GO AND STOP
Along with their basic platform, the HX and XX would share a new Honda-designed, fuel-injected V-6. The open-deck, die-cast aluminum block had a 90-degree bank angle, which reduced engine height but required offset crank pins to provide even firing intervals. As was becoming customary Honda practice in this era, the heads had pentroof combustion chambers and four valves per cylinder. Unlike many early four-valve engines, Honda used only one belt-driven camshaft per bank, actuating the intake valves via rocker arms and the exhaust valves via short horizontal pushrods. Hydraulic lash adjusters eliminated the need for the routine valve adjustments required by most contemporary Honda fours.
Although the “C” block V-6 would be quite reliable in service, it was Honda’s first engine of this type and its development was troublesome. Durability problems prompted extensive redesign work in the summer of 1984 and the resulting increases in the engine’s exterior dimensions required last-minute styling changes for both the HX and XX. (We assume this was particularly galling to Austin Rover designers already frustrated by the earlier arguments about overall width, although Honda did pay for the additional work.)
Honda had no interest in offering the HX with either a four-cylinder engine or a diesel, which Austin Rover would have eagerly supplied. Big Japanese cars did offer fours and/or diesels in the home market, but they went mainly to fleet buyers; the prestige market demanded six cylinders even for 5-number cars. To that end, Honda created two versions of the V-6: a 1,996 cc (122 cu. in.) C20A for the cheaper 5-number JDM grades and a 2,493 cc (152 cu. in.) C25A for 3-number and export cars. Save for bore and stroke, the two engines were very similar, but the C20A added a computer-controlled dual-runner intake manifold to boost low-end torque.
Senior Rovers would share the C25A, but the European market also demanded cheaper four-cylinder options. To that end, Austin Rover developed the M16 engine, a new DOHC, 16-valve version of the 1,994 cc (122 cu. in.) O-series four (itself a distant descendant of the old BMC B-series engine). With its iron block, the twin-cam M16 was only 35 lb (16 kg) lighter than the all-aluminum C25A.
All five-speed Rovers had Honda-designed gearboxes, but four-cylinder automatic cars had a four-speed ZF transmission while V-6 Rovers shared the new four-speed Honda automatic. The latter was an unusual two-shaft, constant-mesh transmission — more like an automated four-speed manual with a torque converter than a conventional planetary-gear automatic — with torque converter lockup in all gears but first to reduce slippage. Equal-length halfshafts were specified to reduce torque steer.
Both cars would have four-wheel disc brakes. In Japan, senior HX grades would use Honda’s peculiar two-channel antilock braking system, also available on some non-U.S. Accords and Preludes, but Austin Rover rejected that system, which had been roundly criticized in the British press for allowing one front wheel to lock if the other was still turning, and opted instead for a four-channel Bosch system. Honda, whose directors were philosophically resistant to licensing other companies’ technology unless absolutely necessary, decided not to offer ABS on export cars until the company’s new three-channel system was ready.
Due to supplier difficulties in the U.K., the HX bowed some seven months before the Rover version, debuting at the 1985 Tokyo auto show. The new sedan, which Honda boldly christened “Legend,” went on sale through the new Japanese-market Honda Clio network on November 23.
At launch, the JDM Honda Legend was available in three grades. The cheaper 5-number V6Zi and V6Gi (chassis code E-KA1) had the C20A engine, rated at 145 PS JIS (107 kW) and 123 lb-ft (168 N-m) of torque. The top-spec, 3-number V6Xi (E-KA2) had the C25A, which in Japan was rated at 165 PS (121 kW) and 156 lb-ft (211 N-m) of torque. Starting prices ranged from ¥2,480,000 to ¥3,135,000 (equivalent to about $12,000 to $16,000), which put the Legend in same realm as a six-cylinder Nissan Cedric or Toyota Crown. (For comparison, the most expensive JDM Accord listed for around ¥2 million at that point.) A stripped-down Legend V6Mi price-leader was added about a year after launch.
Honda recognized that they were not going to crack the stratified Japanese luxury market overnight and, unlike Toyota and Nissan rivals, the Legend would not have taxi and fleet sales to bolster sales volume. Initial sales target was a modest 1,500 units a month, and even that proved optimistic.
Japanese auto magazines like Jikayousha praised the JDM Legend for its impressively smooth engines, but even the 2.5-liter version had no surplus of torque, and the Legend was heavy enough to make the smaller C20A feel gutless, particularly with the automatic that Japanese luxury car buyers preferred. Moreover, the Legend’s exterior styling was on the bland side and the cabin, though ergonomically excellent, seemed spartan and down-market next to the plush velour interiors of rivals like the Toyota Crown Royal Saloon. While the sleek, sophisticated new Accord and Vigor were standouts in their class, the Legend seemed too cautious for its own good.
THE BIRTH OF ACURA
Honda probably recognized that the Legend’s best hopes lay in the U.S., where the new model debuted in early 1986. In Japan, Honda was an upstart; in Europe, a foreign interloper. In the U.S., it was now a serious player. The latest Accord and Civic had been ecstatically received and the VRA restrictions had boosted transaction prices to enviable levels. Honda executives had some trepidation about offering a model as large or expensive as the Legend, but Honda could hardly have asked for a better moment to try.
