Acura makeover returns brand to its roots

Henry Payne, The Detroit News

Louisville, Kentucky – Acura is going back to the future.

With a new look derived from the Precision convept, the TLX A-Spec signals Acura's return to making sporty cars.

To jumpstart stalled sales, Honda’s luxury brand is defying the trend toward robotic cars and returning to the sporty, driver-focused image that inspired Acura’s birth three decades ago. That strategy includes the second coming of its Acura NSX supercar, a return to racing and the introduction this summer of a restyled performance sedan, the TLX A-Spec, based on the Precision concept seen at last year’s Detroit Auto Show.

“We are reinvigorating as a performance brand,” said Acura Vice President John Ikeda in Louisville recently at a media test program for the A-Spec. “That is where our heritage is, and we kicked off the Precision concept to get that image back.”

With a new look derived from the Precision concept, the TLX A-Spec signals Acura's return to making sporty cars.

Acura debuted in the U.S. market in 1986 as the first Japanese luxury brand. Its early success inspired premium divisions from Toyota (Lexus) and Nissan (Infiniti). Acura’s reputation was built on the Legend and Integra sedans, and the innovative NSX supercar which launched to rave reviews in 1990 with Acura’s first V-TEC (variable valve timing) engine and an all-aluminum body.

“When the brand came out it was a breath of fresh air. It was completely different,” says Ikeda, who, as a talented young designer out of Los Angeles’ Art Center College of Design, joined Acura in 1989. “It was the first luxury brand coming out of Japan. It really intrigued me to pack up everything and move to Tokyo.”

The Acura Precision concept vehicle is seen at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on January 13, 2016.

Acura sales in the U.S. peaked at 209,610 units in 2005 and haven’t come close since, with sales at 161,360 last year. Meanwhile, rivals like Audi have tripled their sales (to 210,213) since 2005, and Lexus now sells more than twice as many vehicles as Acura.

A changing market brought more demand for SUVs, and Acura tried to change with it. Acura abandoned its NSX halo car and performance variants while adopting a more premium-looking design language.

2018 Acura TLX V6 A-Spec

“We were doing really well in 2005, but somewhere we stopped making the NSX, we stopped racing, the Type-S’s went away,” says Ikeda upon reflection. “And then the market crashed in 2008. At that that point you have moment of self-reflection. There were some pieces that were fundamentally missing.”

One of those pieces, Ikeda believes, is the young culture that attracted him 30 years ago. “The people were so youthful – they had so much energy and passion,” says the Acura veteran. “You have to believe and be that to make that.”

So in 2015 Acura returned to its roots by unveiling the second-generation NSX and naming Ikeda as vice president for North America.

IHS Automotive senior analyst Stephanie Brinley says Acura and Mazda – which has its own halo sports car, the MX-5 Miata – are pursuing similar strategies as throwback, pilot-focused brands.

“In an environment of ride-sharing and autonomous vehicle development, it’s interesting that these two brands are going back to being driver-oriented,” she says.

2018 Acura TLX V6 A-Spec

Acura’s reboot also dovetails with parent company Honda’s renewed emphasis on performance. Criticized for ditching its sporty vibe in the pursuit of retail sales leadership in the volume SUV (Honda CR-V) and sedan (Honda Accord) segments, Honda made waves last year with an Audi A3-baselined extreme makeover of its Honda Civic compact – including the introduction of the ferocious 300-horsepower Civic Type-R to the U.S. market.

Ikeda says Acura should be a logical step up for thousands of Honda customers.

“The Civic is a great, but at some point the customer wants more. We have to be there for those people,” he says. “It’s an obvious transition from Honda to Acura performance.”

The influence of the NSX on the reinvigorated Acura brand is telling. Like the 1990 original, it focuses on innovation – bringing exotic, hybrid-driven tech to market for hundreds of thousands less than similar Porsches and Ferraris. Acura’s new slogan, “Precision Crafted Performance,” even echoes its 1986 tagline, “Precision Crafted Automobiles.”

“NSX is the halo car. And with it we’re going back to racing,” Ikeda says of the supercar’s entry this year in the highly competive IMSA GTD series against rivals like Porsche, Lexus and Audi. “If you’re not racing, you’re just playing around. It sets you up for the A-Spec because it gives it validity.”

The A-Spec is a wicked-looking variation of Acura’s entry-level TLX all-wheel drive sedan. Though its upgrades are largely cosmetic (mechanical changes are limited to gripper tires and a sportier suspension), Ikeda strongly hints it’s a steppingstone to a Type-S badge that will get more power and technology like Audi’s S-line.

The A-Spec is a wicked-looking variation of Acura’s entry-level TLX all-wheel drive sedan. Honda’s luxury brand is defying the trend toward robotic cars, returning with the TLX A-Spec to the sporty , driver-focused image that inspired Acura’s birth.

“They are doing what they can in the mid-cycle update for the TLX,” says HIS’s Brinley. “They are taking the opportunity to set things up for sportier models down the road.”

Also channeling the NSX’s claim as America’s “affordable” supercar, the TLX will be the U.S. market’s most affordable, V-6 powered luxury sedan at $36,200. Every car will come standard with a suite of safety-assist systems as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity

Made in Marysville, Ohio, alongside the NSX, the new TLX and TLX A-Spec hit dealerships in June accompanied by a new ad campaign. The so-called “Wow” campaign throbs with modern music, features healthy doses of the halo NSX, and is designed to reach young buyers through smartphones and social media.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.