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Surprised? Acura Exterior Styling Cited as Top Customer Deal Breaker

Being ambitious doesn’t always pay off. Though Acura’s year-to-date sales are up 24.6 percent through November, the brand hasn’t exactly been helping its cause by putting polarizing product in showrooms.

Honda’s premium marque has been doing business in the U.S. for close to three decades, but doing business hasn’t been easy in recent years. We’d challenge readers to postulate the biggest reason potential buyers turn down highly pitched invitations to join the Acura family, but that’d be too simple. Many have expressed disdain over the sharp and angular Keen-Edge style, polarizing current and former enthusiasts who are more than prepared to lambast the brand for ditching its sporty, underdog roots in favor of chasing the masses, though they’re hardly the only automaker to do so.

Going after the upscale audience hasn’t paid significant dividends. Consumers have been very reluctant to place Acura on the same plane as its premium competitors, including the likes of BMW, Lexus, and Mercedes-Benz. There used to be a time when they were the plucky upstart you probably wouldn’t mind backing. Today, their image and cachet is even more dubious.

“Acura’s identity isn’t clear to many luxury buyers,” said Jesse Toprak, TrueCar’s industry trends and insights VP. “If I’m spending that kind of money, do I want an Acura, or a BMW or Benz? Acura simply doesn’t have the same prestige. Once you hit the $45,000-plus market, many buying decisions are based on image.”

Not helping Acura’s case is their current target audience. Vicki Poponi, Honda’s assistant VP for product planning, says Acura goes after the youngish Generation Y crowd with a “smart luxury” message, but these constituents have had and will have to cope with greater amounts of bills (including higher education-related debt) and subsequently lessened earning power than generations of past. True Car found the average Acura transaction in November 2010 was around $5000 less than the next closest competing marque.

And it appears the exterior hasn’t been the sole styling miscue of late. According to J.D. Power’s 2010 Avoider Study, the interior design was the second-most cited cause for dismissing an Acura product. To little surprise, pure price doesn’t dictate sales, especially within this segment.

We’d dare say Acura has been lacking true excitement, yet their business case has been mostly solid, which should hopefully pave the way for better product. They spend the least amount of cash on incentives (around $2600 per vehicle), retain high residuals, and have garnered acclaim for quality by finishing only behind Porsche in the J.D. Power Initial Quality Study.

So what’s in the wings? 2012 is reportedly going to be a big year for Acura, and more models and hybrid infusions are on the way. A future small hatchback is supposedly resurfacing after the RSX’s departure after 2006, along with a small sedan in the vein of the original Integra sedans and first-generation TSX to combat the Audi A3 and BMW 1 Series. Class size distinctions are in the works to help buyers differentiate within the lineup, particularly between the current TL and RL. Critically, the softening of the Keen-Edge-endowed front end will be spread to other vehicles, started by the newly introduced TSX Sport Wagon.

Acura’s best year in the United States was in 2005, when 209,610 vehicles were sold. The available offerings at the time? The RSX, TSX, TL, RL, NSX, and MDX. We could hardly call it a golden era but car buyers are more discriminate than ever before, and they won’t settle for what’s perceived as merely upgraded Hondas.

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