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When Acura pulled the cover off its NSX super car concept at the Detroit auto show in January, the design raised pulses, but the timing raised eyebrows.
Then Honda's luxury brand then spent a fortune in February to feature the car -- which isn't due on sale for 3 years -- in Acura's 1st Super Bowl ad.
"You don't pull the wraps off what you're doing years from now if everything's hunky-dory. You see that from companies not doing particularly well," says Jack Nerad, executive editorial director at auto research site kbb.com.
Automobile magazine was blunter on its June cover, calling Acura "a lost brand."
Acura was the 1st Japanese nameplate to take on the U.S. luxury market — its 1986 Legend and Integra pre-dating Lexus and Infiniti in 1990. And it remains Honda's showcase for its most advanced technology.
Yet Acura has let go of the advantages of its head start and its technology, says Ivan Drury, manager of pricing and industry analysis at auto research site Edmunds.com. "They really were ahead of the game at one point. Now what they have is about even with everybody else. They've lost that edge,"
Acura, of course, disputes that. "We're coming off an absolutely nightmarish year in which we still outpaced Audi and Infiniti, our 2 primary competitors," says Michael Accavitti, Acura's vice president in charge of U.S. marketing. "This year, we're not only beating Audi and Infiniti (in sales), but also Jaguar and Lincoln and others."
Acura was hit harder than others last year by the tsunami in Japan, and its U.S. sales last year were down 7.7% in a new car market up 10.3%, according to Autodata. This year, however, sales are up 10.8% through May vs. the period a year ago. Through May, Infiniti is up 7.2%, and Audi is up 14.5%. And Acura's total sales, Accavitti points out, are greater than either Infiniti or Audi.
"We're focused on what the brand stands for, have a solid product strategy for the future, and there's clarity among all the executives" about the brand's image, Accavitti says.
From the outside, however, it's not so clear:
"Acura has certainly moved away from what many of us recognize" as the foundation of the brand — nimble, sporty cars, says Drury. "Lost their way? Maybe not exactly," but certainly changed.
Acura has, he says, "turned into a luxury SUV maker. Its MDX has been its best seller the last few years and typically is 1/3 of all Acura sales."
Nothing wrong with SUVs; they are big business. But for Acura, the prominence of a three-row, family-style SUV seems to push its luxury image toward the mainstream.
Drury points to Edmunds.com data showing that about 21% of people who consider an Acura also look at Toyota; nearly 19% cross-shop Hondas. Further, fewer than 13% of people looking at Audi also consider Acura, and about 17% of Infiniti shoppers cross-shop Acuras. Meanwhile, about 30% of people who consider an Audi also look at a BMW.
In other words, car shoppers seem more inclined to consider Toyotas and Hondas — not Audis and Infinitis — as the equivalent of Acuras. "There is a bit of questioning as to where (Acura's) exact competition lives," Drury says.
Acura's new models should improve its sales, but the first two have been smaller, lower-price vehicles unlikely to burnish a high-end image that brings premium profits.
Here is the key new hardware:
RDX. The latest version of the compact, 5-seat crossover SUV, starting at about $35,000, is intended to hit what the 1st version missed.
"The original RDX was targeted where we thought the market was going to go," Accavitti says. "But we found it was biased toward people who wanted more comfort" than the edgy, turbocharged 4-cylinder original RDX provided.
The 2013, as a result, is slightly bigger, outside and in, is powered by a smoother V-6 and is tailored for a smooth ride.
Bull's-eye: It went on sale April 2, and in May, became Acura's No. 2 seller behind MDX with May sales more than triple those of the old model last May.
ILX. Just on sale, it's a recasting of the Honda Civic to be the new entry-level Acura, starting at about $27,000. It's seen as a "gateway" car to bring new buyers into Acura showrooms. "A lot of people are going that (lower-price) route," Nerad says, so ILX could drive up sales volume important to the Acura dealerships.
Industry watchers are of 2 minds about ILX. 1 view is that it's a return to the nimble, small-car roots of the brand's original Integra, making it a smart move. The other view is that it's too much like the Civic on which it's based, and its roots won't wow luxury-brand buyers. "You'll see a lot of comparisons to both the Integra and the Civic," Drury says.
RLX. The concept unveiled at the New York auto show in April is a concept believed close to the sedan that will replace Acura's aging flagship RL early next year. The old RL, priced at about $49,000 to $57,000, has become almost a nonentity.
The RL is an excellent symbol of Acura's struggle, Nerad says. Though it's the flagship, Acura "resisted doing a V-8 engine, saying 'Oh, a V-6 can do it.' That's probably true, but it's not luxury." All other luxury brands offer V-8s.
The RLX concept also eschews a V-8 in the top model in favor of a gas-electric all-wheel drive hybrid system with a V-6 and 3 electric motors. Acura says it will be rated at least 370 horsepower and — just as important in Acura's mind — get a 30 miles per gallon rating in every driving mode.
A conventional 310-hp V-6, model of the new flagship also will be available.
NSX. The high-performance sports car unveiled as a concept in Detroit will have a hybrid all-wheel-drive system similar to that in the RLX and was promised "within 3 years."
It revives the name of Acura's NSX mid-engine sports car built 1990-2005, but the new 1 will be developed and built in Ohio instead of Japan.
Lexus and Infiniti also are rethinking their identities and places in the luxury market in the face of strong gains by European upscale brands.
Lexus, is trying to reinvent itself as more like BMW, recasting each new car model to be crisper-handling, quicker and sportier-looking. The 2013 GS 350 sedan, on sale since February, is the 1st, and is selling 5 to 6 times as fast as its predecessor.
Nissan's Infiniti, known for edgy styling and rear-drive performance, is going a different path. It just launched the 2013 JX 35, a big crossover SUV based on front-drive hardware more like what's in Nissan products than in any other Infiniti. The JX rolled out in March, and in April, its 1st full month, became the brand's 2nd-best-selling model, after the G entry-model sedans.
Acura, though, has a unique issue related to its Honda roots that may limit its flexibility in seeking a more distinct identity. Say Nerad: "Acura is a product of, and in some ways a victim of, how Honda goes about doing business — an engineering company that's all about efficiency. Luxury isn't about efficiency."