Honda’s Acura luxury brand looks to reinvent itself – USA TODAY
LOUISVILLE — Honda’s struggling Acura brand hopes to reverse its fortunes by building a reputation for sporty hybrid vehicles that deliver smart performance.
The best advice for a luxury brand is, ”Be who you are,” Acura general manager Jon Ikeda said over dinner as he prepared to introduce the brand’s freshened TLX sedan.
The renewed emphasis on performance and hybrid technology harken back to Acura’s origins and Honda’s brief status as the industry’s hybrid leader.
It’s a challenging proposition, particularly given Acura’s over-reliance on sedans in a market rejecting them in favor of SUVs.
“We are a performance brand,” not a luxury marque, said Ikeda, who moved into Acura management after 26 years as a designer.
There’s some truth to that, but Acura has lacked a focused image for most of the brand’s 31-year existence. Honda created it to be Japan’s first upscale brand, selling vehicles only in the U.S. Acura now also exists in China, and Honda expects it to eventually be a global brand.
But there’s a lot of work to be done. Acura’s U.S. sales have fallen as most luxury brands rose, and its sedan-heavy model line is out of touch with the trend to SUVs.
The brand’s blurry identity stems from the fact that while it initially rebadged performance cars from Honda, the main brand also coveted those high-profile models.
It was a sibling rivalry the smaller and younger Acura was doomed to lose. Honda’s philosophical emphasis on efficiency further limited the brand by keeping it from developing the rear-wheel-drive and V-8 luxury and performance that helped nouveau luxe brands Lexus, Infiniti and Genesis make their mark.
“Acura got confused as to what the brand stood for and fell off people’s consideration lists,” IHS Markit senior analyst Stephanie Brinley said.
Acura’s regional nature exacerbated the situation. In addition to competing with Honda for the hottest cars based on high-volume platforms, Acura’s flagship NSX sports car sells as a Honda in most of the world, denying Acura the opportunity to use the advanced exotic hybrid to generate excitement and demand.
Nonetheless, the NSX is the template for the image Acura covets. It looks like a million bucks and is a relative bargain at $156,000.
Its highly advanced technology includes an aluminum chassis and body, mid-engine V-6, zero to 60 miles per hour times of 3 seconds or less and all-wheel drive with two electric motors driving the front wheels. The only comparable exotic cars came from Ferrari and Porsche and cost from $845,000 to $1.4 million.
“I like the effort to tie the NSX to the rest of the brand, but what the NSX means is still a little elusive” to buyers, Brinley said. “People need time to learn what the connection between it and the rest of the lineup is.
“I’m intrigued to see what comes next with performance as the brand’s guiding light,” she said.
Ikeda acknowledges that Acura must offer more nameplates with sporty hybrids.
The new MDX “sport hybrid” will lead the way. It uses the same setup of three electric motors and a gasoline engine as the NSX. The MDX sport hybrid gets an impressive four miles per gallon more in EPA combined city/highway ratings — 27 versus 23 mpg —- than the less-powerful gasoline model. It’s the most powerful production SUV Acura has ever built, with 321 horsepower.
The RLX sedan uses a similar hybrid system, but it never caught on with buyers and managed a meager 1,478 sales in 2016.
The MDX is at the heart of another challenge Acura faces: 60% of the brand’s U.S. sales are SUVs, but it hasn’t figured out how to fit the performance message to an SUV body. The brand has just two players in the surging SUV market, far fewer than competitors offer and three of Acura’s six models are sedans.
“The sedan market is pretty difficult, but it’s still 40% of our business” Ikeda said.
That’s the heart of Acura’s dilemma. With the exception of the NSX, it never truly established itself as a performance brand, and now it’s trying to figure out what performance means in a new kind of vehicle that’s not naturally suited to sporty driving.
Follow Mark Phelan on Twitter: @mark_phelan