On March 27, 1986, Acura opened its first 60 dealerships. From the safe distance of two decades later, Honda's creation of Acura looks easy — of course it was going to be successful, right? But back in the 1980s, when no Japanese manufacturer had yet sold a vehicle outside its core value-oriented brand, it seemed a massive gamble. That Honda's gamble paid off is due mostly to one vehicle: the Legend luxury sedan (and later coupe). And over time the Legend has evolved into the RL that continues in production today.
Acura wasn't a clone of Honda, but a move by the maker upmarket with more luxurious and, hopefully, more prestigious cars — a move made four years before Toyota opened its Lexus stores and Nissan began selling Infiniti products. From a business standpoint, Honda's domestic production of the Accord meant its bread and butter was well covered. If it was going to bring in cars from Japan it made sense to bring in cars with higher profit margins.
"We don't want Honda dealers to get too complicated," said Tetsuo Chino, then American Honda's president, to Business Week just before the Acura dealers opened in March of 1986. "We want [Honda] dealers to be specialists in small cars." Honda really did want to keep it simple.
The first two Acuras were the small Integra and the large Legend sedan. But whether the $10,000 Integra was a hit or not was relatively insignificant compared to the gamble Acura made with the $20,000 Legend — no one had ever paid $20,000 for a Japanese car before. Code-named "XX" during its development, the Legend was designed alongside the car that would become the English-built Rover 800 and sold in the United States as the barely remembered Sterling. The Legend, on the other hand, was close to being unforgettable.
To 21st-century eyes, the original 1986 Legend is neither particularly large nor particularly powerful. Back in the mid-'80s, however, it was pretty big and muscle-bound for a Japanese sedan.
With its 108.7-inch wheelbase and 3100-pound curb weight, the front-wheel-drive Legend was engineered much like a scaled-up Accord and looked a lot like a scaled-up Accord as well (the 1986 Accord sedan had a 102.4-inch wheelbase and the heaviest LXi version weighed in at 2569 pounds). The Legend's suspension comprised an independent rear on struts, with the front end incorporating unequal-length control arms. Tuned for comfort, the first Legend's chassis was a poised turnpike cruiser of some grace. But the engine was the real star.
All Legends had an all-new, all-aluminum SOHC 2.5-liter 90-degree V6 with four valves per cylinder and making 151 horsepower, mounted transversely under their hoods. Honda had sold the 6-cylinder CBX motorcycle back in 1979, but this was its first six built for use in a car. "The engine is a smooth and willing puller that betrays its high power output only through a pleasing exhaust growl at high rpm," wrote Motor Trend in a comparison test with the BMW 528e, Pontiac 6000STE and Audi 5000S. "While so quiet at idle [that] a blip of the throttle is needed to corroborate that it's running. The only complaint we had was lack of low-end torque. The Legend was easily the fastest of our group, but the shift manners for the 4-speed automatic were a bit abrupt for so smooth a motor. The Legend reaches 60 mph in 9.8 seconds and triple-digit speeds are easily attained. The most impressive underhood demeanor of our four players.
"For a first try," concluded Motor Trend, "the Legend is magnificent. Though rather plain in styling, its road manners qualify it to be called a true luxury sedan...Honda has a hit on its hands with the Legend."
While Motor Trend tested an automatic, a five-speed manual transmission was also available in the Legend.
An instant success, the Legend sedan made it into 1987 essentially unchanged. But Acura now had a coupe version to sell alongside it.
The Legend coupe was mechanically similar to the sedan in its structure and layout but the suspension design incorporated trailing arms in the rear instead of struts. And obviously, there were only two doors and the wheelbase shrunk down to 106.5 inches. The two most apparent differences between the sedan and coupe were the coupe's unique and slickly aerodynamic body and a 2.7-liter version of the SOHC 24-valve V6 rated at 161 horsepower. It, too, was instantly accepted in the marketplace. The Legend sedan would get the 2.7-liter engine for 1988 as airbags and antilock brakes became available across the range.
