SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Acura Division, striving mightily to move upmarket from its mid-market Honda roots, will introduce a true flagship to the lineup by 2003 that may be powered by a V-8 engine, which would be the automaker's first.
The new sedan, the replacement for the 3.5RL, will be a '5 series-plus' fully capable of going head to head with the BMW 5 series and Lexus LS 430 in terms of luxury and performance, a senior product-planning executive said here last week.
The disclosure by Dan Bonawitz, American Honda Motor Co. Inc. vice president of corporate planning and distribution, is a strong suggestion that the automaker is developing a V-8 engine and rear-drive platform.
Both have been rumored but never confirmed. All Honda vehicles are front drive, and the automaker's largest production engine is a 24-valve, 3.5-liter V-6.
While refusing to discuss engine or platform specifics, Bonawitz reiterated that the new Acura flagship must be able to compete with the best cars in the segment, all of which are rear-drive and powered by V-8s.
'The engine has not been decided upon, but certainly we are looking into various options,' he said. 'We are looking at what it would take to make it competitive.'
New Integra name
At the same time, Bonawitz disclosed at a media preview here for the new 3.2 CL coupe that the division will attempt to move the entry-level Integra a rung or two higher on the luxury-appeal scale by changing its name, equipment level and price.
'The Integra ... will move up in size, features and price,' he said. 'Integra customers ... consider themselves performance-oriented and associated with luxury. They are different than Mitsubishi Eclipse or Toyota Celica buyers.'
To be sure, Acura has tried several times to reposition itself since its U.S. debut in 1985. Most recently, Acura tried to move upscale under the banner 'Some Things are Worth the Price,' but the campaign failed to ignite sales.
The difference this time, Acura executives say, is that they will have the product to support a move upmarket. In addition to the RL replacement and the Integra repositioning, Bonawitz said these changes are in store for the Acura lineup:
The MD-X sport-utility, which debuts this fall with a price tag above $30,000, will get a third seat and a 2-3-2 seating configuration. The third seat will fold down into the floor, similar to the Odyssey minivan.
The TL sedan will get a performance-oriented Type S similar to the CL Type S model, which is equipped with a 260-hp, 3.2-liter V-6 engine. Acura executives declined to specify when the model would be offered.
A central communications network similar to GM's OnStar is under study. Dennis Manns, assistant vice president of sales for Acura, said such a program could be launched in the next 36 months. The company is likely to use an outside supplier, he said.
The NSX sports car will remain in the lineup for the next two or three years.
Bonawitz, who has headed American Honda's product planning area since 1994, said the company is trying to keep up with its rapidly expanding product line while maintaining the performance and quality for which it is known.
'We're trying to grow our r&d as quickly as we can and not lose any of our quality or characteristics,' Bonawitz said.
Doug Fox, dealer principal of Ann Arbor Acura in Ann Arbor, Mich., said he thinks the brand is on the move again.
'We are building cars that are consistent with Mr. Honda's original idea for Acura: cars with tremendous performance, high content and value,' he said.
'I think these (upcoming) features and services will help us develop the performance image that will draw the aficionado buyers. The less performance-oriented buyers will follow.'