The MDX marks a high point in the marque's transformation, since the crossover has been a market leader in the three-row premium space, Ikeda said. Although much of Acura's history revolves around sedans and hatchbacks from the 1990s and 2000s, crossovers are now nearly 75 percent of its sales.
"As a flagship, it's the one that's got all the good stuff loaded up in it," he said in an interview this month at American Honda's North America headquarters in Torrance, Calif. The symbolic ascension of the MDX over the discontinued RLX sedan — the previous "flagship" — shows how "the world shifted a little," Ikeda said.
Looking out across the Acura Design courtyard on the Honda campus, Ikeda said the redesigned Acuras sitting inside its walls — a yellow NSX supercar, orange RDX compact crossover, a blue TLX midsize sedan and gray MDX — are pretty much the vehicles he and his team envisioned back in 2015 when the new lineup started to take shape.
It started with the revival of the NSX, which had been discontinued in 2005. Acura was taken to task by auto enthusiasts for sliding down market into the Honda camp with shared platforms and dull styling.
"We knew, coming out of the recession, we had to do a supercar," Ikeda said. "We knew we had to rebuild the house of Acura. Step by step, we wanted to build this house on a solid foundation."
Since the debut of the second-generation NSX at the Detroit auto show in 2015, Acura has redesigned and re-engineered nearly every core vehicle in its stable. A fresh RDX compact crossover came in 2018, followed by the TLX midsize sedan that went on sale last month and now the MDX that arrives in showrooms early next year.
When a new compact sports sedan comes next year to replace the aging ILX, Acura's dealerships also will be transformed into what executives believe is a more upmarket player with a sporting niche in the premium space.
John Connelly, chairman of the Acura National Advisory Board, said dealers are seeing the fruits of brand rebuilding over the past several years.
"Acura has been following a plan to develop segment-leading vehicles that focus on the theme of precision-crafted performance," said Connelly, owner of Acura Columbus, which is 30 miles from the NSX factory in Ohio. "The TLX is a high-end performance vehicle with a low price — the best of both worlds."
But moving upmarket also comes with some sticker shock, especially when it comes in declining sedan segments. The second-generation TLX has a base price that's a $4,500 jump from the outgoing model. The MDX faces a similar fate. Ikeda said he's not too worried about sales because the products are strong.
"Dealers want the exact same price as the outgoing model, even though it's all new," said Ikeda. The same thing happened with the RDX when its price rose for the 2019 model year: initial concern, followed by strong sales.
The RDX was a litmus test to see whether emotional design and driving performance would catch the attention of loyalists from rival brands and convert them to Acura buyers. The RDX, with sales of 37,788 for the first nine months of this year, now leads the compact premium-crossover segment.
The MDX that Acura presented last week was billed as a prototype, and prices won't be announced until closer to the on-sale date. But the long list of design and performance improvements — along with premium options and a new top trim — suggests some uncharted territory for its sticker prices.
The crossover, which will arrive as a 2022 model, is lower and wider than the outgoing model, with an upright grille and longer hood that convey a more muscular look. Inside, it offers more premium materials such as open-pore wood, polished aluminum and soft Milano leather, Acura said.
The new platform uses a double-wishbone front suspension for improved handling, along with an updated version of Acura's Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive system. The MDX also will be the first Acura crossover to come in a Type-S performance variant with a newly developed turbocharged V-6 engine making 355 horsepower.
"Double-wishbone suspension ended up in there," Ikeda said of the new-gen MDX. "They didn't have to do that. Some people were saying, 'Why do that?' Because we're Acura. If you're halo car is the NSX, of course, you have to do it."