ROVER AND STERLING
Although the European market had been Rover’s first priority for the 800, they also hoped to use the new car to return to North America, from which Rover Group had been absent since Jaguar was spun off in 1984.
Like Honda, Rover decided to market its car under a different brand name in the U.S., although Rover’s reasons were somewhat different. While Honda had an excellent reputation in the U.S., Rover’s two previous North American landings had ended badly: Reliability problems had soured American buyers on the Rover P6, prompting British Leyland to withdraw Rover from the U.S. market in the early seventies, and a brief attempt to return in 1980 with a federalized SD1 had been a disaster.
To avoid reminding buyers of those ventures — and/or to avoid courting the wrath of potentially litigious former dealers — Rover established a new U.S. sales organization, Austin Rover Cars of North America (ARCONA), and a new U.S. brand: Sterling, borrowing the name of the top European 800. By the January 1987 introduction date, ARCONA had lined up almost 150 dealers to sell the new Sterling 825S and 825SL.
The Sterling made a good first impression. It had a firmer ride and crisper handling than the Acura Legend and offered features not yet available on the Legend sedan, including the wood-and-leather ambiance American buyers expected of British luxury cars. Moreover, the Sterling was actually a little cheaper than a Legend — $19,000 to $23,000 to start — and vastly less expensive than a U.S.-market Jaguar XJ6 while promising the same Japanese-style reliability as the Acura.
Unfortunately, that promise was not fulfilled. While the Acura Legend topped J.D. Power & Associates customer satisfaction surveys for four consecutive years, the Sterling was consistently at or near the bottom. Early Sterlings were plagued with mechanical and electrical problems, which soured critics otherwise inclined to view the British car favorably. Motor Trend‘s early test car, for example, overheated after mere blocks.
There were improvements throughout the Sterling’s life and ARCONA kept insisting that each year’s model had finally sorted all the earlier problems, but Sterling’s reliability and assembly quality still lagged behind the Legend’s. Since the main reason many American buyers were willing to consider the Legend over established European rivals was Honda’s reputation for reliability, the Sterling’s lapses boded ill for its chances in the U.S. market, particularly since the more trustworthy Legend was available concurrently.
ARCONA had hoped to sell 30,000 cars a year in the U.S., but the Sterling’s best sales year amounted to less than half of that. Things got worse from there as word of mouth began to spread about the Sterling’s problems. The addition of the bigger 2,675 cc (163 cu. in.) engine didn’t help, nor did the introduction of the five-door body. Even sizable rebates and an assortment of special editions didn’t reverse the downward spiral. Discounts didn’t compensate for dismal resale values or the mounting sense that Sterling wasn’t long for the world.
Rover offered the promised 800 coupe as a carrot for Sterling dealers willing to stay the course, but the CCV concept did poorly in U.S. marketing clinics, prompting a time-consuming redesign. ARCONA announced that the coupe would finally arrive in 1992, but it was too late. Rover shuttered the Sterling brand in November 1991 after selling fewer than 35,000 cars in five model years.
HONDA WING TURBO
In Japan, the Legend sedan received a mid-life facelift in October 1988, coinciding with the adoption of the coupe’s double wishbone rear suspension across the line. The update brought new chassis codes: E-KA5 for 2-liter cars, E-KA6 for 2.7-liter sedans.
Along with the facelift, the JDM line also added a new engine option: a turbocharged version of the 1,996 cc (122 cu. in.) C20A.
Back in 1983, Honda had returned to Formula 1 as an engine builder, finding great success with a small-displacement turbocharged V-6. Honda advertising implied that the Legend’s V-6 was descended from that F1 engine, although any real connection between the production V-6 and the 80-degree, 1.5-liter (91 cu. in.), iron-block racing engines was remote. (According to author Masaaki Sato, Honda actually selected the V-6 layout for the racing engines to tie into the already-in-development production V-6 rather than the other way around.) Nonetheless, the F1 program had given Honda R&D considerable experience with turbocharging, something Honda had used very little in its production engines. The only turbocharged car Honda had ever offered for public sale was the City Turbo, offered from 1982 to 1986.
