Acura is doubling down on performance in a battle with other luxury automakers

Acura is in an odd and enviable place in the auto industry. People love its cars for their quality — and they’re especially happy with Acura’s crossover SUVs, the RDX and the MDX.

But Acura also wants to be more of a player in the upper reaches of the US luxury space. Toyota’s Lexus has been there for decades, in the company of BMW and Mercedes.

But the engineering-driven culture of Acura/Honda doesn’t get it. They think their cars are just as good, if not better.

At the Detroit Auto Show, I sat down with Jon Ikeda, who was recently named head of Acura’s American operations. Ikeda is a designer — a graduate of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA — the Harvard of car design schools — and his job is to inject some energy into the Acura brand.

It’s not as if Acura is in the dumps; it sold 177,000 vehicles in the US in 2015. But Mercedes sold 385,000. Still Ikeda wants to grow US sales, and to a degree, he probably wants to prove a design guy can do it. Growing sales is usually a mission that’s left to the sales people and the blocking and tackling of that skill set.

But Ikeda has an idea, and it’s a cool one. He wants to use Acura’s new halo model, the NSX supercar, and concepts like the Precision sedan shown in Detroit on Tuesday, to remind customers than Acura has performance in its DNA.

“Precision-crafted performance is where we come from,” he said. “We’ve reaffirmed to ourselves that we want to go in that direction.”

He cited the NSX as the best recent example of this.

“We got a team together,” he said of the second-generation of the vehicle, “and said ‘Go and make precision-crafted performance. NSX came out of that.'”

Ikeda designed sedans like the TL for Acura. He thinks that part of the portfolio is an excellent place to apply this strategy. And it makes sense. As strong as Acura is with its crossovers, newer sedans such as the TLX and the ILX haven’t connected as well with buyers as Acura might have hoped.

That isn’t necessarily Acura’s problem — it’s more a consequence of the luxury sedan market being ferociously competitive in the US. The algorithm for a buyer’s decision making might start with BMW or Mercedes, then veering toward Lexus or detouring toward Audi before even considering Acura.

Ikeda might think that getting buyers to focus more on design and engineering and less on luxury is a good gamble. And he has some history to back him up. When the brand was created in the mid-1980s, it wasn’t driven by luxury aspirations but a desire to build on the reputation for quality that Honda had developed.

Going back to move forward. It’s an intriguing idea. We’ll have to wait to see if Ikeda can pull it off.

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