Right now, in the Arizona desert, Acura is pulling the wraps of two new models: an updated version of the RDX small cross-over, and an entry-level luxury sedan dubbed the ILX. Haven't heard much about them? Of course you haven't, everybody's excited about a different Acura product.
It's called the NSX and--oh, I see you've already heard about it! You've seen the Seinfeld/Leno SuperBowl ad, seen the sheets flow off the concept, seen Ironman's Tony Stark driving around in the concept version.
I hardly need tell you then about the hybrid drivetrain, or the all-wheel-drive traction, or the lightweight aluminum shell.
But maybe I can tell you something a little surprising. This year is Acura's 25th in Canada, a full quarter-century of stylish and sporty cars with near-impeccable reliability. If you're doing the math in your head, there have been Acuras on the road since 1987. And, if you're really paying attention, you'll note that 1987 comes before 1989.
Why is that important? Well, it means that it is Honda/Acura, not Toyota/Lexus with their ProjectX LS400 sedan, that first successfully launched the era of upscale Japanese luxury. What's more, depending on your viewpoint, they did rather a better job of it.
Now, such opinion may be a matter of some dispute as Acura is currently in the midst of a fairly serious shake-up. The incoming Civic-based ILX overlaps with the mid-sized TSX, which cramps the style of the TL somewhat. Then there's the full-size RL, which everyone forgets about, and the weird-looking ZDX (which I happen to like a lot).
But hear me out: over the years, Acura's products have been more sensible than Lexus's, and while they haven't quite captured the cachet of the big fancy Toyotas, they also didn't build their success by copying what the German marques (mostly Mercedes-Benz) were doing: they did something else.
In 1986, U2 had yet to record The Joshua Tree, the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster had only just occurred, and dictators like "Baby-Doc" Duvalier and Ferdinand Marcos were getting kicked out of their comfy thrones. In March, Honda launched a fleet of new dealerships, designed around selling the compact Integra, and the aptly-named Legend.
The Acura Legend is, arguably, the second-best car Acura ever built. It was comfortable and luxurious, and didn't hearken back to old-world sensibilities of V-8 power and rear-wheel-drive. It had a smooth and powerful V6, and with front-wheel-drive could handle any sort of bad weather.
It was also, at heart, a Honda product of the late '80s, and that meant it was ludicrously reliable. The mask was starting to slip on "legendary" German built quality, and those frustrated with the owning and operating costs on a big Teutonic sedan were only too happy to have a more dependable alternative. Acura old-sold the German brands right out of the gate.
Let's not let the Legend overshadow its more humble stablemate, the entry-level Integra. Where the Legend was something similar to an E-Class Merc', the Integra didn't really have a direct competitor. Maybe you could consider it a sort of "poor-man's" 3-series BMW, but the fact is, it wasn't a poor-man's anything.
With revvy four-cylinder engines, taut suspension, and lightweight construction, the Integra was the embodiment of Soichiro Honda's original passion for racing. Culminating in the incredibly raw Integra Type-R of the late '90s, the Integra gained cult status as a performance icon.
Speaking of performance icons, we seem to have skipped ahead of the single most important Acura ever built.
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In 1989, Lexus released their LS400, bench-marking the S-class Mercedes-Benz and the 7-series BMW. Acura also released a concept, bench-marking a different brand: Ferrari.
This was the original Acura NSX, although it was almost named something else. In one of those charming stories of the Japanese/North-American cultural disconnect, the New Sports eXperimental coupe was never intended to stay the "NSX," but U.S. executives convinced the Japanese brass to just leave the badges on the car until the unveiling. The name stuck.
The car itself? Well, with an all-aluminum monocoque, high-revving 3.5L mounted amidships and Aryton Senna helping develop the handling, the Acura NSX is one of the few cars that could roll out onto a race track even now and hang with much more powerful machinery.
It turned the concept of supercar on its head: the NSX wasn't cramped or uncomfortable or possessed a slavering thirst for fuel, nor was it particularly expensive to service. If you didn't crash the thing (and you'd have to be quite ham-fisted to do so), an early NSX would easily still be on the road today, and could even be used as a comfortable and moderately efficient daily driver, were you so inclined.
The NSX was the first car to feature Honda's VTEC variable-valve-control system, and from there followed a whole host of firsts. Acura was first to offer in-dash Satellite navigation, first to offer standard Bluetooth, first to have front and rear independent climate control, first to have navigation as standard.
Along the way, Acura changed its naming system from Legend and Integra and Vigor to the more generic alpha-numeric naming of the German brands. They still made great cars (the TL Type-S, the 1.7EL), but none quite achieved the cult status of their early cars.
Yet here we are on the cusp of a renewal for Acura. The world has moved on from high-powered land-panzers and looks for cleaner and more efficient solutions, and here Acura is with the 4cyl ILX, the upcoming hybrid NSX, and smaller V6s in most of the rest of its lineup. It is the only luxury manufacturer that doesn't currently produce a V8.
Certainly though, Acura is well-positioned for a comeback in the luxury market. The ILX is sure to break sales records up here, the RDX's new V6 will add smoothness to their entry-level CUV, and then there's that NSX... Happy anniversary, Acura, here's to 25 more years.
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