Acura is reinventing itself, and we're taking notes.
When Honda introduced Acura, the first Japanese luxury car brand in America, it was met with the same skepticism as when Honda itself first started selling cars here. Honda built small economical cars, so what business did it have in the premium market with the likes of BMW, Mercedes, and Cadillac? Motoring media and automotive executives alive scoffed at the idea. Now Acura is in its 35th year as a brand, and Japanese luxury brands have a large chunk of the premium market. Acura's story is different from Lexus, though. as Acura lost its way in the 21st century. Partly as it didn't continue to separate from its parent brand as strongly as Lexus has, and partly through risk aversion - Acura has traditionally had high profit margins for Honda, and that has led to staleness. Acura peaked in the 1990s, then again in the mid-2000s, but now the brand is working to recapture its glory. Acura has great cars on the road now, but the rebirth of the Integra is going to be key to Acura bringing younger owners into the brand - as well as older buyers back.
The Acura Legend is the car that started it all and was promoted as "Precision Crafted Performance" and branded as the "Legend Touring Sedan." It launched with a single trim level and the option of either a manual or automatic transmission. What sold the car when it dropped as a 1986 model was its clean and proportionate styling, its excellent build quality, and its reasonable price compared to its German equivalents. Part of the lower cost equation was Acura's non-reliance on rear-wheel-drive and its use of Honda's strong and reliable V6 engine, making 151 horsepower.
The second-generation Acura Legend improved on the first, but the coupe came into its own. The V6 engine grew to 3.2 liters and now made 200 hp, the styling became more streamlined, the whole car got larger, and Acura gave the Legend Coupe styling cues from the NSX to make the brand more cohesive. The coupe's mirrors were a direct lift from the NSX, and the car's sportier looks and chassis tune engaged more with enthusiasts than the more stolid sedan.
The importance of the Honda NSX can't be overstated, and that's why it was badged as an Acura in North America. The NSX had many firsts to its name, including being the first production car with an all-aluminum body. It also featured an all-aluminum V6 with Honda's V-TEC variable valve timing technology mounted behind the driver and passenger. It arrived with 270 hp and 210 lb-ft of torque, with its final round of chassis tuning taking input from F1 legend Ayrton Senna. It was a massive curveball lobbed into the supercar world and put Ferrari on notice - as intended. Decades later, the original remains one of the purest driving experiences ever. The new one, however, is less lovable.
Acura launched the Integra alongside the Legend as a 1986 model, and it was an instant hit. Due to its Honda front-wheel-drive platform, it was small, practical, and had agile dynamics that made it fun to drive. It was better specced than the Honda-badged versions in other countries and came as a three- or five-door model powered by a 1.6-liter dual-overhead-camshaft 16-valve engine making 113 hp. The first-generation Integra got the ball rolling for what was to come, but it's important to remember that the Integra didn't arrive with aggressively sporty versions. The models that are lodged in enthusiasts' minds didn't arrive until the second generation - with V-TEC.
The North American second-generation Integra landed in RS, LS, and GS trim levels as either a three-door liftback or sedan for the 1990 model year. Meanwhile, Japan got the lightweight RSi and the top-trimmed XSi with high-revving DOHC VTEC engines. In the US, the top dog for enthusiasts arrived in 1992 as the GS-R. It was a three-door model that came only with a shorter-geared five-speed manual transmission than standard models, and a 1.7-liter B-series DOHC VTEC engine with 160 hp. It's a rare car with only 4,825 made for the US and Canada, but it cemented Acura's name as a premium performance brand.
The third-generation Integra arrived for the 1994 model year, but the benchmark for front-wheel-drive performance cars didn't get to the US until 1997. It was only available in Championship White until 1998 but returned in 2000 with a choice of yellow, red, or black. A total of 3,823 were sold here, and they go for crazy money nowadays. US models made 195 hp and stretched out to an 8,400-rpm redline. With its fast and high-revving engine, weight reduction, chassis stiffening, and special suspension, the Integra Type R was a beast of a car that could hold its own with more expensive all-wheel-drive models on the track.
The importance of the Acura MDX is often underestimated, and it's one of the best-selling mid-size luxury SUVs the industry has seen. It's also a fantastic example of how Acura develops its technology over time to refine a model. Acura may have lost its way with cars like the TSX, the ILX, and the RL, but the MDX has been strong since it landed for the 2001 model year. The first generation arrived as a seven-seater with a V-TEC V6 engine and a slick automatic all-wheel-drive system called VTM-4. The second-generation launched with a 3.7-liter V6 making 300 hp and with packages that could add an active suspension system and a 410-watt Acura/ELS DTS Surround audio system.
The current Acura MDX is the best so far and can be cranked up with packages from a $48,000 premium SUV into a full-tilt luxury sports SUV at $73,095. The Type S package and its turbocharged V6 make 355 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque, and its SH-AWD system is fantastic. The 16-speaker ELS Studio 3D audio system, developed with famed producer and engineer Elliot Scheiner, is a marvel of what can be done with sound in a vehicle. As far as we can tell, the Acura MDX is on the point of diminishing returns when it comes to value for money in the premium SUV segment.
Again, the NSX was badged as an Acura in the US and Honda elsewhere, but it was designed and built in the US. Like the first generation, a mid-mounted 3.5-liter twin-turbocharged V6 provides power, but three electric motors now augment it to produce 573 hp through Acura's SH-AWD system. It's not a perfect supercar, but it's everything it should be where it's needed. The hybrid Acura NSX is frantically fast off the line, the chassis and all-wheel-drive tuning are sublime, and it has Acura durability and reliability baked in. It's a car that's been written off by many as not a shadow of the original, but those people have overlooked the fact that, in the philosophy of providing the best interpretation of the latest technologies, it's very much like the original.
In an interview, Acura's Vice President Jon Ikeda said that there would be a third generation. "If you notice," he said, "We make an NSX when there's something we want to say. The first gen was gas. Second-gen was a hybrid. There's going to be another one." For those who are slow on the uptake, that means the next NSX will be all-electric.