Why It Failed: 1996-Present Acura RL/RLX

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Thread: Why It Failed: 1996-Present Acura RL/RLX

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    Why It Failed: 1996-Present Acura RL/RLX

    What Went Wrong: 1996-Present Acura RL/RLX

    Despite widespread appreciation, Honda went in an entirely new direction for the Acura Legend’s replacement. The 1996 3.5RL was Acura’s answer to the Infiniti Q and Lexus LS, although a different vehicle in numerous ways. It was formal and focused on luxury as they were, but it was on a FWD platform and offered a V-6 while the former two utilized RWD and a V-8. They were also larger and more expensive. Sales never really climbed to impressive numbers, and Honda took quite a bit of time to redesign the RL. Worse, they had replaced their vaunted Legend product right down to the name with a car that didn’t sell. The 2005 RL dumped the engine size designation in front of the “RL”, but the RL’s mission change was much more significant than that: its new class was the mid-size, mid-luxury sedan segment. Acura seemed to comprehend that competing with the LS was out of the question, but the BMW 5-Series might be within reach. The V-6 was brought up to V-8-like power, and the high-tech SH-AWD proved to be influential. Initial sales were agreeable too IIRC, but before long they were on a downward trend, slowing to distressing numbers. Honda again let the RL sit on the rack too long, and within a few years the competition’s 6-cylinder engines had caught up to or passed the RL’s output while continuing to offer V-8s that had since far eclipsed the RL’s output despite the RL’s enlarged V-6 added later on. Finally for 2014 Acura replaced the RL with the RLX, but it is strikingly similar to the formula applied to the 1996 3.5RL: FWD-only, emphasis on formal large comfortable cruising, and at a base price like the outgoing RL. There is only a lone V-6 available, but soon a hybrid AWD version of the car will arrive to dealers. Needless to say, the RLX has not been a sales champion initially, and it seems doubtful it will change with the arrival of the AWD hybrid. In a doom and gloom scenario, I think the sales at this point through the next year or so might have already peaked(!).

    My take:

    Give Honda credit where it was due. It was bold to take something successful and change it radically. Radical moves are not a way one would describe the Honda of today. But this particular decision seems peculiar, and of course hindsight bias is always a factor in such dialogues. Still, I believe I even recall seeing the new RLX and thinking that this was not going to reverse Honda’s fortunes in the mid-luxury realm. The comparison of Audi’s flagship ambitions and Honda’s (both the V8 Quattro, its A8 replacement, and the 3.5RL were all on a FWD platform) paint a grimly clear pictures of Honda’s errors.

    A quick glance at the basic platform reveals the 3.5RL used a FWD platform with a longitudinal engine placement just like the Audi and most any RWD car on the road; a good start, then. But whereas Audi saw the need for a V-8 to compete with V-8 cars, Acura thought a V-6 would suffice. It didn’t. The C35 had nowhere near the power of the V-8s available in the Japanese and German “competition”, nor the FWD-only American competition from Cadillac and Lincoln. Putting that power to the ground necessitated the use of AWD, and Quattro-happy Audi was all to happy to comply. Acura’s car neither needed it (in the sense that its V-6 was not overly powerful) nor did Acura see fit to cover up the FWD origins of the car when competing with RWD cars. Although undoubtedly as polished and refined as it needed to be, plus built like any Honda, the interior space was not on par with these cars either. Alrighty, then. How about the midsize sedans with which the Acura more closely followed in terms of size, price, and their standard 6-cylinder engines. Well, it lacked the dynamic drive of the 5-Series, the solidity and prestige of the Mercedes, not to mention the functional Quattro in the Audi (and very soon, the A6’s outstanding interior).

