New CDX is exclusive to China

New CDX is exclusive to China

The cars part of Honda's premium brand business continues to be a drag on the success of Acura. Without SUVs in North America and China, the upscale division would be in serious trouble. Clearly, more such models are needed.

Sedans

Acura has only three sedans, and the US remains the main market for all of them. The only other major region where the brand exists is China, Honda having decided not to enter Europe or Japan. Acura is also missing from many other places where premium brands with suitable models can do well. That includes Russia, Brazil, Australia, India and South Korea.

The ILX is not having a good 2016, its sales in the US having fallen by 12% over the first three quarters to 11,747 units. In September, things turned even worse, deliveries plunging by 43% to 916 cars.

The 2TA series ILX is close to the end of its life, having been introduced in 2012. While this was Acura's first hybrid vehicle, there are now instead two other powertrains. The four-cylinder engines are a 2.0-litre and a 2.4-litre, the 1.5-litre+electric motor hybrid having been discontinued at the end of American Honda's 2014 model year. That was due to poor sales.

American Honda builds this Civic-based sedan in the US, the Marysville plant also being from where China's ILX is sourced. Next year's replacement should again be manufactured in Ohio but the platform will change from that of the ninth generation Civic to the latest one. Production is expected to commence in May for the 2018 model year. Cars should begin being shipped to China from mid-year.

Above the ILX sits the Accord-based TLX. Codenamed 2GV, this sedan replaced the TSX in September 2014. It will have a facelift for the 2018 model year, with a successor scheduled for release in calendar 2020. That car will use the same architecture as the next Accord and should be made at Marysville, which is where the TLX is manufactured.

The TLX is American Honda's best selling Acura sedan but sales are down by 18% for the first three quarters to 28,540 units. September was an especially bad month, deliveries plunging by 38% to 2,908 vehicles.

Acura's most expensive four-door car, the RLX, is the twin of Japan's Honda Legend. Neither could be called a success. September US market sales numbered only 102, down 41% and YtD things also look bad, with the total being 1,053 deliveries, of which 158 were the Hybrid. A facelift is scheduled for the 2018 model year and if there is to be a replacement, this will appear in 2020. 

In 2019, Acura should gain a sedan that's larger than the RLX. Tentatively known as the WLX, it would be sized and priced to compete with the Volvo S90, Cadillac CT6 and Lincoln Continental. The Precision Concept which premiered at January 2016's Detroit auto show is believed to be the inspiration for a potential production car's styling. There is growing speculation that the WLX may effectively replace rather than supplement the RLX. 

In the US, the brand's sedans had combined sales of 41,427 units during the first three quarters, a YoY drop of 17%. The number for September was a troubling 3,964, a drop of 39%. CAAM does not report Chinese market sales of imported cars so there are no available data for Acura in that market.

SUVs

The CDX, a Civic-based crossover and intended to be rival for the Audi Q3, Infiniti QX30 and BMW X1, is the first Acura to be built in China. It entered production on 29 July, following its world premiere three months previously at the Beijing motor show. The car is powered by a turbocharged 1.5-litre petrol engine in combination with an eight-speed automatic gearbox.

GHAC (Guangqi Honda Automobile Co., Ltd.) is Honda's partner for manufacturing of Acura vehicles. Guangqi is Chinese shorthand for Guangzhou Automobile. American Honda could really do with this model but for the moment, it is restricted to the People's Republic. GHAC says it would like to sell around 10,000 CDXs during the final five months of 2016. There were no CDX registrations in the CAAM numbers for August and at the time of writing, data for September had yet to be released. 

At the moment, there appear to be no firm plans to add a smaller SUV to the Acura line-up though this may of course change. If the link to Honda was stronger, a theoretical BDX could take advantage of the enormous success currently being enjoyed by GHAC's Vezel (HR-V) and the closely related Dongfeng Honda XR-V. As Acura is tied to Guangzhou Auto, any potential build would take place as part of that JV. Honda will most likely wait and see how the CDX performs before making any commitment to adding a small Acura SUV.