In a comparison test pitting the $27,657 '88 Legend coupe against the Lincoln Mark VII LSC, Mercedes-Benz 300CE and BMW 635CSi, Car and Driver was thoroughly impressed with the upstart contender. "The Japanese coupe draws the most all-around praise, too — amazing for a car that is $20,000 to $25,000 cheaper than the Germans," explained the magazine. "'The Acura and Lincoln give better headroom than the German cars. The Acura's rear seat provides the best combination of comfort, headroom and visibility. The LSC's [rear seat] is probably more comfortable, but its lack of visibility creates a claustrophobic atmosphere. The Acura is sumptuously smooth and very quick...steering [is] impervious to road irregularities. Stable at 120, but plenty of wind noise...great seats. Good room overall. Steering is wonderful — tremendous feel and accuracy. Doesn't get blown around. Everything's so easy to use. Although stiff, the Acura's suspension is supple. God, this car is good."
For the record, Car and Driver recorded that automatic-equipped Legend coupe accelerating to 60 mph in 9.6 seconds and running the quarter-mile in 17.2 seconds at 81 mph. That wasn't as quick as the BMW, Lincoln or Mercedes, but it was good enough as only the Legend made it onto the magazine's "10Best" list that year.
The Legend sedan adopted the coupe's trailing arm rear suspension and got a new full-width taillight design for 1989 in what was otherwise a carryover year. A few trim changes, standard ABS on L and LS models and a new front grille and rear spoiler for the coupe, distinguished the 1990 models from previous years. But even a car as solid and well loved as the original Legend is bound to be replaced.
"The new Legends are longer, wider, lower, faster, smarter...everything-er," wrote Inside Line's Rich Homan (then writing for Road & Track) when he first sampled the 1991 models. "Rather than gunning for the big V8 sedans from Lexus and Infiniti, Honda wisely chose instead to solidify the position of the Legend at the head of the affordable performance/luxury roster. Priced just a notch above their first-generation forebears (the cars should sell in the $25,000-$35,000 range), all the Legends — three trim levels for the sedan and two for the coupe — are well equipped and appointed."
To power these new, larger Legends, Honda cooked up a new 3.2-liter version of the all-aluminum 90-degree SOHC 24-valve V6, rated at 200 horsepower. In order to shift some of the engine's weight rearward, it was now mounted longitudinally in the engine bay where it fed either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission that drove the front wheels. The front suspension was a new design but still used double wishbones, while the rear used a new independent multilink system. The braking was by discs at every corner and rack and pinion steering provided precise directional control.
With the wheelbase now stretching 114.6 inches and overall length at 194.9 inches, the 4-door Legend LS now weighed in at 3583 pounds. If the first Legend was considered big, the second one was a giant. But it was still a car worthy of praise, according to Road & Track.
"The Legend sedan's long wheelbase pays dividends in both ride quality and interior room," Road & Track explained in its first full test of the car. "Better headroom than the previous car, even with a sunroof," noted one driver. "...the rear seat cushion isn't shrunk longitudinally to give a false impression of legroom. There is excellent thigh support and excellent legroom." The front seats also garnered praise for their comfort and their ability to offer good lateral support without looking too racy. And their wide range of adjustment helped to make up for a steering column that was adjustable only for reach.
The review continued, "On the road, whether it be surface streets, interstate, or the coveted twisties, the Legend gives a fine account of itself. Torque steer has been all but eliminated; at maximum-rpm shifts, there's a soft tug at the wheel but no perceptible change of heading. The propensity of the old model's front suspension to hit its bump stops too easily has been corrected, and the ride quality, as categorized by one driver, 'falls neatly between the Lexus LS 400's silky softness and the Infiniti Q45's sporting firmness.'" In that test, it took a modest 7.9 seconds for the Legend LS to make it from zero to 60 mph and 16.1 seconds for the quarter-mile to go by.
Once again the coupe had its own unique body and its 111.4-inch wheelbase was 3.2 inches shorter than that of the sedan when it appeared in 1992. But it was otherwise similar in specification and performance to the sedan. A passenger-side airbag became standard for 1992 and heated seats were now part of the LS trim level, but the sedan was otherwise unchanged.
With little motivation to do otherwise, the Legend sedan carried over into 1993 with a few nearly imperceptible detail changes, but the fledgling coupe received a number of upgrades. Road & Track tested a Legend LS coupe of that vintage and found it was significantly updated for a one-year-old car. "Its V6," the publication wrote, "still displacing 3206cc (3.2 liters), has been massaged to pump out a healthy 230 horsepower instead of 200. A 6-speed manual transmission replaces the 5-speed. Traction control (TCS) becomes standard on the LS. The brakes get twin-piston front calipers. Sixteen-inch rims replace the 15s. A passenger airbag becomes standard. And lastly, the body, with thicker-gauge steel and additional reinforcement, has become torsionally more rigid, aiding handling and helping [to] lower interior noise...