    Unlike Cadillac or Lincoln, Acura had no “traditional” buyers to fall back on who’d like the way it drove or had aspired to the brand for years. So like the early Lexus GS, the 3.5RL never achieved the success Audi had in its sedans that were eventually called the A6 and have become global sales winners by the present. If Cadillac and Lincoln had failed to capture the hearts of younger luxury consumers with German cars on their mind, they had at least continued appealing to their own specific set of buyers. Even against the mid-luxury cars, Honda needed a V-8. In the early to mid-90s the Germans started adding V-8s to their mid-luxury cars, and Cadillac finally saw fit to offer a competitive V-8, the superb Northstar. The 3.5L should’ve only been a base engine in the RL, and some kind of V-8 should’ve been made available. Yamaha has built the Lexus IS F’s V-8 and the 4.4L V-8 used in a couple of Volvos, so maybe they’d have been available. Maybe it’d have been worthwhile to see if Ford was interested in agreeing to the use of the FWD-spec 4.6L from the Continental. Mitsubishi had a large FWD V-8 car on sale in Japan, the Dignity/Proudia line (developed with Hyundai and the basis for the first generation Equus). I’m not sure if that engine or their 5AT could actually work in the RL, but given that neither brand seemed to have plans to sell such a vehicle in the US anyway, I have to think they could’ve found an agreement. Call me a dreamer. AWD should’ve been offered on the V-6 and probably standard on the V-8. The car simply needed some more street cred-worthiness, at least for the sake of warmer media reception and enough to gain more interest in the media and buyers alike. Steady updates should’ve been in store too: the 1999 or 2000 should’ve had a decent update, and the redesign should’ve arrived for the 2002 or 2003 model year. It wasn’t enough car to begin with, but what’s worse was that it was allowed to languish.

    The 2005 RL again should’ve offered a V-8. Sure the V-6 provided similar horsepower, but certainly not the actual performance if anyone takes a look at comparison tests. And the cheapest way into car was too expensive. Naturally it was a better value with lots of standard features, but even at the end of this generation the RL was more expensive than a basic A6 or 5-Series; lease deals might not have been competitive either. Perhaps a base 3.0L or 3.2L version for about $4,000 less would’ve generated some interest. I really liked the interior design, but the exterior may not have gone far enough. The 2004 TL was far more stylish, offered a powerful V-6 engine, nice interior, and relatively similar size. I think some people had difficulty in upgrading to the RL for some or all of these reasons. Yet again Honda failed to keep the RL sufficiently updated and waited nearly a decade to redesign it. The mistakes were clearly not learned, and the RL/RLX has just been juggling some combination of sport and luxury since the beginning. That's only barely scratching the surface of the marketing side of things. At this point the most they can do with the current RLX is to remove some standard features, lower the base price a few grand, get some good lease deals, and make SH-AWD (or any AWD system, frankly) optional on the NA V-6 car.....you know, the <60K version that 90% of people will be buying? Don't try to sport-ify it; this is not the car for that. Maybe livery services would be interested in this.

    What say you? And with the RLX being just a third generation RL anyway, what do you think the future has in store for the RLX? What should they do?
    Last edited by Amphibian; 04-24-2014 at 10:54 PM.

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    Re: Why it Failed: 1996-Present Acura RL/RLX

    Ugly style is why.

    Beak much?

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    Re: Why it Failed: 1996-Present Acura RL/RLX

    The RL is the Legend. It is just that Honda assumed alphanumeric is better for luxury cars than proper names.

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    Re: Why it Failed: 1996-Present Acura RL/RLX

    The Legands were handsome if conservatively styled cars. The RLs have all been quite forgettable. I agree that the Legend/RL eventually needed more than a V6. But, Honda was once known for its innovative approach to engines; a me-too V8 wouldn't have been very Honda. Maybe a small displacement, high specific output V8 might have worked: a 375 HP 4 litre V8 that revved to 7500 rpm would have captured some attention. Or a TT V6 before the market went that way. Something a bit more in keeping with where they once were as a brand -- something that an Integra owner might aspire to.

    The S2000 proved they could do a sporting RWD platform. But, the SHAWD was probably more in keeping with the Honda ethos for a big sedan. It just needed a better drive train.

    Styling, though, was probably the biggest issue. The TL did pretty well for itself before they hit it with the 'odd' beak and Accord-like styling. The RL just had no presence at all. If you didn't know cars, you'd have no idea it was anything more than a nice Accord -- which is essentially what it was. Having the TL and RL so close in size and power didn't help, either.

    While Honda seems to be rediscovering what made it great, Acura is still struggling.

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    Re: Why it Failed: 1996-Present Acura RL/RLX

    Quote Originally Posted by wingsnut View Post
    Ugly style is why.

    Beak much?
    The 09-12 RLs were the only ones to have the beak, though to your point I'm sure the beak did the car no favors.

    Quote Originally Posted by Butz View Post
    The RL is the Legend. It is just that Honda assumed alphanumeric is better for luxury cars than proper names.
    Indeed. It's merely an Acura-badged Honda Legend that's been given the RL name in place of the Legend name from 1996 onward. Now I guess that'd be RLX.

