Whither Acura?

Andrew Dederer
by Andrew Dederer
whither acura

Acura’s finest marketing moment comes halfway through “Pulp Fiction.” Our “heroes” have made a mess of things; the boss has called in “the cleaner.” Cut to an NSX (the sensible man’s Ferrari) pulling into the drive. Clearly “the cleaner” is well paid, always in a hurry and has no time to worry about his car. Who but car geeks remember this seminal moment? Where is the NSX these days? In fact, where’s Acura? As Consumer Reports (CR) reported, the answer is simple enough: nowhere.

Acura executives were reportedly aghast at CR’s brand perception survey. The study placed the Japanese marque third from the bottom, just above Mitsubishi and Mercury. In many categories, such as “performance image,” not ONE of CR’s 1,720 respondents even MENTIONED Acura. A company spokesman claimed the study was inaccurate, unimportant, subject to change (new models are coming). But the simple truth is that Acura is invisible.

First and foremost, Acura suffers from Honda’s success. Like most automotive brands, Honda offers plenty of toys that were once restricted to luxury cars, from electric windows to premium audio systems. Thanks to trickle down ergonomics, Acura has become a sort of “Mercury done right.” Acura sells a series of gently re-skinned, slightly posher, slightly faster Honda derivatives (sharing platforms, but not bodies).

While Acura’s lineup resembles Mercury in execution, Acura’s inherent– and unexpressed– sales appeal is slightly different. The brand’s current tagline is Advance? Fuhgeddaboutit. At best, Acura is the sensible person’s BMW. (At worst, it’s the poor man’s BMW.)

Luxury cars generally come in two different flavors: wafters and carvers. Wafters emphasize smooth cosseting ride and rich interior fittings. Lexus is the ideal’s poster child. Jaguar and Caddy aim for it. Mercedes and Audi kinda want it, kinda don’t. Acura can’t do it.

On the flip side, carvers emphasize performance uber alles, selling sporty style and aggressive driving dynamics (again, we’re talking about perception). BMW is America’s upmarket carving King. Again, both historically and practically, this is Acura’s natural stomping grounds. This is why Acura’s line-up neatly mirrors much of the propeller people’s products.

In a Honda-sensible way. BMW’s are built for autobahns (though the top end is restricted to 155mph). Acura is built for highways, where 90-some-mph cruising is enough. BMW sells sedans with fussy controls, ridiculously priced options and penalty box passenger seating. Acura sells cars with virtually no options, intuitive ergonomics and actual rear seats. BMWs are expensive. Acuras are not.

So, there’s the template. Now, how do you sell it?

For one thing, Acura needs to return to naming its cars. The Japanese brand ditched its legendary model names for alpha-numerics after Lexus successfully aped Mercedes’ and BMW’s model designations. It cost Acura a huge amount of momentum. Initials are not necessarily the kiss of death; the Honda CR-V sells in huge numbers– it was/is for Acura. But when you’re invisible, making it hard for people to remember your name is just plain dumb.

Acura also needs to address the huge gap in its line-up. The TSX and TL (confused yet?) slot-in neatly as lower-priced BMW 3 and 5-Series alternatives. The RDX and MDX also line up perfectly against Stuttgart’s X-series SUVs. Although Acura doesn’t compete against Bimmer’s ever-expanding line of niche vehicles (thank God), Acura’s top-‘o-the-range RL lacks a logical German competitor.

Critics contend that the RL’s six cylinder engine can’t cut it in a market segment awash in testosterone. But price is the real problem. The RL stickers for around $50k. The 7-Series starts at $70k. More to the point, the Acura TL clocks-in under $34k. Except for a few gadgets and AWD– which the TL may soon receive– the TL is arguably the better car.

That $15k gap contributes to the Acura RL’s less than stellar sales. It’s simply not a sensible choice. The TL is market-slotted right where the original Legend found favor: as the cheapskate’s BMW. Whereas the BMW 7-Series could be considered the wealthy snob’s 5-Series, the RL is nobody’s nothing. It needs to grow, grow stones or disappear.

The importance of a “sensible supercar” at the top of Acura’s range is debatable. As the Consumer Reports brand perception survey indicates, Acura’s need for a powerful and sustained advertising campaign is not.

Lexus and Mercedes aim at the CEO who runs the company. BMW aims at the execs who think they run the company. Acura should be for the middle managers who actually run the company. This is a salable niche. In fact, the demographic is far less vulnerable to economic downturns in the economy than the Lexus, Mercedes or BMW model. But just like the higher-ups, they need to feel that their car is special.

If Acura can build the cars these men and women want and make them Acura-aware, they will be born again. If not, not.

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