"At the track with TCS on — which activates each time the car is fired up — 60 mph arrives about a second later than it does with TCS switched off. As such, the coupe shot to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds and smacks the quarter-mile in 15.7 seconds at 91.0 mph. Impressive numbers that make it the fastest Legend we've tested and a member of the Ford Taurus SHO and Lexus SC 300 league."
A new top-of-the-line Legend GS sedan appeared for 1994 fortified with the coupe's 230 hp and available six-speed manual transmission. But otherwise, changes were scant. There were even fewer changes for 1995.
The Legend was such a hit for Acura that many people thought of the two as inseparable from one another — that is if they remembered the Acura part of the name at all. So Acura did some separating itself for the next generation.
Acura's abandonment of the Legend name has to rank with "New Coke" as one of the dopiest business decisions of the 20th century. Why give up a name that was as clearly beloved as Legend? Because, the logic in the company went: People weren't thinking of the car as an Acura first but as a Legend...and it was important to build some brand awareness as the Acura franchise went forward. Whatever. But the new name, "3.5 RL," was so generic it was unlikely ever to attract any attention.
"Outwardly sharing most dimensions with the car it replaces," explained Road & Track upon its first meeting with the new sedan (there was no coupe version), "the RL is extremely roomy within, indeed, right up there with the Lexus LS 400 and considerably more commodious than the Legend. To my eyes, its exterior styling works Brand Awareness a bit much: the front end, particularly, cloning the lower-level TL. Indeed, it's not easy to tell the two apart from their pug-nose visages. The RL is less TL-like at the rear, but here it borders on conservative luxo-generic. Put a three-pointed star there and it could pass."
As the name implies, the RL's engine now displaced 3.5 liters thanks to a 7mm increase in stroke. But despite that increase in displacement, output actually dropped down to 210 hp. What was going on?
"Acura has completely abandoned the V6's previous high-rpm performance in favor of low-rev torque," explained Road & Track in its test of the 1996 3.5 RL. "Amazingly the torque has risen from 206 pound-feet at 5,000 rpm to 224 pound-feet at 2,800 rpm — that's a 9 percent gain at 2,200 fewer rpm. Having watched Acura's leading-edge probings toward ever higher-rpm engines over the years, this is quite an about-face." And the only transmission behind that longitudinally mounted engine was now a 4-speed automatic.
In general specification, the 3.5 RL was very much the Legend in a new box with similar suspension, steering and braking systems aboard. The 114.6-inch wheelbase carried over, but with options like a navigation system now available, curb weight rose — the 3.5 RL weighed in at 3660 pounds in its singular trim level.
Let's not put too fine a point on this; the 3.5 RL was simply stunning in that it was an Acura lacking in either technical interest or driving verve. A giant yawn.
Changes were slight for both 1997 and 1998, but Edmunds.com had its first exposure to the car. "The Acura 3.5 RL is the car for those of you looking for a bargain in the luxury car class," we wrote back then. "It may lack some of the power of its competitors, and it certainly doesn't have the sporty feel of a BMW or Mercedes-Benz, but it is an excellent highway cruiser and around-town status car."
In 1999 the 3.5 RL was treated to a new front grille with a sharper point at its bottom that made a boring car a little less anonymous. But there were some significant changes as well. "Uplifting our impression of the car's interior was the optional Acura Navigation System — the only factory option available — which wowed every one of us with its advanced features. This satellite-linked system allows you to view a map of your current location at several zoom modes, maneuver the map so you can see what is near your route, see current location details and call up address information for any location on the map display....
"Acura introduces two new airbag safety systems in its 3.5 RL this time around and, like the navigation system, they are worth noting. One system, the first-ever used in an automobile, automatically adjusts the deployment of the front passenger airbag based on the severity of a frontal impact crash... Parents will appreciate Acura's second, new side airbag system, which protects children who may be sitting in the front passenger seat. The system uses seven sensors to deactivate the side airbag if a passenger is determined to be too small and out of proper airbag position — such as when leaning against the door taking a nap.
