been relentlessly pushing down-market themselves with vehicles like the Mercedes B-Class. Acura is feeling the squeeze.
Acura's product strategy is also changing. That is, it's not unusual for mainstream auto makers to take an everyday platform like the one used for the Honda Accord and turn it into the Acura TL. Lexus does this by upgrading the Camry into the ES 350, for instance.
However, Acura has taken the platform-sharing strategy further than its rivals. The Acura RL is essentially the Honda Legend in Europe and elsewhere and they look quite similar, other than the grilles. The Acura TSX is the Euro Honda Accord and they, too, like very much alike.
Our Canadian Acura TL starts life as the North American Honda Accord, though here the Acura gets an all-wheel-drive option, more power and loads more gizmos and gadgets. The Acura MDX CUV? Again, the basics are the Honda Pilot, though the designs are totally different and the Acura is tuned for performance driving and, like the TL, has quite the assortment of electronic toys.
The Acura CSX? Again, a Honda Civic with slight design differences, racier chassis tuning and more equipment. The Acura RDX compact CUV? The RDX shares its chassis with the Honda CR-V, but only the Acura gets super-handling all-wheel-drive (SH-AWD) and a turbocharged motor.
The point is, Acura has not really had a totally unique platform. Even the much-loved and admired NSX was sold as the Honda NSX in other markets outside North America. And that remains true for the ZDX. Its roots can be found in the MDX and it will roll off the same Alliston, Ont., assembly line as the Honda.
But something different is going on here. Aside from its function-follows-form design, Evert and his engineering confreres say the ZDX rides and handles like nothing else in the Acura lineup, in particular the MDX.
The ZDX's steering is tighter, the braking more precise, the cornering flatter and the performance more exhilarating than the MDX - which by the way gets a massive mid-cycle facelift of its own for the 2010 model year.
Gorgeous as it is, the ZDX is not nearly as practical as the MDX, either - but it is the best-looking Acura yet.
Evert and the rest have taken a bold step in that they've chosen here to put form ahead of function, to go with a design that does not carry as much stuff as the MDX and is not as comfortable in the back seat.
Also, unlike the MDX, the ZDX does not even have a third row of seats. And if you want to stuff four sets of golf clubs into the cargo bay, you'll have to remove two panels - one on each side - that hide storage areas just aft of the rear wheel wells. The panels store nicely away in a third storage area under the cargo floor.
The RDX design, the one Christensen submitted and which comes to market almost entirely unchanged from the original, is wide and sexy, with slingshot-like taut lines and an all-glass roof that alone represents quite a feat of engineering. The cabin, too, is richly conceived and executed, with perhaps the most elegant rendering of leather ever seen in a vehicle under, say, $100,000.
But it's not what Evert wants to call Acura's flagship or a "halo" vehicle. No, he'll only go so far as to say it's a "statement" about Acura. Translation: Acura wants to transition from premium brand to full-on luxury and the ZDX is pioneering the way.
"This is where we want to go," he says, adding, "If the market decides it's a halo vehicle, I'll be very happy about that. But it's our customers who decide that, not us."
The big, overarching question, of course, is which customers? Right now, Acura is losing them at a fairly scary clip in Canada, though Honda/Acura executive vice-president Jerry Chenkin says both brands are on track to be profitable - as part of Honda's global goal of remaining profitable despite the global financial crisis which is wreaking havoc on car company profits.
Yet there is no easy way to dress up the numbers. Acura sales in Canada are down 20.2 per cent on the year while Lexus is up 11.3 per cent, BMW is up 5.8 per cent and Mercedes-Benz is up 17.9 per cent.
Chenkin is quick to point out that Acura's Canadian market share is off by only one-tenth of a percentage point, down to 1.1 per cent from 1.2 in 2008. So Acura remains "competitive" given the market, he says.
The car business is all about growth, though. If Acura wants more customers and more of them paying a (profitable) premium for its vehicles, the brand needs to become more distinctive still.
That's why 21 years after Honda created its Acura luxury division in 1986, the brand finally has its own design studio and Christensen's ZDX design is the first new model from it.
Yes, it's true that Honda's U.S. styling team designed several past Acura models - the 1994 Integra, 1995 CL coupe and 2000 TL sedan among them. But it's also true that even Honda's own designers were concerned about excessive overlap between the Honda and Acura models being drawn at Honda's studio in Torrance, Calif.
Now Acura has its own designers working in their own space on Honda's sprawling Torrance campus. Honda and Acura designers are no longer all jumbled up; instead, the Acura types are more independent to create unique models using Acura's "Keen Edge" design language.
Keen Edge? We first saw that look in the Advanced Sports Car Concept at the 2007 Detroit auto show. It was a swoop-y, angular adaptation of the NSX super car and at the time Acura appeared set to turn that concept into a production version of the next NSX. The next NSX may have been shot down, however the design philosophy was not.
Going forward and starting with the ZDX, Acuras should have sheet metal with "machine-like" surfacing and highly "emotional lines." Up front, the big, distinctive Acura grille is marked by a "power plenum." This feature is referred to informally as "the beak" at Acura.
Acuras also must easily integrate loads of technology in a user-friendly way. Think Wall-E , not Terminator .
Finally, and unlike in the past, the entire Acura family will look like it belongs in the same showroom.
And to think that the latest change - at least in terms of actual production models - started with a fresh-faced 25-year-old Californian who drew an aggressive CUV design. It will be interesting to see if Christenson turns out to be the auto design equivalent of Mozart, or will she be Tom Hulce, the one-hit actor who played Mozart in the Academy Award-winning movie Amadeus .