Whether Acura’s Precision Concept on display at the 2016 North American International Auto Show appeals to you or not, its appearance marks the brand’s confirmation that it is ready for a makeover, with a focus on performance. We spoke briefly with Acura global creative director Dave Marek about the Japanese automaker’s direction as it looks to infuse its product lineup with design language it calls “Precision Crafted Performance.”
Automobile: The Precision Concept does not portend an upcoming production model but …
Dave Marek: It does not, but it does portend where our styling direction is and where we want to go forward from here on surface development, fascia, interior, [human-machine interface] style, and real materials. It’s a pretty good road map.
Automobile: Everyone wants to know when we will see this change affect real products? (Editor’s note: Reports say Acura will show a new compact crossover featuring the new design cues for the Chinese market during the Beijing Motor Show in April.)
DM: We keep saying very soon. Without saying specifically, I think it’s going to be [sooner] than most people would expect.
Automobile: The latest RLX was not well received. Does Acura, and do you, retain a desire for a large premium sedan in the RLX vein?
DM: I think we want to embrace Precision Crafted Performance, which indicates lower, wider, more sporty feeling, and more emotional styling and cars, so we don’t really want to do a traditional luxury car [again]. We want to do more of a modern, sporty premium car. You should always know it’s Precision Crafted Performance. It’s in our nature, I’d say fun, to make more sporty, stylish, racing heritage cars.
Automobile: What is different at Acura that allows you to to make this change now?
DM: The renewed commitment from the mother ship [Honda] for sure. Having [Acura sales boss] John [Ikeda, who comes from a strong design background] in the position he’s in; we’re both passionate about the same style of car, the proportions. Having him in the role for sales and marketing now helps have a champion for that all the way through [the product creation process] and a consistent brand within the personnel, that alone … The reality is [Acura] did make the position of global creative director to strengthen the brand and make some inroads into what we really want to make.
For us, it’s really easy to say we want to make a performance brand. The performance aspect, [the Precision Concept] does it by styling.
Automobile: Many enthusiasts, when they hear “performance,” they think rear-wheel drive. Is that something Acura needs to offer in its sedans and coupes?
DM: I don’t think so. I think we have technology, and we’re Honda Motor Company so we have amazing motors. I think in the day and age of the luxury brands, premium brands, the drivertrains kind of become, [they] could be anything. Could be electric, could be front-engine [with] rear-drive, could be front/front. Whatever it is, it’s just how you lay that out and maximize the experience of the customer. I might’ve 10 years ago said, “Yes, we have to do [rear drive],” but I don’t think so now.
Automobile: What’s a realistic timeframe for seeing this all get into new product and a reinventing of the brand and its model range?
DM: Your strategy question is perfect because I want to do it now. I think it’s more that we’ve changed our attitude and it’s OK to be bolder or to have this direction and stick to it. And if it’s not what people resonate with then we should look at that.
We’ve already begun utilizing a lot the cues, simply from real material and leather and wood and authentic metal and the fascia and some of the treatments like that. So I think it’s going to come soon, and when people see that there are some of the cues — some are bigger than others – wow, this is also [like the concept’s language] and this is, too. Some of that is user interface, and how people interact with the car is going to change.
Automobile: As Acura rethinks its design approach, do you think there is an ideal number of different models the lineup should feature in the future?
DM: Not really because you can have variations of models, and does that count as seven or the same car with different trim levels? I want to have vehicles that speak to the brand. I do think the biggest thing for us right now is to strengthen the sedan lineup, however big it is, with this kind of boldness and impact.
Automobile: Certainly crossovers are still a big part of the plan, too?
DM: Our [crossovers] do well but for how long? I think this car’s cues will also kind of permeate the CUVs, too. And that buyer, the MDX buyer, the real materials are essential to them, I think.
Automobile: You guys aren’t alone in this, as Honda is doing bolder things as well …
DM: It’s not [a coincidence]. You know, if you rack through, sometimes people want more calm and some want more bold. We need to be bold, we do. And the landscape [right now] is [that] everybody’s pretty aggressive with fascias. You think, well, we should do it but within our or my kind of aesthetic sense of how far do we want to go but be tasteful and still stick to the Acura nest, the center break, the pentagon grille, things that have always been around and maybe people lost track of that as consumers. But it’s always been there, and it was important to keep that.
Automobile: You mentioned John Ikeda. Was there another seminal moment that led Acura to this stage?
DM: There’s no D-Day, but I think that we’ve always felt that we should push, push, push. We had a meeting when they created the global creative director position and then named me to it. And we had a big meeting: OK, what do you want to make, present it and we like that, and let’s go. That’s how it happens at every company: You have a shift in a director or stylist or something, and it changes. But I don’t feel like I deviated from what we were doing; I just said maybe I would pick the bolder sketch than somebody else would. And I said in a couple of meetings, you know: If it’s bad, it’s my fault. If we do something like this and it’s not able to be realized, is that my fault or not? But I said at that time I feel confident; either you trust me or you don’t. And that’s kind of maybe the watershed moment. As John and I grew up, we were always vocal, trust me, but I think maybe it was more like go for broke [because] I don’t want to be put in this position and do something I don’t want to do.
Automobile: The direction we see with the Precision Concept in some ways is similar to the new NSX, but also different …
DM: The NSX is much more of an aero-driven, form-follows-function car. This concept has that, but it’s also — you need some style and elegance. The NSX has the elegance, but it needs to have the purposefulness essentially. This car has a little bit more, not irresponsibility but more style, more feeling.
Automobile: So what’s more indicative of the future?
DM: Both. I know that’s a weird answer and maybe you’re going, Oh damn it, Dave, but I think things like the square steering wheel and more sporty [interface], that is right out of NSX. The materials — all of that is NSX-driven. … On a sedan you want to make sure it is elegant and sporty, the NSX part is the sporty and then you bake in the rest. This car came after the NSX, so I think some of it will go back into NSX, kind of go back and forth like that.
Automobile: The Precision Concept is not about drivetrains, but are turbocharged engines something logical for Acura?
DM: If you ask the industry, everybody probably says that’s the way to go, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doing that because of our history of alternate powertrains or whatever. A lot of people are asking what engine is in this, but it’s purely [about] the styling performance. Without giving everything away, I didn’t want this to stray too far from what we want to do. There’s “show-carness” for sure but then you keep making it more realistic. It’s lower than you would ever do [for production] but surprisingly easy to get in and out of. And so then you start studying that, etc.
Automobile: Are Acura’s customers concerned with having or not having a particular type of drivetrain?
DM: I don’t think so. I think we have such a phenomenal history of motors and drivetrain, as you style around it, it doesn’t matter to us. In packaging you can maybe manipulate it different [based on the type of drivetrain]. On this concept the low, wide — the wide-open cantilever interior — we want that airy feeling.
Automobile: Is this all a five-year plan? A three-year plan?
DM: You will see cues from this car in cars coming very soon. A complete car based on this, it’s evolving. I think the cadence of the cars, we have existing product and how do you retrofit them [to reflect the new direction], or do you? But I think once we decided this direction, it’s like let’s try and apply it to anything that’s coming. The lineup will transform quickly, and then the next generation of all-new cars, it will all make sense. We have a really good strategy and a positive plan going forward; it’s kind of like let’s just get this done. But it’s coming, and it’s coming pretty fast.