Created specifically for the American market, the oldest Japanese luxury brand in the U.S. was introduced in 1986, with two models: Legend and Integra. Acura automobiles immediately catapulted Honda into the stratosphere of automotive categories. In fact, both Lexus and Infiniti owe a debt of gratitude to Acura cars for proving North American car buyers would consider a product with a $20,000 price tag (equivalent to $42,000 today) from a Japanese brand.
The luxury division of Honda Motor Company faced a very different environment back in March of 1986. Back then, anyone who wanted a serious mainstream imported luxury car pretty much went with Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, and to a lesser extent Saab and Volvo. When the Acura Legend appeared offering many of the same features, along with Honda’s reputation for reliability, affordability, value, and low cost of ownership, the car was an immediate hit.
Offered under the tagline, “Precision Crafted Performance”, the Acura Legend was an all-new front-wheel drive model, developed in co-operation with the Austin Rover Group from England. That company marketed a version of the Legend in North America as the Sterling 825 (later 827 when the engine displacement was increased). While more luxurious and sporting oriented than the Legend, the Sterling was hampered by poor reliability and indifferent build quality. The car (and the company) left the American market in 1991, having sold approximately 35,794 Sterling 800-series cars between 1987 and 1991.
Meanwhile, Acura sold 55,000 copies of the Legend in its first full year on the market. The Legend’s sister model—the Integra, sold 54,000 cars that first year. Based on a Japan-market Honda model called the Quint; where Legend was luxury oriented in the vein of Mercedes-Benz, Integra was performance oriented in the vein of BMW. And indeed, Integra eventually became a favorite of import tuner enthusiasts. Offered in both two-door hatchback and four-door hatchback configurations, the Acura Integra, just as did its Legend sister, very quickly became a fixture on American roads.
The following year, Acura automobiles followed the introductions of the Legend and the Integra with an elegant sporting coupe based on the Legend. In those early days, it seemed as if Acura autos could do no wrong, as the Legend Coupe also quickly became a routine sighting on the road. Another groundbreaking two-door followed on the heels of those first Acura models—an exotic mid-engined sports car called the NSX. The only rear-drive Acura product to date, the NSX was touted as the world’s first all-aluminum volume production car.
With its nomenclature an acronym for the phrase “New Sports car eXperimental”, the Acura NSX was a true exotic sports car. Further, the NSX proved reliability could go hand in hand with the performance expected from such supercars, and at a more affordable (relatively speaking) price point. What the Legend and Integra had done to Mercedes and BMW, the NSX did to Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini. Another hallmark of Acura vehicles that came to the fore with the NSX was the introduction of the Acura logo. The now-familiar stylized caliper badging was first seen affixed to a production Acura with the V6-powered 1990 Acura NSX. By the way, if you look closely, you’ll see the Acura logo is in actuality the Honda logo inverted and pinched at the top.
Discontinued in 2005, the NSX was the last real glory moment for Acura in the 20th century. The brand’s trajectory turned southward in the late 1990’s. Lexus and Infiniti had come to market offering something Acura still hasn’t offered to this day—rear-drive and a V8 engine. The handsome mid-level Vigor never really caught on like the Legend and the Integra did. Further, the well known and highly respected Legend and Integra nameplates were abandoned during this period—along with the momentum they had propelling them.
The company tried introducing an SUV to cash in on the boom in that market in the late 1990’s, but made the mistake of rebadging an Isuzu model to get something out there quickly. Dubbed SLX, the styling was not as crisp as buyers had come to expect from Acura automobiles, nor was the quality of the SUV what Acura buyers had come to expect. Eventually Acura got its own SUV, the MDX, which more solidly reflected the brand’s core strengths and consequently enjoyed rather significant success.
The name changes meant the Legend became known as the RL, the Legend Coupe became known as the CL, the Vigor became known as the TL, and the Integra eventually became known as the RSX. Around this time, the Japanese economy also faltered, causing Acura models to miss out on some badly needed updates to remain competitive—just as the older European luxury manufacturers were regaining composure and recovering from the shock the introduction of Acura, Lexus and Infiniti had induced to the profitability of their product portfolios.
The first ray of light after Acura’s long sleep through the 90’s was the Acura RSX. An absolutely lovely car to drive; the RSX can arguably be credited with attracting attention back to Acura vehicles. The RSX was followed by an exciting new version of the TL, and a smaller sport sedan called the TSX. Acura’s MDX was followed in the SUV segment by the well-received RDX and the quirky ZDX. A TSX wagon was added in 2010. The four-door ILX was slotted in between the TSX and the TL in 2012 as a 2013 model. And finally, a new NSX concept car, slated for production, was shown at the 2013 Detroit Auto Show.
Meanwhile, the larger more spacious rear-drive V8 powered flagship sedans it inspired ultimately trounced the car that started it all for Acura, the Legend. At one point, Honda announced plans to remake the RL with rear-driven V8 power, but the economic meltdown in 2008 caused the company’s product planning team to rethink that. The current version of the Legend, the 2014 Acura RLX still uses a V6 engine, and is offered with a choice of front- or all-wheel drive.