Acura hits on all cylinders

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Acura had a lot to celebrate on its 15th anniversary last month.

In March, the upscale division of American Honda Motor Co. broke its all-time monthly sales record of 14,871 cars, set in August 1989. "From an industry perspective things appear to be cooling off a bit, but we're bucking the trend with some very strong new products," said Dick Colliver, exec VP-sales at American Honda.

Acura has driven a long and winding road since its founding in 1986. The brand has tried different ad approaches over the years from its initial "precision-crafted performance" tag to "Some things are worth the price" in the early 1990s. It switched to alphanumeric car names in 1993, dropping the flagship Legend name. Acura is on its third agency, hiring Rubin Postaer & Associates, Santa Monica, Calif., in July 1999 for its $206 million account. Rubin Postaer also handles the Honda brand.

New vehicles and aggressive pricing have given the brand momentum in the past year or so, said Susan Jacobs, president of consultancy Jacobs & Associates. Acura's early success was hurt when it raised prices due to a strong Japanese yen in the early '90s. "They lost the appeal of being a good value," which Acura didn't regain until the end of the 1990s, said Ms. Jacobs. Since then, the marketer has brought in good product that's a good value for the dollar, she added.


The base price of the 2002 TL sedan is $28,880, up 1.2% from last year's model while the TL Type-S performance model, with 260 horsepower, starts at $31,230. The campaign broke in March. One of two new TL spots shows a man driving from New York to Maine for clam chowder-on his lunch hour-to show the car's performance and fun-to-drive aspect.

The MDX sport utility, which arrived last October as the replacement for the Isuzu-made SLX, also got a new spot last month. The SUV has become Acura's second-best-selling model behind the TL. Before MDX, Acura execs estimated 25% of its owners were defecting to competitors because it didn't offer a competitive SUV. The new commercials from Rubin Postaer continue the year-old "destination" ad theme.

"The brand is definitely moving up," said Joan Egan, senior VP-group account director on Acura at Rubin Postaer. "As we bring in new products, they affect the entire brand."

The Integra coupe and sedan, the only remaining nameplate from Acura's debut, will be replaced in July by the RS-X sports coupe.

The replacement Integra is "the next step in Acura's performance story," said Rob Alen, ad manager of the brand, noting that "the division is really cooking."

Acura projects sales of 170,000 units this year, up from 142,681 in 2000, when it improved 1999 sales by 21%, according to Automotive News. The marketer sold 15,982 vehicles last month, nearly 32% more than in March 2000. Sales in the first quarter rose 36% to 42,050 units over the same period a year ago.

Wes Brown, an analyst at consultancy Nextrend, said Acura's new products have moved the brand forward, but its image still isn't well defined. He sees Acura at a crossroads.

"Their ultimate decision is whether they want to compete against Japanese luxury makers or the Europeans, who have rear-wheel drive."

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