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Acura retools lineup to put the focus on mpg

Mon, 12 Dec 2011 00:00:00 -0800

Honda will overhaul and reposition its Acura lineup over the next 18 months and abandon its long pursuit of top-tier luxury-car status for the brand.

After years of trying to propel Acura into the front ranks with Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus, Honda says it will settle for offering mid-level premium vehicles that favor fuel economy over performance.

With one exception: At the Detroit auto show in January, Honda will bring back the Ferrari-fighting Acura NSX--a new version of the mid-engine supercar that disappeared in 2005 after a 15-year run. But instead of a monster engine, the NSX will have a compact, direct-injection V6 teamed with a lithium ion battery pack.

Another key to recalibrating Acura is the rollout of three new or redesigned sedans in the next 18 months, including a smaller compact and a bigger flagship.

"We are not satisfied with Acura's current positioning," Honda Motor Co. CEO Takanobu Ito said this month at the Tokyo Motor Show. "We want to showcase interesting and fun technologies and show excellent environmental performance."

In the works for Acura:

-- The ILX compact sedan will arrive in spring, using Honda's global Civic platform. It replaces the tired TSX that used the bones of the European Accord.

-- A redesigned RL flagship that is larger than the current version is due next fall.

-- A redesigned mid-sized TL sedan follows in the spring of 2013.

"Our sedans haven't been doing the job for the brand," said Vicki Poponi, American Honda assistant vice president for product planning, at a briefing here for dealers and the media.

Poponi said the TSX, TL and RL were cannibalizing sales because they were too close in footprint and interior size. The new models will create a bigger spread in the lineup.

Changes in the crossover categories also are coming, with a redesigned RDX compact arriving next spring and the next MDX in 2013.

Civic clone?

In using the Civic as the basis for the ILX, Acura is traveling the same platform-sharing course it did with its Integra and RSX coupes in the 1980s and 1990s. But Poponi said the ILX will bear no resemblance to the Civic or the Canadian-market Acura CSX, which has been derided as a rebadged Civic.

"All the suspension settings will be tuned to be Acura," Poponi said. "Consider it as different as the TL is from the Accord or the MDX is from the Pilot."

The ILX will be available with a choice of a 2.0-liter direct-injection four-cylinder engine with automatic transmission, a 2.4-liter engine with a six-speed manual transmission or a 1.5-liter hybrid powertrain. Features will include push-button start, rearview camera, Pandora link and SMS with text-to-voice capability.

Acura hopes that sales of the ILX, to be priced "well below $30,000," will be about 40,000 units annually. The current-generation TSX peaked at 31,998 sales in 2008.

Next up is the flagship RL, which has had little success competing in the $50,000 sedan segment against the likes of the Mercedes-Benz E class, BMW 5 series and Lexus GS. Critics have called it overweight and underpowered, and the interior is cramped.

Poponi said the redesigned version will have more cabin space, with rear legroom going from worst-in-class to the best-in-class.

"It will have [BMW] 7 series cabin space with the agility of a 5 series," Poponi said. "Our sedans need to instill passion and emotion. The new flagship establishes that, and sets the ceiling for premium pricing. Once we have set that, then our SUVs can come into the market and leverage that prestige."

The RL will debut in April at the New York auto show and go on sale next fall.

As for the RDX, the previous generation has been criticized for the jerkiness of its turbocharged four-cylinder engine. The new RDX will have a V6 with "top-class fuel economy," Poponi said.

The RDX also will use the Honda CR-V's simpler electric power steering and all-wheel-drive systems, rather than the pricier Super Handling All-Wheel Drive system of the old RDX. Poponi says it will be "quieter, roomier and more comfortable."

Then there is the NSX that arrives in concept form next month in Detroit. The original V6-powered NSX was decked out with astonishing technology when it debuted in 1990. It was the first car without turbos to deliver 100 hp per liter of engine displacement. It also was the first major project for body engineer Takanobu Ito, now Honda's CEO.

Ito killed a previous NSX concept after the autumn 2008 Lehman Brothers meltdown destroyed Honda's desire to re-enter the segment. The project has been revived, but Ito has changed the concept.

"Our approach is efficiency and a strong power-to-weight ratio," said Acura sales boss Jeff Conrad. "The original NSX did this. But the proposed successor went into the classic world of a heavy vehicle, requiring a V10 engine and other technologies to be a performance car."

Conrad adds: "That is not Acura DNA. If we are thinking about being sporty, we need to do it with the machine's efficiency. That's the thing we can do. The way we achieve it will be unique to Acura."

In addition to the NSX's compact V6, the lithium ion battery-powered Sport Hybrid All-Wheel Drive system uses two integrated drive units at the rear wheels connected to a motor-generator that delivers power.

Regenerative brakes will capture electricity and deliver torque to the outside wheel--while absorbing negative torque from the inside wheel--as the car goes through a corner.

American Honda President Tetsuo Iwamura did not set a date for the NSX's launch, saying: "We hope within three years. ... As soon as possible."

Too much machine

Despite the NSX's go-fast ambitions, a major part of Acura's new philosophy will be dialing back on performance in exchange for fuel economy. Executives say that today's luxury cars have more power than they need, and that premium-vehicle buyers now care more about mpg than mph.

Conrad said Acura has returned to its original philosophy of elegant engineering and top-of-class fuel economy, and has stopped chasing the elite of the luxury segment. The new slogan: "Smart luxury."

Mike Accavitti, the former head of Dodge who became American Honda's vice president of marketing in August, describes the current luxury market as "too much machine and not enough humanity."

Said Accavitti: "Our overweight bodies require overweight engines and more safety systems to protect them. Some of these cars the average driver just can't control. We have been increasing performance beyond the ability of the driver, or we have complicated the driving process."

Poponi said of Acura's previous batch of products: "Our engineering ego was getting in the way."

Peaks and valleys

American Honda hopes this philosophy can stabilize Acura's sales, which have peaked twice--once in the early 1990s and again in setting a brand record in 2005, at 209,610 units. But each time things fell apart because of ill-conceived products and faulty marketing--not to mention the recent recession. This year, sales through November were down 7 percent to 110,170. Honda says short supplies caused by the March earthquake in Japan were a factor.

For a new crop of customers, Honda is looking at Generation Y. The leading edge of that generation is turning 30, and Honda says the generation's top priorities are exterior styling, price and environmental friendliness.

"A good sound system" finished fifth in its research, and less than 20 percent care about high performance, Honda says.

"Technology is only as good as the driver," said Gary Evert, division director for advanced automotive planning at Acura r&d. "The vehicle almost always has more capability than the driver can handle. Anything outside the customer's understanding is waste."

Acura in the wings

Spring 2012: New ILX, redesigned RDX

Fall 2012: Redesigned RL

2013: Redesigned TL, MDX

By Mark Rechtin- Automotive News