Honda’s Struggling Acura Brand To Go More Upscale
By Chris Haak
In spite of being the original Japanese luxury brand, getting its start in the US way back in 1986 (years before Lexus or Infiniti launched), Acura has been the least successful Japanese luxury brand in the US for the past several years. Part of Acura’s problem is that it has never offered a rear wheel drive-based vehicle for sale (other than the limited production NSX sports car), while other luxury brands such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Infiniti, Cadillac, and Lexus all have lineups consisting primarily of rear- or all wheel-drive vehicles. Another issue is that Acura has never sold a vehicle with an engine larger than a V6, while its competitors all offer V8s (or larger, in some cases). Couple those issues with sharing most platform components with Hondas, as well as some recently questionable styling decisions (such as the MDX and the 2009 RL’s mid-cycle enhancement), and the resulting vehicle is a more expensive Honda with some nicer trim, and a higher price. Killing its popular volume model, the RSX sport hatch, and eliminating well-known model names such as Legend and Integra didn’t help either.
In 2007, Acura’s sales were at their lowest point since 2003. Acura’s overall sales for the past five years look like this:
2007: 180,104 (-10.5%)
2006: 201,223 (-4.0%)
2005: 209,610 (+5.4%)
2004: 198,919 (+16.4%)
The 2007 weakness occurred not because of the trucks (the RDX was up 154.9% because it had just been launched a year before, and the MDX was up 8.3%), but because every car model saw double digit declines. The TSX entry luxury sedan (pictured at left) and TL slightly-higher-than-entry luxury sedan will be replaced for the 2009 model year, and the RL sedan will be refreshed for the 2009 model year (though it’s a relatively mild update, and doesn’t address most of the car’s most fundamental problems: price, sharing a platform with the Accord, and the lack of a V8), but either there is a small timing issue with Acura, or a major product planning problem there.
On the heels of this bad news, Acura told dealers at the NADA convention to expect a “huge shift” in the next year that will “move the brand closer” to tier 1 luxury brands such as Lexus, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz. The news has dealers excited; in fact, they were told to expect one new vehicle per year (“new” is defined as refreshed existing models) for the next several years. The detailed product plan will be revealed to dealers at their meeting in New Orleans in April.
This all sounds like good news, but I’m still not convinced that Acura knows how to manage a luxury brand. They build cars with very nice interiors and a lot of technology packed into them, with good driving traits (given their front wheel drive origins), but the current lineup isn’t really anything special. The TSX is a rebadged European Honda Accord, the TL is a rebodied US Honda Accord, the RL is a rebodied US Honda Accord with all wheel drive added, the MDX is a rebodied Honda Pilot, and the RDX is a rebodied Honda CR-V. This platform sharing makes Acura cars reliable and fundamentally sound like their Honda cousins, but doesn’t really do anything to make buyers feel special, or that they are buying more than a higher trim level on a Honda.
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