Nonetheless, the executives of American Honda identified several potential flies in the ointment. The first and most obvious was brand credibility. American buyers liked Hondas, but it was still unclear if the goodwill Honda had developed in that realm would translate into higher price classes.
A second issue was the danger of demoting the Accord to second banana in the U.S. lineup. Even in Japan, where larger dimensions and a six-cylinder engine were enough to put a car into a distinctly different class, the Legend was perceived as being a little too similar to the Accord. That risk was particularly acute in the U.S., where the Legend was smaller than some cheaper domestic family sedans. American Honda was concerned that dealers would shift emphasis away from the company’s most popular model to a more expensive car that would not (and could not) sell in the same numbers.
A third concern was the size of Honda’s dealer network. Honda then had around 800 U.S. dealers, which wasn’t enough for the kind of volume the company was after. The simplest way to add more dealers without stepping on existing franchise holders’ toes was to set up a new dealer network with its own products. Honda and most other Japanese automakers had done that repeatedly in the home market, but in Japan, each network was clearly identified as a Honda channel (Honda Verno, Honda Clio, and so on). American Honda officials warned that the new U.S. network and its products should not carry the Honda name, which would do little to mitigate the brand credibility issues — not to mention courting trouble with local franchise laws.
Honda’s Japanese directors were resistant to this line of reasoning in no small part because they feared Soichiro Honda’s reaction. The company’s retired founder had little if any actual authority by then, but Soichiro was both outspoken and fearless, so failing to secure his blessing would have been imprudent as well as disrespectful. Fortunately, Soichiro responded with surprising equanimity, so Honda’s senior executive conceded the point.
The result was a new division called Acura, which opened its first 60 dealerships in March 1986. They initially had two products: the Legend sedan and the Integra, a sporty hatchback based on the Civic platform.
The first Acura Legend sedan was similar to the JDM Legend V6Xi, differing mostly in trim and equipment details (and of course having left-hand drive). The sole engine was the 2,493 cc (152 cu. in.) C25A1, which in U.S. form had SAE net ratings of 151 hp (113 kW) and 154 lb-ft (209 N-m) of torque.
The Legend’s starting price with manual transmission and destination charge was $2 shy of the $20,000 mark, making the Legend the most expensive Japanese car ever offered in the U.S. As was Honda’s U.S. practice, there were no factory options; even Legends with automatic transmission were listed as separate models.
Despite its Acura badge, boxy flared fenders, rectangular grille, and exposed halogen headlights, the Legend was unmistakably a Honda and bore a clear stylistic relationship to the Accord. The Legend drove like the contemporary Accord, too. Ultimate handling limits were nothing special, but road manners were quite polished despite the soft springs. The Legend also had a plush ride at legal speeds, although rough pavement showed up the relatively flaccid damping and the fact that the suspension provided less wheel travel than some European rivals. The Legend’s biggest dynamic flaw was the speed-sensitive power steering, which was over-light at low speeds and then weighted up in abrupt, noticeable steps.
With the slick five-speed gearbox, most U.S. testers bettered Honda’s official 9.2-second 0–62 mph (0–100 km/h) time by a half-second or so and equaled or exceeded the claimed 126 mph (203 km/h) top speed, competitive for the time. Even with manual transmission, however, the C25A didn’t have a lot of grunt at lower engine speeds. The added multiplication of the automatic’s torque converter helped, but Legends with automatic were notably slower than manually shifted cars; Honda quoted 10.2 seconds for the automatic Legend’s 0–62 mph (0–100 km/h) sprint. Testers found the automatic Legend could nearly equal the manually shifted car’s unrestricted top speed, but, as on the contemporary Accord, the automatic tended to be both indecisive and jerky.
Even so, most U.S. critics were pleased with the Legend, if not quite as rapturous as they had been about the new Accord. Some complained that the Legend wasn’t much fun to drive, but reviewers generally respected that Honda had deliberately chosen a middle ground between American and European luxury car standards. The Legend couldn’t match the performance, solidity, or snob appeal of a Mercedes 300E or BMW 535i, but in the U.S., the Acura was more than $10,000 cheaper than either. Its most direct rivals were the Audi 5000, Saab 9000, and Volvo 700-Series, against which the Acura could boast a six-cylinder engine (something that at that time only the Volvo 760 could match) and Honda-style quality and reliability in a class not noted for trouble-free ownership experiences.
The Legend had also obvious appeal to Honda owners. Had it been introduced five years earlier, it might have greeted with puzzlement, but now there were people lining up to pay full list price or more for a $13,000 Accord, and some of those buyers were more than happy to spend still more for a bigger, fancier version. Acura sold around 25,000 Legends in 1986, almost 55,000 in 1987, and more than 70,000 in 1988. However, while officials boasted of strong conquest sales, we can’t help thinking that Honda could have sold nearly as many Legends if they’d been branded as super deluxe V-6 Accords.