The last few years have not been kind to Acura. Sales at Honda's luxury division declined steadily while existing competitors enjoyed growth and new competition appeared on the scene. Sales last year showed an uptick, but just when that light appeared at the end of the tunnel, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, followed by massive flooding in Thailand shut down many parts suppliers, scuppered any plans of a sales increase in 2011.
To the end of November, Acura sold 13,725 units, a 12 per cent decline from a year earlier in a segment that was up. To put that in perspective, Audi sold 15,985 units during the same period, BMW 27,559 and Mercedes 28,265.
The parts shortages have been all but sorted out and production is no longer the problem for Acura. The issues are product and image: the lack of both.
The best-selling Acura is the entry-level CSX, a mildly disguised Honda Civic available only in Canada. You can count the monthly sales of the brand's "halo" vehicle – the RL – on your fingers. Acura dealers in North America have come to rely on SUVs for their existence.
At the Tokyo Motor Show, Honda chairman and CEO Takanobu Ito expressed his disappointment in Acura. "To be very honest, I'm not satisfied with Acura. Something has to be done to help it stand out, to be more unique and return to the sporty image it had when there was the Integra and NSX."
He referred to new models and technology the company is developing. "Once we introduce them, customers will want them and the brand will penetrate more."
In Las Vegas, a half dozen Canadian auto writers gathered in a secure location, cameras not allowed. The wraps were pulled off a new entry-level Acura model coming in 2012 and a new and stunning NSX, the rebirth of the awesome two-seat sports car.
Jerry Chenkin, executive vice-president of Honda Canada, said the company began to re-evaluate Acura about five years ago. "In 2008. we set about planning on becoming what is known in the industry as a Tier 1 maker. But then we realized we were not going to pursue every single segment."
At the time, a V-10 supercar was in the preliminary planning stages. But then the realization struck that Honda – and Acura – were about efficiency. That's where it could capitalize on its abilities. Instead of a big V-10 engine and all the heavy and bulky related pieces, the Acura way would be to achieve similar performance with a smaller and lighter vehicle. "If we were going to express sporty, we also needed to express efficiency. That is something Honda (Acura) should do," Chenkin said.
It will start in early 2012 with the arrival of the ILX in Acura stores. The new gateway to the Acura line is no warmed-over Civic. The ILX is an all-new vehicle to be built in the United States on the company's global small car platform. It will come in three trim levels, starting at just less than $30,000 and include the brand's first hybrid. It will debut at the Detroit auto show in January.
A new flagship sedan – the replacement for RL – will be next. The development team says that while the competition is achieving roominess by making cars bigger, Acura will offer a full-size, luxurious cabin in a mid-size car. The RL will also "introduce new key technologies, including a ground-breaking SH-AWD system.
We had driven this setup a few days earlier at the famed Twin-Ring Motegi race track in Japan. Installed in a European-sized Accord, it features a 310-plus horsepower V-6 engine with direct injection driving the front wheels and a pair of small, but powerful electric motors driving the rear wheels. Acceleration is awesome with all that torque available from launch and four tires to get it to the ground. But the innovation comes from the fact electric motors are used in the corners. One applies power to the outside rear wheel, helping push the vehicle in the intended direction, and the other applying negative power to the inside wheel, tugging the vehicle into the corner. Add to this a seven-speed dual clutch automatic gearbox with wheel-mounted shifters and you've got a high-performance sedan that accelerates like a big block V8, loves the turns and sips fuel when you behave.
Officials were tight-lipped about what would power the swoopy, new NSX two-seater. But it doesn't take much of an imagination to put the same drivetrain explained above in here – backwards. The powerful V-6 in the rear, driving the rear wheels and the electric motors up front driving those wheels. Factor in the smaller size, less weight and likelihood of even more power and you get the picture.