Las Vegas, Nevada – Security has traditionally been tight in Vegas casinos, but not this tight. We’re among a small group of journalists allowed past burly bodyguards into a conference room in the lower level of the Aria Resort’s conference center. This isn’t an attempt to reenact a scene from Ocean’s Eleven – instead, we’re here to see four new Acura products hours after they were secretly shown to North American dealers.
Because most of Acura’s recent launches have involved only mild updates, the promise of four new product introductions is somewhat unusual. It’s no secret that the momentum exhibited in Acura’s early days seemed to fall by the wayside in later years, a downfall many within Honda’s premium division attribute to chasing market trends rather than nurturing a full-fledged, well-balanced vehicle portfolio. These new introductions, which range from an affordable compact sedan to a hybrid all-wheel-drive sports car, promise to restore such balance and bring greater variety to Acura’s lineup.
It's also unusual to see these cars so far ahead of schedule. Honda -- and by extension, Acura -- doesn’t usually show vehicles this far in advance of an official debut. The opportunity to peek behind the scenes was granted under a double-secret probation of sorts: we can share the following information, but we have no official photography or renderings to publish -- only our artist's impression of the sports car we saw that day.
What Is It? A small, Civic-based sedan. What it isn’t, however, is a badge-engineered clone of the Civic like the Canadian-market CSX. The new ILX shares only its mechanical underpinnings with its Honda sibling – a change, American Honda executive vice president John Mendel notes, from previous Acura small-car programs. Case in point? The TSX was essentially a European-market Accord, albeit with new badging and content packages adjusted for North American buyers.
The ILX shares not a single piece of sheetmetal with the Civic; instead, it blends a TSX-like nose with a taut, angular body. A ZDX-like kink in the rear fenders appears ungainly in photos but looks surprisingly good when viewed in person.
The ILX will be offered with three different powertrain options. Most cars will likely be built with the Civic’s 2.0-liter I-4, which is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. Those seeking something sporty can order an ILX with a rev-happy 2.4-liter I-4 bolted to a close-ratio six-speed manual. Although that sounds like the driveline used in the Civic Si, officials wouldn't disclose if output for the ILX-spec engine will trump the 201 hp figure offered in the Civic. The ILX Hybrid incorporates the Civic Hybrid’s 1.5-liter I-4 and Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist system and gains the honor of being Acura’s first production hybrid-electric sedan.
Why Launch It? Pricing, more than anything. Acura cut its teeth with cars like the Integra – affable, affordable vehicles that provided a stepping-stone into the luxury brand. The idea still holds water today – especially as premium small cars continue to gain traction in North America – but Acura doesn’t exactly have a car that fills that void. The small TSX may, to a point, serve that role, but its starting price of just over $31,000 places it out of the reach of the value-obsessed “millennials” – a consumer demographic Michael Accavitti, American Honda’s vice president of marketing, insists is the future wave of luxury buyers. These buyers are extremely value conscious; as such, ILX pricing will start “well under $30,000” and incorporate features like Bluetooth connectivity, Pandora internet radio, and so on.
When Will We See It? In typical Honda fashion, a “concept” – or, in reality, a thinly disguised version of the production vehicle – will appear at the 2012 Detroit auto show in January. Honda’s factory in Greensburg, Indiana, will begin producing cars in the spring of 2012.
What Is It? The second generation of Acura’s small crossover, but you wouldn’t necessarily surmise that by glancing at it. Apart from a more conservative grille opening and a little more rounded nose, the RDX looks like a slightly smaller version of Acura’s successful MDX midsize crossover.
That new styling is part of a push to make the RDX look and feel more mature. Vicki Poponi, Honda’s assistant vice president in charge of product planning, says customers were asking for a small premium crossover that was more sophisticated than the current RDX, which exhibits a bit of a “boy racer” feel.
