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U.S. Acura production may be key

| Saturday, June 15, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Acura, Honda's luxury brand, is shifting design, engineering and production of its vehicles to the United States.

The 2014 MDX crossover vehicle that goes on sale in July is the first Acura to be developed entirely by the company's Ohio tech center, the first Honda Group platform conceived here. The MDX architecture will probably also underpin the next Honda Pilot SUV.

“Acura as a brand is very heavily NAFTA-focused,” Mike Accavitti, Honda and Acura senior vice president of automotive operations, told me after I drove the MDX recently. For a long time, that simply meant that Acura existed only in the United States and Canada. The same vehicles bore Honda badges in the rest of the world.

Honda understands Acura must become more distinctive, particularly as the brand enters new markets such as China, Russia, Brazil and the Middle East. As the brand's largest market, Honda's U.S. operations have an unprecedented opportunity to shape Acura's future.

The MDX was designed by Acura's studio in Torrance, Calif. It just went into production in Lincoln, Ala. Every model but the RLX and TSX cars is built in North America.

Honda reinforced Acura's American identity when it decided to build the next generation NSX exotic sports car in Ohio.

“It'd be nice to have a higher brand premium” in terms of pricing and a higher overall perception of Acura's status, said Accavitti, a former Chrysler executive who joined Honda in 2012. Accavitti said buyers see Acura as a smart choice because its cars have good resale value and offer lots of features compared with similarly priced competitors.

Acuras also tend to have roomy interiors, good fuel economy and high quality and reliability, said Frank Markus, technical director of Motor Trend magazine, and my driving partner in the MDX.

None of that has translated into the prestige and prices Acura needs to compete in the top tier of luxury automakers.

“Acura has a crisis in design,” Markus said. “Their vehicles just don't look very interesting or good. Especially versus competitors like the Audi A7 or Mercedes CLA. They've got a long way to go on styling and to simplify their controls.”

The 2014 MDX — almost certain to be a highly profitable successor to Acura's best-selling model — is vital to the brand's immediate future, but the Ohio-built and engineered NSX hybrid supercar may be the key in the long term. It could change people's perception of the brand, particularly as others jump on the high-performance bandwagon with hyper-priced hybrids such as the $845,000 Porsche 918 Spyder, $1.3 million McLaren P1 and $2.3 million LaFerrari.

“We're breathlessly awaiting the NSX,” Markus said. “It's the affordable hybrid supercar.”

It's the successor to the legendary NSX that helped put Acura on the map in the 1990s. Acura expects the combination of all-wheel drive, three electric motors, a turbocharged V-6 and high fuel economy to raise the brand's profile.

“They can't get the NSX fast enough,” said Jim Hall, managing director of 2953 Analytics. “Acura needs a serious flagship with a clear connection to the rest of its models.”

Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at mmphelan@freepress.com.

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