The Audi Q5-sized RDX is one of the brand's two best sellers in the US (38,722 YtD), this model sitting below the pricier MDX. Like its larger brother, the RDX is powered by a 3.5-litre V6 though it has less power (279hp versus 290). The current RDX was introduced for the 2013 model year and is manufactured at East Liberty. 

A facelifted 2016 model year RDX premiered at the Chicago auto show in February 2015 and there should be no further changes for the Civic-based 2AS series model until its replacement arrives in 2018. 

The 2DU RDX will be based on the same platform as the latest Civic and the next Accord and again built in Ohio. GHAC might well add production of the next model alongside the CDX at ZengCheng #2 in Guangzhou. Could there be a hybrid or plug-in hybrid? Almost certainly. The same applies to the likelihood of a four-cylinder engine being added but a diesel can be ruled out.

The MDX is Acura's best seller, with this SUV racking up just under 5,000 US market deliveries in September and 39,578 during the first three quarters of CY2016. The third generation model entered production at American Honda's Lincoln, Alabama plant in May 2013, the former MDX having been built at Alliston 2 in Ontario. American Honda sees the MDX as a rival for the Lexus RX and BMW X5.

American Honda announced the production switch in November 2011, stating at the same time that it would spend US$84m to expand the facility's engine and vehicle production capacity to 340,000 units annually. The plant also gained a third stamping line. 

Due to growing demand, Honda announced in February 2015 that it would begin dual sourcing the MDX from 2017 when East Liberty will add production. Honda is spending US$85 million on the Ohio plant for the addition of new welding equipment, the extension of vehicle conveyors and other changes required to support production of this large SUV.

The MDX has a facelift for the 2017 model year and should have no further changes. The fourth generation model is likely to be made at the same two plants, entering production in late 2019. Build in China seems unlikely. There will probably be a PHEV variant as well as a four-cylinder petrol engine joining an updated V6.

Might Honda add another Acura SUV above the MDX? Something to take on the likes of the Lexus LX, Cadillac Escalade, Lincoln Navigator and Infiniti QX80? No, an XL-sized body on frame 4x4 would be anathema to the company. An additional model just above the MDX is a stronger possibility. For this to happen, the next MDX would become a five-seater only and the 'NDX' would have seven seats. Is there enough potential volume in this segment for the Acura brand? Possibly not, is the brutal answer in 2016 terms, but should the brand be more successful in the US and China by 2020, a rival for the Mercedes GLS, future BMW X7 and Jeep Grand Commander could work. 

NSX

As noted in the previous feature concerning current and future Honda models, the NSX is not yet on sale in much of the world. Exports from the Ohio manufacturing base to Japan, for example, will not commence until January. Next for this supercar should be a convertible bodystyle, likely to added by 2020, and the replacement model will probably appear in 2023. Should Acura exist in Japan and Europe by then, the successor would for the first time be sold worldwide under one brand. 

As for other sports cars, rumours of such models being under development appear from time to time, but there are not believed to be any current plans to add something in the Boxster/Cayman segment, as some claim.

Summary

Acura is at a crossroads. Sales in the US have levelled off and without the RDX and MDX SUVs, things would be dire for many dealers. The brand delivered only 119,727 vehicles during the year to 30 September, which was a 9.3% fall in a rising market. 

As for China, it's probably too early to tell what the future holds. Three or more models need to be in local production by the early 2020s and a clear brand image defined well before then. 

Honda management must decide what it wants its premium brand to be: join Infiniti and Lexus by moving into ever more segments while trying to gently lift prices, or else try to emulate Porsche by evolving into an SUV specialist which also makes a relatively small number of expensive sports cars and supercars.

Future product program intelligence

More data on vehicle lifetime and future product plans is available in PLDB from QUBE.