Subsequently, the mechanical bits that set today’s RDX apart from the crowd of luxury CUVs on the market aren't part of the new model. The wild, turbocharged 2.3-liter I-4 will be replaced by a V-6, likely the 3.5-liter unit offered in the TSX. If so, expect this engine to provide about 40 more horsepower (280 hp) and, perhaps, be a little less fuel-thirsty.
Likewise, the SH-AWD system, which was capable of shifting torque between the rear wheels to improve cornering, will not be returning to the RDX line. Instead, the model will make do with a conventional all-wheel-drive system that’s allegedly lighter and more fuel-efficient than its predecessor. It’s likely that this driveline is identical to the one offered in the new 2012 Honda CR-V, which employs a new electronically controlled clutch pack to send power to the rear wheels.
When Will We See It? Like the ILX, the new RDX will be shown at the 2012 Detroit show and will enter production shortly afterward. Assembly will likely still occur at Honda’s factory in East Liberty, Ohio.
2013 Flagship (RL replacement)
What Is It? A successor to the RL, and it’s coming not a moment too soon. Although the current iteration of the RL debuted in 2009 and was updated last year, the majority of the car’s architecture dates back to 2005.
Age is only one part of the problem: as Acura’s midrange TL has grown larger and more sophisticated over the years, it has eliminated most – if not all – the edge that the supposedly premium RL once had. The TL and the RL use the same engine and SH-AWD driveline, and dimensionally they are within inches of one another.
That may finally be rectified with the new car, which has no official name at this point. The new flagship may not be much bigger than the RL in terms of footprint, but Poponi promises an expansive interior, with rear-seat passenger volume on par with that in a BMW 7-series.
Although rear-wheel drive and a V-8 option were once being considered for Acura’s top-of-the-line sedan, that’s no longer the case. The new car will, however, be the first to use Honda’s new hybrid SH-AWD system. A six-cylinder engine, coupled with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, is tasked with powering the front wheels; an electric motor integrated into the gearbox provides extra boost during hard acceleration. Two additional electric motors – one for each of the rear wheels – effectively render the car an all-wheel-drive vehicle. The system can provide more power to the outside wheel in a corner, producing the rotation-inducing yaw moment that previously required the use of a mechanical differential.
When Will We See It? Assuming it has a name by then, the car should appear at the 2012 New York auto show in April. Production should begin by the close of 2012.
What Is It? The long-awaited successor to the fabled NSX is once again under development. While Honda’s last stab at a new supercar called for a front-engine, V-10-powered design, this new car reverts to a mid-engine configuration.
The new NSX may be sold around the globe, but it seems as if its development is being orchestrated with Acura in mind. Although Mendel wouldn’t reveal whether the NSX would be a means of introducing the Acura brand in other countries, he did say that the car, its styling, and its technologies are being developed for the Acura brand. Sure enough, the NSX incorporates a number of design cues found across the Acura portfolio.
Like the previous NSX, the new car will be a means for Honda to showcase its engineering prowess – in this case, the new hybrid SH-AWD system. In this application, the gasoline engine will drive the rear axle, while a pair of electric motors will propel the front wheels.
Why a Hybrid? Although we know plenty of purists who bemoan the idea of a hybrid sports car, the NSX nameplate has always been a showcase of Honda’s engineering prowess, and the hybrid SH-AWD system is the company’s latest and greatest driveline development. Although we recently drove an Accord fitted with an early prototype of the system, we’re told not to use it to judge the NSX’s performance. Honda says the system is scalable and could incorporate larger, more powerful motors (and perhaps a hotter engine) to increase the net output.
When Will We See It? If you’ve seen photos of the one-off prop car crafted for the forthcoming superhero film The Avengers, you already have a good idea of what the NSX will look like. The un-official rendering above gives some hints at what the NSX concept -- which will be a coupe, not a roadster -- will look like upon its official debut at the Detroit show in January.
Will it reach production? At this point, the project is a go. You’ll see the “concept” name applied to the car in Detroit, but this isn’t a designer's fantasy: there is a program alive and well to develop this car for production. If all goes according to schedule, the new NSX should be ready to enter series production in three years – roughly a decade after the original was discontinued.