Aside from reinforcing the marketing connection between the racing engines and the Legend V-6, the turbocharged engine was likely prompted by a recognition that the JDM Legend was handicapped by the lack of engine choices between the overmatched C20A and the expensive-to-own C25A and C27A. Rivals’ base 2-liter sixes weren’t any stronger than the C20A, but Toyota, Nissan, and Mazda all offered turbocharged and/or supercharged versions to bridge the gap between the base engines and the pricier 3-number grades. From a commercial standpoint, the C20A turbo was long overdue.
While late to the party, Honda was not to be outdone in technology. The Legend’s intercooled “Wing Turbo” engine had four airfoil-shaped vanes — which Honda called wings — mounted around the turbine. Half of each “wing” was fixed while the other half pivoted like an aircraft flap, allowing the engine computer to optimize the flow of exhaust gas to the turbine under different operating conditions; the goal was to make the turbocharger more responsive at low rpm without restricting high-end power. Nissan’s 1,998 cc (122 cu. in.) VG20ET “Jet Turbo” engine had used a similar principle for several years, but the Jet Turbo provided only two A/R ratios (the ratio of effective inlet size to inlet-to-turbine distance) while the Wing Turbo’s was continuously variable. There was no wastegate, but the wings were programmed to limit boost to a maximum of 8.7 psi (0.6 bars). Knock sensors were provided to allow the use of a 9.0:1 compression ratio, only slightly lower than the normally aspirated C20A’s.
The Wing Turbo engine was rated at 190 PS JIS (140 kW) and 178 lb-ft (241 N-m) of torque, making it the most powerful production engine Honda had yet offered. It was available only with the dual-mode automatic transmission in a new V6Ti grade available in plain or Exclusive trim, priced at ¥2,960,000 or ¥3,360,000 (approximately $22,000 to $24,500) respectively. Either included sport seats, a shorter axle ratio, and wider tires on alloy wheels. Since it was still in the 5-number tax class, the V6Ti looked like the best deal in the line, at least on paper.
How the turbocharged Legend’s performance compared to that of the 2.7-liter sedan is hard to say. We’ve yet to find any instrumented Japanese road tests, and the Western journalists who sampled the V6Ti confined themselves to driving impressions. Subjective reports suggest that the Wing Turbo did indeed minimize the turbo lag common to turbocharged engines of that era and offered strong mid-range punch. However, the Wing Turbo still didn’t produce enough boost at low rpm to match the Legend’s weight. (Thanks to the added weight of the intercooler and turbo hardware, the Legend V6Ti was just as heavy as a 2.7-liter V6Xi.) Nonetheless, the more powerful engines prompted Honda to add traction control to the Legend’s options list in mid-1989. Similar systems had been offered on RWD cars since at least 1971, but Honda claimed the Legend system was a first for FF cars.
The Wing Turbo engine appears to have been a dead end. It was never officially exported, didn’t continue into subsequent Legends, and as far as we know hasn’t been used on any subsequent Honda production car (although Honda has since offered other turbocharged engines). Chrysler’s conceptually similar Variable Nozzle Turbocharger, offered briefly during the 1990 model year, was dropped after a few months due to durability concerns, which makes us wonder how reliable the Wing Turbo was in service.
The primary reasons for the turbocharged car’s early demise were probably the advent of Honda’s pioneering VTEC variable-valve timing system and extensive changes in Japanese tax law that went into effect in April 1989. The new rules reduced the cost penalties for 3-number cars with engines over 2,000 cc (122 cu. in.), which in short order led to the demise of many of JDM turbocharged and supercharged 2-liter (122 cu. in.) sixes in favor of normally aspirated or turbocharged 2.5-liter (152 cu. in.) engines. The Wing Turbo’s place in the Honda lineup (albeit not in the Legend line) was effectively taken by the normally aspirated G-block fives, the first of which debuted on the E-CB5 Accord Inspire and Vigor in September 1989.
