Over the past few years, Subaru has been having the time of its life. Sales are at record levels and new benchmarks are being set for the brand virtually every quarter as consumers have been responding favorably to the company’s latest slate of options. What was once a niche brand for outdoor enthusiasts has gone decidedly mainstream, but there’s one factor that still sets Subaru apart from the rest of the pack: every single vehicle in its portfolio, aside from the BRZ (born out of a close partnership with Toyota), comes standard with all-wheel drive.
Subaru’s prominent sales uptick — the company posted gains of 30 percent in volume for the month of September, selling 41,517 vehicles in the U.S. last month, versus 31,755 from September 2013 — is the kind of performance that makes other brands take notice, and it seems that Acura, the luxury arm of Honda, has been taking notes.
A report from Automotive News suggests that the brand — which has been struggling in recent years — may be considering a move that would see all-wheel drive become a central pillar in its shifting strategic direction, as it weighs yet another reinvention of its image in light of stepped-up competition from the likes of Buick, Lincoln, and Chrysler.
Koichi Fukuo, Acura’s top global executive, told Automotive News that all-wheel drive — which is already available on half of Acura’s vehicles — should become a standard feature for all the cars and SUVs under its belt. Fukuo said that the brand is resisting rear-wheel-drive formats — which have been an integral part of BMW’s and Mercedes’s success, and Acura, though planning a slate of more powerful engines, will be staying away from large V8s and V10s, which have also become hallmarks of global luxury car leaders.
“Looking at Subaru, I felt that we have to have a strong, clear direction as a brand,” Fukuo told Automotive News. “What’s important is to have the technology, styling and performance to evolve all together. Otherwise, I don’t think we can increase the number of loyal customers, so-called Acurists.”
Herein lies the struggle that Acura has been facing for the last several years. Upon its introduction to the U.S. marketplace, Acura was first and foremost a performance brand, its reputation held in place by staples like the NSX and the Integra. Over time, Acura sought to appeal to the more mass-market consumer, which meant a pretty major watering down of its lineup was in order. Out went the Legend, the Integra, and the Vigor; in came the TSX, the MDX, and the RSX. Comfy, barge-like SUVs and sedans displaced the racy coupes and bargain supercars.
It was around this time that many felt Acura had started to lose its way, but the company made some pretty solid sedans with sedate engines and understated looks that belied the solid, reliable performance that they delivered. V6 engines became tempered after the beautiful unit that was found in the NSX, and V8s were nowhere to be found, period — a stark contrast to the V8-powered BMWs, Benzes, Caddys, Lexuses, and even Lincolns.
This trend continued through 2008, and in 2009, a new Acura TL sedan made its debut with an awkward, cumbersome chrome beak that would spread out to Acura’s other family members. Sales soon stagnated, as now styling, too, had seemingly been removed from the brand’s equation, and automotive enthusiasts became increasingly confused as to what Acura’s intentions were. From the outside, it appeared the company wasn’t sure, either.
The reason that Acura hasn’t been posting numbers like Subaru isn’t because it doesn’t have all-wheel drive as its core defining pillar. It’s because Subaru has a specific niche and a very specific vision: They build solid cars that are made to weather the elements and get dirty, and they don’t make any attempt to be anything else. From the affordable Impreza up to the popular Outback and the potent WRX STI, Subarus all share a love of questionable driving conditions and resistance to well-maintained asphalt.
Acura’s offerings have been less predictable. The lack of a performance model implies that the brand is geared more for efficiency and comfort, but even here, their hybrid offerings — the ILX, most notably, which was discontinued for 2015 — have been quite lacking, to the point where they are hardly competitive with their gasoline counterparts. The new RLX, with Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SHAWD), should change that perception, but it doesn’t exactly help with defining the brand’s vision.
Promises of a new NSX — a hybrid-powered one, no less — will give Acura the halo car it has so desperately needed, but years of delays have called into question Acura’s ability to regain the cache it enjoyed with the original NSX. With Honda’s return to Formula 1 racing, Acura will have access to high-performance engine developments, but it’s now a question of time, as the technology could take years before it trickles down to the company’s pedestrian cars.
Acura has started its latest reinvention with the new TLX and RLX, both of which have toned down the prominent chrome beak and adopted a clean, simple, but elegant look that is befitting a luxury brand. However, beneath the new skin, Acura’s strategy still seems somewhat confused. Separately, they are great cars, but overall, Acura’s image doesn’t have the same kind of cohesiveness that other luxury brands do.
A common all-wheel drive system could help unify its products, but Acura has some other issues to address first. The ILX, for example, is little more than a Honda Civic that has been re-skinned and badge-engineered to look more in place against its other offerings, but against the new TLX, it looks cheap and dated. This is problematic, because the ILX is supposed to be Acura’s volume seller: It costs under $30,000 and, on paper, is most readily compared to Mercedes’s CLA Class and Audi’s A3. Both of those cars have been selling exceptionally well.
Acura has the potential to become a leading luxury brand, using Honda as its springboard. Honda’s vehicles are beloved and renowned for their reliability, structural integrity, and easy-to-get-along-with demeanors. In a world where luxury cars are often thought of as being finicky and a chore to own, those are solid qualities that Acura can build on. The problem now is that other brands in the soft-luxury segment — those mentioned before, like Buick, Chrysler, and Lincoln — are all embarking on their own reinventions, and the results have been getting high marks from consumers.
For the less discerning customers, a loaded Honda may easily fill in for an Acura model, and that poses a threat to Acura’s ability to grow. In order to do so, it will have to look beyond features that can also be found on the Honda brand, and invest in technologies like turbocharged engines or a hybrid system that outperforms — something that helps set it apart. All-wheel drive may not be a solid longer term strategy for luring buyers, but it might be a solid start.
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