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1986 Acura Integra RS 5-door. (Honda/Wieck)
1986 Acura Integra RS 5-door. (Honda/Wieck)

Acura 25th anniversary

Acura: The birth of a Legend Add to ...

The buzz at the Montreal Auto Show’s press day 25 years ago in January was all about the arrival in Canada of a just-launched Japanese luxury brand that had already created a Legend.

Up to that time Canadians contemplating a luxury car were limited to offerings from one of the long-established North American car makers or the handful of traditional European marques, but that changed as 1987 dawned and Acura unfurled its banner at Montreal’s annual auto extravaganza to become the first Japanese up-market brand sold here.

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Acura bravely took its place among 23 car companies from 15 countries displaying some 400 vehicles at the Place Bonaventure venue. But parent Honda was concerned about setting its new brand apart in potential buyers’ minds and located the Acura stand on the show’s lower level well away from its own main-floor exhibit.

Acura didn’t need much space anyway as it only had two models to offer, the mid-size “executive luxury” Legend sedan at $26,000-$30,000 and the compact and sporty $13,000-$17,000 Integra. But it drew plenty of attention nevertheless.

Canadian car buyers would have to wait until March to actually get behind the wheel of an Acura, purchased from one of the 20 dealers established across the country by Acura Canada execs bullish about the new brand – which had launched a year earlier in the United States. According to a report I wrote on the show, they foresaw the dealer network expanding to 100 by 1990.

It didn’t quite unfold that well, in part because Acura soon faced additional home-grown rivalry with the arrival of Toyota’s Lexus and Nissan’s Infiniti divisions. But Acura did in short order establish itself as a distinct and successful brand and carve out a strong share of the North American luxury market, outselling Mercedes, BMW and Lexus by 1990 and seeing sales reach almost 200,000 in 2005. Here in Canada, it has sold 400,000 vehicles in the past 2-1/2 decades and currently has 50 dealers.

Setting up a separate luxury division was a bold move in the late 1980s when Japanese cars were still associated in most Canadians’ minds with the subcompacts that had led the way for a couple of decades.

Until the $26,000-starting-price Legend sedan’s arrival, the most expensive Japanese sedan in Canada was Toyota’s 1987 Cressida at $25,968, with the $22,987 Nissan Maxima not far behind. Honda’s priciest offering that year was its top-of-the-line Accord at $16,945. Among rival imports from Europe, an entry-level BMW 3-Series started at $25,825, an Audi 4000S at $24,975 and the cheapest Mercedes-Benz, a 190D, at $38,900, although things like Saabs, Volvos and Peugeots could be acquired for less than $20,000.

But a generation of import buyers brought up on Japanese brands were deemed ready to step up and, in Acura’s case, that was to the Legend, which my 1987 show story described as a “handsome contemporary-styled sedan powered by a potent 151-hp, 2.5-litre 24-valve V-6.” The three- and five-door, 113-hp, 1.6- litre-engined Integras would serve as a supporting cast.

The roots of the Legend were entangled in a joint project with Britain’s Austin Rover Group that resulted in cars being produced in Britain and sold as the Honda Legend and Rover 800 (the latter marketed for a period as the Stirling in North America).

The Legend wasn’t revolutionary but did incorporate the latest and best technology. Its stiff monocoque structure was wrapped in aerodynamic bodywork – the coefficient of drag was 0.32. The overall shape was angular with pronounced bumpers, the front with a neat little air dam underneath, and flush headlamps. I complained at the time it looked too conservative.

It was 4,810 mm long, which is 120 mm shorter than the current Acura TL, and weighed in at just 1,396 kg, compared to today’s fully-laden TL at 1,820 kg.

The interior had, to quote myself, “ a European, no-frills-functional” rather than luxurious look, certainly by today’s standards, with large round analogue gauges, a thick-ish rimmed and tilt-able four-spoke wheel, front seats upholstered in moquette cloth and full carpeting. Features included an electric sunroof, cruise control, AM/FM radio with cassette player, remote trunk and fuel filler releases, air conditioning and, well, not much more.

The motor was a 2.5-litre, single-overhead-cam V-6 rated at 151 hp at 5,800 rpm and 154 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm. This may not sound like much, but it was a lot more than the 121hp the BMW 325’s 2.7-litre inline-six was making, hence my “potent” comment. Some might recall that Honda was winning Formula One championships in this period.

The Legend came with a five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic transmission; with the former, acceleration to 100 km/h required about eight seconds and top speed was 216 km/h. Fuel economy was rated at 12.6 litres/100 km city and 9.1 highway (the current 3.5-litre, 280-hp TL’s ratings are 10.4 city/6.8 highway).

Suspension was by double-wishbones up front with trailing links and struts in the rear, and it came with 205/60R15 tires on alloy wheels pointed by speed-sensitive steering and stopped by disc brakes all round.

The original Legend was good enough to make Car & Driver magazine’s top 10 list for three years in a row and was joined later in 1987 by the considerably pricier, prettier and quicker coupe with 2.7-litre, 161-hp engine (that found its way into the sedan in 1988). The first generation was produced until 1990.

The third generation arrived in 1996 with the Legend name missing from the deck lid, replaced by the RL badge that has never seemed to resonate in quite the same way.

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