    Quote Originally Posted by Tone View Post
    The Legands were handsome if conservatively styled cars. The RLs have all been quite forgettable. I agree that the Legend/RL eventually needed more than a V6. But, Honda was once known for its innovative approach to engines; a me-too V8 wouldn't have been very Honda. Maybe a small displacement, high specific output V8 might have worked: a 375 HP 4 litre V8 that revved to 7500 rpm would have captured some attention. Or a TT V6 before the market went that way. Something a bit more in keeping with where they once were as a brand -- something that an Integra owner might aspire to.

    The S2000 proved they could do a sporting RWD platform. But, the SHAWD was probably more in keeping with the Honda ethos for a big sedan. It just needed a better drive train.

    Styling, though, was probably the biggest issue. The TL did pretty well for itself before they hit it with the 'odd' beak and Accord-like styling. The RL just had no presence at all. If you didn't know cars, you'd have no idea it was anything more than a nice Accord -- which is essentially what it was. Having the TL and RL so close in size and power didn't help, either.

    While Honda seems to be rediscovering what made it great, Acura is still struggling.
    For a time I had wondered if Honda could just supercharge their V-6 for an alternative to a V-8. Honda's been largely averse to FI gas engines. Even the RDX's solution was short lived. Today Honda might've gotten over that, with their turbo-3, two turbo-4s, and twin-turbo hybrid V-6 that they have announced. Perhaps the NSX's twin-turbo hybrid V-6 could be a formula for future applications elsewhere. A hybrid 3.0TT could easily make enough power to compete with the V-8 Germans and should be complicated enough, lol.

    Another problem is that this was being sold as an Acura to begin with, a brand with little clout in this segment or price range. While Mercedes could get by on name alone and have a lazy generation or two of E-Class, Acura cannot. They're still trying to earn that sort of reputation.

    It doesn't help how vaguely Acura appears to define the RL in its segment and the identity they project to consumers. What is the RL? How does it relate to the TL, possibly its biggest competitor? Why not buy an A6? Value? Reliability? Is that it? As long as the TL (soon to be TLX) captures 85% of what the RL is, Acura will have a difficult time marketing the RL unless they get more discerning. I was hoping for more or less a four door coupe type of vehicle for the new RLX. The Audi A7 would be a benchmark, despite the RL competing with the A6 in price. But a tailored, more exotic appearance would draw customers who could be swayed from traditionally conservative looking sedans in this class. The interior would need to be equally emotional. Mechanically, we know the reality: Honda probably never has been serious about RWD Acuras other than NSX type vehicles. But even on a FWD platform the A7 proves it can still look as impressive as anything out there. With SH-AWD tuned as sporty as it has ever been and the polished V-6, starting at 45K, now we're talking. A supercharged version for another 10 grand would easily have taken the car past 400 horsepower and wouldn't have been overly difficult to accomplish. Back it up by a twin-clutch 7-speed (conveniently they now have one) and this would be like a well tailored Panamera for everyone (with 45-70 grand). It's not a Legend, which was a simpler approach to sport luxury, but it's sort of a modern high-tech interpretation of that car. Despite Acura, Cadillac, and Lincoln feeling pressured to ditch storied nameplates, bringing back "Legend" might even add 20% more hype. There's nothing on the market quite like it for the money and it's definitely not trying to be a 5-Series, but something more passionate than that, yet maybe even higher tech - which is a very Japanese AND Honda approach.

    One reason that wouldn't have happened is that I'm guessing the Legend/RL's main market is the domestic one, and Honda didn't want to risk failing in the US again yet also alienating traditional Japanese Legend buyers, totally ruining the car the way Acura did with the 2009 TL. And you're completely right: they don't seem to know what they're doing with Acura these days. It's the brand of premium Accords and little else, in spite of the potential. In the midst of Acura's flub, they now have competition from Cadillac, Infiniti, Jaguar, and yes, Hyundai, yes, Kia (soon) in this segment. So there are more choices than ever and it's quite possibly more difficult than ever to make oneself in this segment.
    Last edited by Amphibian; 04-24-2014 at 07:33 PM.

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    Re: Why it Failed: 1996-Present Acura RL/RLX

    IMHO, the worst thing in the Acura lineup(and Honda) is the lack of options. They give you one engine and then tell you "that's all you need". That's not the way of luxury, Cadillac learned that the hard way and even they had options. With that way of thinking, Acura will suffer a long painful death in the hands of "that's all you need". Oh well, one less competitor to worry about.
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    Re: Why it Failed: 1996-Present Acura RL/RLX

    For a while there, the Integra and RSX, especially in R and Type-S form, were solid performing drivers cars for youngish enthusiasts . Many of those drivers have probably now graduated to far more premium cars. Wonder what they are driving? That might provide a hint as to what Acura should have become.

