Driving It Home

Ailing Acura is getting major surgery

DETROIT, Mich. — Special to The Globe and Mail

Front end light treatment of the Acura NSX hybrid concept car (MIKE CASSESE/REUTERS/Mike Cassese)

Acura, as close to broken as a premium brand can be, is getting major product surgery and it could not come too soon for Jerry Chenkin, Honda/Acura Canada executive vice-president.

“Sales started sliding in 2007 and they have been hard to stabilize,” said Chenkin. Indeed, last year Acura Canada’s sales were down 11.9 per cent to 15,272. Chenkin says Acura Canada needs to sell 20,000 vehicles a year to be happy and profitable – and to have happy and profitable dealers.

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The Acura NSX concept super car unveiled here at the Detroit auto show won’t be a high-volume addition to Acura’s lineup if, as suggested here at the Detroit auto show, it goes on sale in a year or three. But it does suggest an interesting future for Honda’s upscale brand.

The NSX concept is stunning – low-slung and dangerous looking. Performance will come from the latest version of Acura’s hybrid technology combined with a new take on Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive or SH-AWD in Acura-speak.

Acura needs to build a production version of this NSX. No one disputes that. More immediately, though, the new compact sedan called the ILX speaks to what we’ll see in showrooms this spring. It rides on Honda’s global Civic platform and will replace two cars in Acura’s Canadian lineup: the CSX, which was a barely-gussied-up Civic, and the TSX, a rebadged version of the Honda Accord sold in Europe.

A redesigned RDX small crossover is coming in the spring, too, and Acura showed that here in Detroit. The next RDX will have a V-6 and a suspension tuned more for comfort, less for performance.

The NSX, RDX and ILX should turn Acura away from the present reality. And that reality is that Acura has evolved into a heavily discounted SUV brand. That is, 58 per cent of Acura sales in Canada are SUVs. The big seller, the $62,690 MDX, has lately been driving off dealer lots with the help of an $8,000 cash incentive.

What we’re seeing in Detroit is Acura’s vision of luxury or premium vehicles and it’s different than the big German brands like BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi. Acura does not plan to copy the Japan premium entries, either.

Acura’s hope is to stir some much-needed emotion in potential buyers and to do so with sharp designs and nifty technologies. The sales hook will be rational, though – offer more car for less money than the competition – and it will be expressed through an entirely new lineup and a thoroughly new approach to customer service.

So far in Detroit we’ve seen two Acura production models and a concept NSX which surely will turn into a real car within three years. Apparently there is life at Acura after all.

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