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For Acura fans from yesteryear who recall the merits of iconic cars such as the Integra, Legend and NSX, Honda’s luxury brand has increasingly become a source of frustration. When Acura initially hit the U.S. luxury market in 1986, ahead of any of its Japanese peers, it was a progressive brand with regards to its technological ingenuity and quickly became a massive success as a fledgling luxury marque. Unfortunately, questionable marketing and design decisions along with a lack of innovation in engineering led to the stagnation of the brand’s growth over the past decade, but speculation has risen that Acura may have a plan that will help restore its previously stellar reputation.

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Since the mid-2000s, the popularity of Honda’s luxury unit has diminished, with Acura seeing over 35,000 fewer registrations last year than it did back in 1991 when its lineup consisted of only three models, one of which was the low volume NSX supercar. However, the company’s strategy had already become unclear long before that and the image of Acura that consumers previously held was steadily changing for the worse. In an attempt to associate itself with leading luxury marques from Europe, Acura began to implement a new vehicle naming strategy in the mid-1990s more akin to those utilized by brands such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi and Jaguar. Consequently, familiar names such as the Legend, Integra and Vigor would be switched out for the names RL, RSX and TL, respectively, once each model’s next-generation replacement arrived.

Acura’s reasoning behind transitioning from memorable vehicle names that draw emotion to alphanumeric ones, much like Japanese peers Lexus and Infiniti did when they debuted in 1990, was to “keep up with the Joneses” of the luxury market. Leading luxury automakers, particularly those from Germany, have long used alphanumeric nomenclature systems to eliminate many of the challenges that arise during the name creation process while placing more emphasis on the name of the brand itself. In a 2004 article from CNN Money, Honda spokesman Chris Naughton explained, “We would rather have more emphasis on the Acura brand.” Acura’s previously-used vehicle names would have stood in the way of that goal since drivers would be more inclined to say they drive a Legend or Integra, names that stir emotions, instead of associating themselves with the Acura name.

Marketing undoubtedly plays an important role in a business’ success, but most of the time a product’s success is more hinged upon other variables such as how well it meets consumers’ needs, its quality relative to the competition and the total cost-benefit or value in which it provides. A comparison of registrations between the Legend, Integra and Vigor before and after the alphanumeric system was enacted is evidence that the new naming strategy likely had little or no effect in increasing sales for the vehicles themselves or the brand as a whole.

The second-generation Legend’s 207,000 registrations in five model years is over 53,000 units greater than that in which the RL achieved over the next 17 model years while the second-generation Integra averaged over 16,000 more registrations per model year than its RSX successor. Both models exhibited decreases in registrations after changing their names, but much of that is attributed to the succeeding models failing to deliver the same appeal as their predecessors, which were great values and conveyed sportiness more in line with the brand’s NSX halo car. Meanwhile, the first-generation TL averaged over 11,000 more than the outgoing Vigor, yet unlike the RL and RSX, the TL was widely viewed as being superior to its predecessor.

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Ultimately, there is little evidence suggesting that Acura’s decision to swap vehicle names succeeded in raising the brand’s visibility and instead, if anything, contributed to the confusion of consumers as to why all the equity built in the existing names was being discarded for unfamiliar two and three letter combinations. More importantly, however, was how Acura began to move away from its sporty roots in an effort to emphasize more of a luxury brand image similar to its European competition. Through the mid-2000s, the brand continued to grow thanks to the additions of the MDX utility vehicle and TSX compact sedan, yet with each new vehicle the brand lost more of its past character and was becoming just another ordinary luxury marque.

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In 2005, Acura peaked at nearly 209,000 registrations as the company chose to discontinue the brand’s two sportiest cars, the NSX and RSX, after the 2005 and 2006 model years, respectively. Still trying to obtain the image of a first tier luxury automaker, Acura forsook much of what made it distinct, having changed its vehicle naming convention as well as its product strategy, but it has not worked for the better. Evidence of the brand’s lost identity can be seen in the form of falling sales as Acura has not topped 155,000 registrations in any of the last five years and sales year-to-date are down 0.9% while the total industry is up 5.4%.

Concerned about the state of its product portfolio, Acura has continued to make changes in the past couple years, starting with the introduction of the entry-level ILX sedan for the 2013 model year and the demise of the RL nameplate, which was replaced by the all-new RLX that same year. The two models brought along another modification to the vehicle naming strategy, with six of the brand’s seven model names at the time ending with an “X,” but that would soon change with the new TLX sedan arriving in 2014 to replace both the TL and TSX. Having also trimmed the ZDX from the lineup after the 2013 model year, Acura was equipped with a noticeably different lineup, but questions remained over what exactly was accomplished by the changes.

Another small Japanese brand, Subaru, has become a phenomenon in the past few years as a quirky automaker with a rally racing pedigree and a loyal customer base. The company’s top-notch all-wheel drive technology, which is standard on all models except for the BRZ sports car, has differentiated the brand from the crowded field of automakers and consumers are now visiting dealerships in droves. As a result, Subaru ended September with a mere 18 days’ supply and, having taken notice, Acura is now considering following Subaru’s lead by making all-wheel drive a staple of its business model. Half of all Acuras sold this year in America were equipped with AWD, and with its critically acclaimed SH-AWD (Super Handling All-Wheel Drive) in tow as a product differentiator, applying across the lineup could be a winning strategy. Honda senior managing director Koichi Fukuo recently told Automotive News, “I think that’s the way we should go.”

“As a premium brand, we need something different from the competition,” continued Fukuo, who believes that “the key is AWD.” Considering Acura offers AWD on every model save the civic-based ILX, the brand could make the transition relatively smoothly with the SH-AWD and new Sport Hybrid SH-AWD, found on the RLX and reincarnated NSX due for 2015, acting as cornerstones to the luxury brand’s newfound sporty makeup. In addition, either by pure coincidence or careful planning, Acura product marketing will be able to advertise the “X” affixed to each model’s names as being indicative of the intrinsic AWD feature existing in vehicles throughout the product portfolio.

It cannot be discounted that vehicle margins and overall profitability played a significant role in the company’s decision making over the years, particularly when luxury marques across the industry are aspiring to attain the considerable premiums garnered by the likes of Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi. However, it has taken growing pains by Acura to realize that once you find your identity, you must embrace it and not reject it in favor of something seemingly more desirable. Of course, no turnaround is achieved overnight and the front-wheel drive ILX represents an outlier to Acura’s sporty AWD initiative, but just as former luxury leader Lexus has learned, a brand must have personality and a clear definition lest it risk becoming stale and forgotten. With a new hybrid AWD NSX halo car on the horizon, one can only hope its arrival marks the dawn of a new brighter chapter for Acura.