In August 1989, Toyota and Nissan introduced their new Infiniti Q45 and Lexus LS400. Although both would be sold in Japan (the latter as the Toyota Celsior), they were very much aimed at the U.S. market, following the model Honda had established with Acura. The difference was that the Q45 and LS400 were bigger, more expensive cars with V-8 engines.
Legend sales declined for 1990, although it’s hard to say how much of that was due to the arrival of Lexus and Infiniti. Although we don’t think the JDM Legend sedan’s 1989 facelift would have gone over well in most export markets, skipping it emphasized the fact that the existing car was getting old. Even so, Acura sold more than 50,000 Legends in 1990, which certainly wasn’t bad.
Still, the obvious question was what Honda was going to do next. The American press expected great things, particularly following the debut of the NSX sports car, which showed what Honda engineers could do when given a free hand. Rumors flew that Honda’s next flagship might even trump V-8 rivals with a V-10 engine based on the G-block five.
The reality was less exciting. The new “Super Legend” sedan (chassis code E-KA7), introduced in Japan in October 1990, was bigger than the old car — there were no more 5-number Legends — but was still smaller than the LS400 or Q45 and had neither a V-10 nor a V-8. At launch, the sole engine was the new 3,206 cc (196 cu. in.) C32A, an enlarged version of the previous C27A engine with 215 PS JIS (158 kW; 200 hp SAE/149 kW for U.S. cars, 205 PS DIN/153 kW for European Legends). Japanese-market cars were offered only with the four-speed automatic, although a manual gearbox remained available in North America.
The new Legend retained front-wheel drive, but its V-6 engine was now mounted longitudinally rather than transversely. The transmission was behind the engine, using a short longitudinal shaft to route power back to the differential, which was was located under the engine’s right cylinder bank, passing one halfshaft through the sump. The rationale for this complex layout, which Honda had previously adopted for the five-cylinder Vigor and Accord Inspire, was not to facilitate the use of all-wheel drive (which wouldn’t be available on the Legend until much later), but to bring weight distribution closer to the 60/40 split Honda claimed was optimal for FWD. Suspension was again by double wishbones, although the layout was extensively revised. Unlike the cheaper Accord and Prelude, the Legend didn’t offer four-wheel steering.
The KA7 Legend sedan and the new Legend coupe (chassis code E-KA8) that arrived in Japan in early 1991 were fundamentally conservative but perfectly competent cars — better than their predecessors in almost every respect — that had been thoroughly overshadowed before they ever went on sale. Even with automatic, the Legend could outrun the heavier Lexus LS400 to any speed legal in the U.S. or Japan, but having only six cylinders immediately signaled that Honda was not aspiring to the first rank of prestige cars.
Honda maintained throughout the nineties that adding a RWD V-8 car like Toyota and Nissan had done would be a money-loser, which was probably true so far as it went; Mazda shelved its planned Amati luxury brand for similar reasons. However, Honda’s refusal to enter the fray left the Legend without a clear direction. The Legend had superb ergonomics, fine build quality, and commendable reliability, but the same was true of Lexus, so that was no longer the unique selling point it had been. The new Legend handled well, but it felt too bulky and nose-heavy to qualify as a sports sedan, while its fidgety low-speed ride and less-than-seamless automatic fell short of the LS400’s extraordinary cruising refinement. Despite the KA7 sedan’s 114.6-inch (2,910mm) wheelbase, rear seat room wasn’t generous either; whatever marginal benefits the Legend gained from its longitudinal engine were achieved at the cost of packaging efficiency.
Honda sold more than 65,000 Legends for 1991, the model’s second-best year, but sales dropped off rapidly after that and never recovered. Despite the addition for 1993 of a more powerful Type II engine option (making 235 PS JIS (173 kW) in Japan, 230 hp SAE (172 kW) in the U.S.) and, on export cars, an available six-speed manual gearbox, even American buyers were losing interest. The JDM Legend, meanwhile, never approached the success of better-established big car rivals from Toyota and Nissan, much less the LS400/Celsior, which was surprisingly popular in Japan.