1986 Acura Legend
1986 Acura Legend. Click image to enlarge

by Tony Whitney

This year, Acura is celebrating 20 years in North America – and it’s an event worth noting. Acura products are a familiar sight on Canadian roads nowadays, and it’s all too easy to forget that this is the nameplate that pioneered Japanese luxury vehicles in North America. Acura made its debut in the U.S. on March 27, 1986 and moved into Canada exactly a year later.

Initially, there were just two products: the upscale Legend, in two-door coupe and four-door sedan configuration, and the sporty two-door and five-door Integra models. At the time of their introduction, critics praised the performance and “feel” of the new Acuras and commented that here, at last, were Japanese automobiles to rival the very best that Germany, Sweden and the UK had to offer.

The initial aim of Acura was to “play in the same league as the Europeans and surpass them,” as the company put it at the time. I still remember the first time I got behind the wheel of an Acura; it was a Legend and we were testing it at the Suzuka track in Japan, where the Japanese GP is held each year. I thought it was the very first Japanese model I’d tried that really felt as though it could have been built in Germany alongside all those Mercedes-Benzes, Audis and BMWs.

1992 Acura Integra
1992 Acura Integra. Click image to enlarge

Attempting to pull it off was a bold undertaking by Honda. Not only did it face the challenges of the luxury market with its well-entrenched players, but no automaker had successfully launched a new division, including a separate dealer network, since Lincoln-Mercury was formed back in 1945.

The Acura launch was based on studies by Honda analysts, who concluded that the luxury car market would flourish through the 1990s and beyond. They were absolutely correct, of course; even through world economic downturns, luxury vehicles have been strong sellers, possibly aided by enthusiastic consumer response to upscale SUVs.

1992 Acura NSX
1992 Acura NSX. Click image to enlarge

The Legend and Integra were followed by the much-praised, mostly-aluminum 1991 NSX sports car, released in summer 1990, and by the 1991 Vigor sports sedan. In recent years, Acura has dropped model names in favour of alphanumeric designations which are easy enough for consumers to understand once the range is studied.

As most buyers know by now, Acura is the luxury division of Honda, itself one of the most youthful of the world’s automakers, having celebrated its 50th anniversary only eight years ago. Back in the mid 1980s, it seemed like a risky move for a Japanese manufacturer to spin off a luxury division after decades of offering low-priced, if well-built, products. But form a new division Honda did, and if there were naysayers at the outset, they’ve since been forced to eat their words.

1992 Acura Vigor
1992 Acura Vigor. Click image to enlarge

At one time, the very idea of a luxury car from Japan was a joke to many people. It’s worth remembering, though, that both Nissan and Toyota were building luxury models for the Japanese market long before they went upscale here with Infiniti and Lexus. While many of those models were well-accepted back home and were always a common sight on the streets of Tokyo, often with a white-gloved chauffeur at the wheel, they were not products that would have given Mercedes-Benz or Cadillac a scare if they were ever marketed here. Few North American buyers would have warmed to a Nissan Cedric or Toyota Crown. How things have changed over the last couple of decades!

After much careful thought, the name Acura was chosen, selected to convey to consumers a combination of precision, luxury, sportiness and reliability. And if Hondas were beautifully put together, Acuras were that much better; in subsequent years, awards in every imaginable category have piled up for the emergent luxury nameplate. Acura has always sought to combine opulence with performance in its products and critics agree that this goal has been met and exceeded.

From a modest start, Acura now claims to have the widest range of any luxury Japanese luxury automaker, when considering both price and vehicle configuration.

Interestingly, Acura is the only Japanese luxury manufacturer to offer an “entry level” product: the CSX sedan, which starts at $25,400 and is only available in Canada. The subcompact luxury class seems to have been skirted by many automakers, but Acura offers this model in Canada in two trim levels. I’ve long been a big fan of the notion of a “luxury subcompact” and have always believed that consumers shouldn’t have to buy a large vehicle to get into the luxury segment.

There were plenty of critics twenty years ago who gave the Acura brand five years at best, and now they’ve been proven way far off the mark. Acura is clearly here to stay and the market has been the better for it. Now if only someone could convince Honda/Acura to produce a V8 engine and get involved in the very pinnacle of the luxury car business – that would really be something.

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