When Acura pulled the cover off its next-generation NSX supercar at the Detroit auto show in January, the racy design raised pulses, but the timing hoisted warning flags.
NSX isn't due in showrooms for three years, yet Honda's luxury brand showed the car, then spent a fortune in February to feature it in the brand's first Super Bowl ad.
"You don't pull the wraps off what you're doing years from now if everything's hunky-dory. You see that from companies not doing particularly well," says Jack Nerad, executive editorial director at auto research site kbb.com.
More bluntly, Automobile magazine on its June cover called Acura "a lost brand."
Acura was the first Japanese nameplate to take on the U.S. luxury market -- its 1986 Legend and Integra pre-dating 1990-model Lexus and Infiniti cars. And it remains Honda Motor's best foot forward, showcasing the company's most advanced technology.
Yet, industry watchers say, Acura long ago let go of the advantages of its head start and its technology.
"They really were ahead of the game at one point. Now what they have is about even with everybody else. They've lost that edge," says Ivan Drury, manager of pricing and industry analysis at auto research site Edmunds.com.
Acura disputes that view.
"We're coming off an absolutely nightmarish year in which we still outpaced Audi and Infiniti, our two primary competitors," says Michael Accavitti, Acura's vice president in charge of U.S. marketing. "This year, we're not only beating Audi and Infiniti (in sales), but also Jaguar and Lincoln and others."
Acura was hit harder than others last year by the tsunami in Japan, where most Japanese-brand luxury models are made. Acura's U.S. sales last year were down 7.7% in a new vehicle market up 10.3%, according to sales tracker Autodata.
This year, Acura sales are better: up 10.8% in the January through May period vs. year-ago tallies, according to Autodata. In the same period, Infiniti is up 7.2%, and Audi is up 14.5%. And Acura's total sales, Accavitti points out, are greater than either Infiniti or Audi.
"We're focused on what the brand stands for, have a solid product strategy for the future, and there's clarity among all the executives" about the brand's image, Accavitti says.
From the outside, however, it's not so clear. "Acura has certainly moved away from what many of us recognize" as the foundation of the brand -- nimble, sporty cars, says Drury.
"Lost their way? Maybe not exactly," he says, but certainly, Acura has changed.
It has, he notes, "turned into a luxury SUV maker. Its MDX has been its best seller the last few years and typically is one-third of all Acura sales."
Nothing wrong with SUVs; they are big business. But in Acura's case, the prominence of a three-row, family-style SUV seems to have pushed the brand's luxury image toward the mainstream.
Drury points to Edmunds.com data showing that about 21% of people who consider buying Acuras also look at Toyotas; nearly 19% cross-shop Hondas. Further, fewer than 13% of people looking at rival Audi also consider Acura, and about 17% of Infiniti shoppers cross-shop Acuras.
In other words, car shoppers seem more inclined to consider Toyotas and Hondas -- not Audis and Infinitis -- as the equivalent of Acuras.
Most luxury brands, by contrast, share shoppers' short lists with other premium nameplates. For example, about 30% of people who consider an Audi also look at a BMW, Edmunds.com data show.
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