2006 marks the 20th anniversary of Acura. In 1986, Honda was the first Japanese automaker to introduce a luxury division in the US, and they were able to get a jump on both Toyota and Nissan. Acura launched with two models: Honda's largest car to that point, the Legend sedan, and the Integra - a spunky hatchback offered in 3-door and 5-door configurations. Acura's focus was "Precision Crafted Performance", and with features like fully independent 4-wheel double wishbone suspension, high revving 4-valve-per-cylinder overhead cam engines, and sporty interiors, both the Legend and Integra delivered on this promise.
Noting the early success of Honda's foray into premium automobiles, even Mazda planned their own luxury division, but had to scrap their plans in late 1992 when the US economy appeared to be headed south. We still got one of the cars that was being developed for the Amati brand - the excellent Millenia sedan
Times were good for Honda and Acura at that point. The 1986 Honda Accord was a smash hit, and now suddenly there was an upgrade path for the loyal Honda shopper. Acura added to its momentum with the release of the 1987 Acura Legend coupe. With 161hp on tap, the Legend coupe was the flagship of the line, offering a slightly larger and more powerful version of the sedan's excellent 151hp 2.5L V-6 and truly headturning style. For the day, performance was very impressive and the coupe offered a combination of ride quality and superb handling that continues to elude many automakers to this day. To add to this long list of virtues, Acura's Legend and Integra were sold at very aggressive pricepoints.
The good times didn't last forever, however, as Toyota and Nissan launched their own luxury divisions in 1989. Both aimed higher than Acura and launched with vehicles that were targeted directly at the flagships from Germany. Acura's response was to add pork to the Legend, in a desperate attempt to match the ambition of Infiniti's and particularly Lexus' new models. At this point, the 2nd generation Legend was already under development, due to hit the market in late 1990 as a 1991 model.
Upon its release, the 1991 Acura Legend was greeted with mixed reactions from the motoring press. While Lexus and Infiniti launched with large FR (front-engined, rear wheel drive) cars packing potent V-8s, Acura's 2nd Legend emerged with a 3.2L V6 and a front-wheel drive layout. At the time, Honda engineers claimed that their smaller 200hp V6 would outperform Lexus' LS400, which packed a 250hp 4.0L V-8. This may have been the first clue that Honda didn't quite "get it" when it came to the luxury market. They were convinced that the buyers would appreciate a lower priced V6 car that could presumably perform at the level of a V8. While this "less is more" mentality is considered one of the cornerstones of Honda marketing, Acura was (and is) playing in a different field.
The 2nd generation Legend had potential, though. Engineered with a longitudinal orientation for its V6 drivetrain, it's rumored Honda developed the platform with this layout in order to accomodate a V8 and rear drive setup that was also under development. As history shows, that never materialized. The 2nd generation Legend was a reasonable sales success for Acura, but the car itself wasn't enough to satisfy those who were expecting an answer to Lexus' groundbreaking LS400 or some of the sportier European offerings. It fell short of the LS400's luxury and refinement and its front drive layout was decried by purists. In one stroke, Lexus managed to unseat Acura as the leader in Japanese luxury and created an identity crisis within Acura that persisted throughout the nineties and arguably into this century. With their "relentless pursuit of perfection" marketing mantra and a product to back it up, Lexus emerged with instant credibility in the luxury market, while Acura seemed content serving the role of 'almost luxury' and 'pretty sporty, dontcha think?'. In retrospect, Acura may have been coasting on momentum alone, as the LS400 stickered for only a few thousand dollars more than the top Legend model, the GS, yet it offered far more for the money. Things could have been worse for Acura.
By the mid-'90's, Honda and Acura fans were starting to get anxious. While there were signs of life at Acura (the NSX and Integra were two superb products), everybody was wondering when or if there would be an Acura that would truly challenge the best sedan from their archrival. When the 1996 3.5 RL arrived, it was clear that Acura had lost their way. First, they announced that beginning with the Legend's replacement, all of their models would be moving to an alphanumeric naming scheme. Maybe this would have been more warmly received if they had a knockout product to kick off this initiative. But instead we got the 3.5 RL. And yes, with an ever growing sticker price, this was still a V6-powered, front wheel drive sedan. Unfortunately, it still didn't come close to matching the LS400 that Acura seemed to be chasing. The motor in the 1996 3.5L RL was a punched out version of the 3.2L V6 that debuted in the 1991 Legend, itself a punched out version of the 2.5L V6 that launched in the 1986 Legend. Compare that to Lexus' silky smooth 4-cam, 32-valve 260hp 4.0L V8 and you can excuse North America (and the rest of the motoring planet) for the gaping yawn directed at the 3.5 RL's meager 210hp. For Acura fans, we're not going to pull any punches - the 1996 RL was a big letdown. We felt that way not because it was a terrible car - it just failed to represent the pinnacle of Honda engineering. Performance-wise, the 3.5 RL was pretty flaccid. Handling was subpar by Acura standards, the motor was uninspiring and nowhere near as smooth or sweet sounding as the Lexus' V8, and from an overall luxury standpoint the car was clearly trailing the competition. To top it off, the 3.5 RL was a fairly pricey car, yet its conservative styling was seen as a step backwards from the Legend's long and sleek proportions. It doesn't take a roomful of HBS and Wharton grads to come to the conclusion that these are not the ingredients of success.
The only thing saving Acura's hide in the '90s was the success of the Integra. The Integra's success was bittersweet, because Acura was conceived as an aspirational brand. Its primary mission was to keep Honda's Civic and Accord customers in the corporate fold when they decided it was time to upgrade to a more upscale vehicle. While they managed to snare many die-hard Honda fans with the Legend, few people were moving from the Accord to the Integra, and Acura was losing hordes of folks who were defecting to Lexus or some of the European makes. By the time the 3.5 RL hit the streets, Acura was barely on the radar even for the staunchest Honda loyalists.