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    Re: Why it Failed: 1996-Present Acura RL/RLX

    The first gen's looked somewhat unique from Honda's styling, after that they looked like nothing more than big Honda's.

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    Re: Why it Failed: 1996-Present Acura RL/RLX

    I think the original Legend / RL was on the right track, but the market changed somewhat and the TL more or less became the de facto Acura flagship, rendering the RL pointless. I'm flummoxed that Honda squandered the resources to develop the even-more-pointless RLX.

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    Re: Why it Failed: 1996-Present Acura RL/RLX

    Quote Originally Posted by LetsRace View Post
    IMHO, the worst thing in the Acura lineup(and Honda) is the lack of options. They give you one engine and then tell you "that's all you need". That's not the way of luxury, Cadillac learned that the hard way and even they had options. With that way of thinking, Acura will suffer a long painful death in the hands of "that's all you need". Oh well, one less competitor to worry about.
    Agree 100%. This is completely acceptable on Honda products, but certainly not Acura.
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    Re: Why It Failed: 1996-Present Acura RL/RLX

    Long live the REAL Legend!

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    Re: Why It Failed: 1996-Present Acura RL/RLX

    i really liked the 1st gen,they had style!

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    Re: Why It Failed: 1996-Present Acura RL/RLX

    First, Acura really isn't a luxury brand. Yes, they have some premium products but they aren't a true luxury brand. The problem is that they keep trying to associate themselves with true luxury brands without anywhere near the level of product that's required to compete in that space. Honda is way too conservative as a company to build Acura into a true luxury brand.

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    Re: Why It Failed: 1996-Present Acura RL/RLX

    Acura should just come out with a near identical Acura legend duo....

    That was the car that scared the german luxury brands to near death.

    Acura should recreate the legend and integra as well,,,,

    Go back to the names but also follow very closely the design...

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    Re: Why It Failed: 1996-Present Acura RL/RLX

    Quote Originally Posted by Amphibian View Post
    Unlike Cadillac or Lincoln, Acura had no “traditional” buyers to fall back on who’d like the way it drove or had aspired to the brand for years. So like the early Lexus GS, the 3.5RL never achieved the success Audi had in its sedans that were eventually called the A6 and have become global sales winners by the present. If Cadillac and Lincoln had failed to capture the hearts of younger luxury consumers with German cars on their mind, they had at least continued appealing to their own specific set of buyers. Even against the mid-luxury cars, Honda needed a V-8. In the early to mid-90s the Germans started adding V-8s to their mid-luxury cars, and Cadillac finally saw fit to offer a competitive V-8, the superb Northstar. The 3.5L should’ve only been a base engine in the RL, and some kind of V-8 should’ve been made available. Yamaha has built the Lexus IS F’s V-8 and the 4.4L V-8 used in a couple of Volvos, so maybe they’d have been available. Maybe it’d have been worthwhile to see if Ford was interested in agreeing to the use of the FWD-spec 4.6L from the Continental. Mitsubishi had a large FWD V-8 car on sale in Japan, the Dignity/Proudia line (developed with Hyundai and the basis for the first generation Equus).

    What say you? And with the RLX being just a third generation RL anyway, what do you think the future has in store for the RLX? What should they do?
    The GS outsold the A6 (in the US) for many years and only recently has the A6 started to outsell the GS again.

    The problem w/ the RL/RLX first and foremost is that it is FWD based - hence, it sits in this tweener world of not quite being regarded as a proper flagship sedan and hence priced more in line with the midsize RWDs.

    Audi overcomes this stigma a bit by the luck of being German, but even so - they lag considerably behind their Teutonic brethren when it comes to sales of sedans at the mid and full-size segments (and don't offer the A7 and A8 here in FWD form).

    A V8 may have helped some, but less so these days and the take rate would likely have been abysmal.

    While there is a still a market for old school Caddys/Buicks and Lincolns - that market is shrinking and Caddy /Buick has that market already covered (and Lincoln will as well w/ the new MKS).

    What Acura really needs for the next RLX is for stunning sheetmetal.

    There will be buyers who overlook the aforementioned if the next RLX has drool-worthy sheetmetal, but right now, the design is bland and even a bit off-putting (the beak, even downsized, is still not flattering).
    Last edited by YEH; 04-25-2014 at 04:49 PM.

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