Reports of Acura’s Death Greatly Exaggerated, Says Exec

The Internet rumor mill has been buzzing with talk of the future viability of the brand, whose sales declined 19.8% in the U.S. in 2008 to 144,504 units, Ward’s data shows.

DETROIT – American Honda Motor Co. Inc.’s Acura near-luxury brand will launch an all-new model in 2009, a top U.S. Honda official says.

“We’ve got a new product (coming) later this fall dealers don’t (currently) sell,” John Mendel, executive vice president-Automobile Operations Div. for American Honda, tells media during a recent roundtable interview at the North American International Auto Show here.

Mendel doesn’t divulge what type of vehicle the model is, but John Watts, manager-Acura product planning, told Ward’s last February the brand was studying the introduction of a third cross/utility vehicle geared toward Baby Boomers. A camouflaged CUV, reported to be an Acura, has been photographed several times in the last six months undergoing testing in the U.S. and overseas.

The Acura lineup currently includes two CUVs: the small RDX, introduced in 2006, and the midsize MDX, fully redesigned in 2006.

Mendel no doubt hopes the new product launch will quiet online bloggers, who have been speculating in recent weeks the Acura brand is in dire straits.

“The only thing that was announced was the NSX (supercar) was canceled, and that we delayed the opening of the Yorii plant in (Saitama prefecture,) Japan,” Mendel says.

“So from that have popped up stories that the whole Acura lineup is canceled; Acura is on the ropes; it’s going to be cut; everything’s delayed; everything is gone,” he says of the rumors.

With the sudden, violent collapse of new-car sales last year continuing into 2009, and product and technology delays or cancellations at Acura, the Internet rumor mill has been buzzing with talk of the future viability of the brand, whose sales declined 19.8% in the U.S. in 2008 to 144,504 units, Ward’s data shows.

Once Honda Motor Co. Ltd. CEO Takeo Fukui announced last month the launch of the Acura brand in Japan would be delayed indefinitely and the next-generation NSX with a V-10 engine had been shelved, speculation emerged that other plans to take Acura to luxury status were in jeopardy.

Those efforts included a V-8 engine and an expected-but-not-confirmed rear-wheel-drive platform, both of which would give Acura parity with its luxury competition such as Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus brand and BMW AG.

But Mendel says when Fukui in October announced work was under way on Honda’s first production V-8, he never put a timetable on its introduction.

“We’ve built V-8s (for auto-racing applications). We’ve got V-8s. I’ve driven the V-8s,” he says. “We just haven’t yet named a date when we’re going to bring them in (for mass-production).”

Still, Mendel acknowledges the slowdown in auto sales, as well as the resulting need to conserve cash on the part of all auto makers. He says Acura is contemplating a possible delay in launching the next-generation flagship RL sedan to 2012 from mid-2011.

The RL was last all-new in late 2004 as an ’05 model. A mid-cycle change that added Acura’s now-signature “power plenum” grille happened in model-year ’09.

Speculation of trouble at Acura has been so strong that both Mendel and Dick Colliver, executive vice president-automobile sales, personally have called nervous dealers to calm their fears.

“Dick and I have been on the phone with numerous dealers (and) the dealer council, saying, ‘Separate the fact from the speculation,’” Mendel says.

Acura loyalists, who may be getting weary after failed or delayed promises from the brand, should hang on a little longer.

“To set the record straight on Acura, we’re still dedicated to taking Acura to Tier 1 (luxury status), “ Mendel says. “That hasn’t changed. We have a very robust product plan for the Acura lineup and that continues to be the case. (It is) a broad range of products and powertrains and everything else. So bloggers be damned.”

Mendel is quick to say he doesn’t discount the opinions of some of Acura’s most fervent fans. But after years of threats to leave the brand, they’re still hanging on.

The people who are vowing to abandon Acura now are “the same guys who were going to (Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.’s) Infiniti because we didn’t put a V-6 in the TSX (midsize sedan), and when we dropped the RSX (compact coupe in 2006),” he says.

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