"Built with more than 360 modifications from last year's model, the 1999 Acura 3.5 RL is certainly a vehicle to covet, no matter your lifestyle. It seats five comfortably and has a large trunk that holds enough groceries for a family with that many members.
"Buyers need not be independently wealthy to enjoy the Acura 3.5 RL, either. With a base price of only $42,355, the RL rivals other higher-priced vehicles like the Mercedes-Benz E430, Lexus GS 400 and BMW 540iA. While its competitors offer more power in terms of V8 engines, the Acura stacks up just as well — if not better — in areas like style, nimbleness, value and curbside charm."
Stability control was part of the 2000 3.5 RL package and the navigation screen grew larger, but otherwise changes were barely noticed. The 2001 model year was essentially a carryover.
While OnStar was added to the option list for 2002, that was only the first of many changes. "Increased power is the most significant update," Edmunds.com's Brent Romans reported. "Thanks in part to a new silencer in the variable exhaust system, the 24-valve 3.5-liter V6 engine delivers 225 horsepower and 231 pound-feet of torque (compared with 210 hp and 224 lb-ft for the '01 RL). Though 225 hp is certainly adequate, it is increasingly outclassed. For instance, the 2002 Honda Odyssey minivan's V6 makes 240 hp, and the smaller 3.2-liter V6 found in the RL's smaller cousin, the 3.2TL, makes 225 hp. Both of these cars have VTEC, Honda's variable valve timing system that improves both power and fuel economy. Currently, the RL is the only 2002 Honda product (excluding the Isuzu-built Passport) without VTEC.
"Along with a curb weight of 3920 pounds, the modest power contributes to slower-than-expected acceleration times for this class. Zero to 60 mph takes 8.3 seconds, and the quarter-mile is passed in 16.4 seconds at 85.6 mph. The RL doesn't necessarily feel slow; around town and up freeway entrance ramps, it has sufficient thrust to deal with most situations. But considering that most entry-level luxury sedans are faster, not to mention the RL's V8-powered competitors, we have to say that there is room for further improvement."
XM radio joined the option list for 2003, but by this time the 3.5 RL was barely a presence in the market — surpassed in power, sophistication and verve by many cars selling for far less. The 2004 model year didn't feature any significant changes as sales dropped to barely perceptible.
Acura needed to do something if there was going to be any reason for the RL to continue on.
The second-generation, 2005 RL shares practically nothing with either the 3.5 RL or the Legend that preceded it. But as this is written, it's still an open question whether it's distinct enough to compete against V8-powered competition.
"So the old car is mediocre and the new one is really awesome," wrote our Brian Moody in his first drive of the new RL. "Sure, we've heard that story a thousand times if we've heard it once. Even so, the new version of the RL is truly new and has almost nothing in common with the old one. In fact, the new RL could be called overkill, as it offers features we never would have thought of, let alone expected on a luxury performance sedan. Acura is well aware that the outgoing RL was not a contender against the likes of Audi, BMW, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz, and the company set out to fix the problem by designing a car that has the look and feel of a true luxury vehicle, combined with the stunning performance of a German sport sedan."
While the all-aluminum engine still displaces 3.5 liters, it's a 60-degree SOHC 24-valve design that packs a full complement of Honda's engine technology including VTEC variable valve timing to produce a competitive 300 horsepower. And instead of just feeding the front wheels, this new transversely mounted engine puts power through a 5-speed automatic transmission that in turn sends it out to all four wheels through Honda's Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH-AWD) system. "The all-wheel-drive configuration typically runs with 70 percent of the power going to the front wheels and the remaining 30 percent directed to the rear wheels," Moody went on to explain. "Under such circumstances as heavy acceleration or hard cornering, more power can be directed to the rear wheels — like the front wheels, the rear wheels can receive as much as 70 percent of the engine's power.
"So far this is nothing new, as most all-wheel-drive cars can redirect the power between their front and rear wheels. What is unusual is the RL's ability to split the power between the left and right rear wheels. If needed, the all-wheel-drive system can direct all of the rear wheels' available power (never more than 70-percent total) to just one wheel. Using sensors to determine the position of the car relative to a turn, the car will spin the outside rear wheel faster in order to more accurately point the front of the car in the direction the driver intends. The result is a car that seems to exhibit little or no understeer — that feeling you get when entering a turn too quickly and the car continues to go straight despite the fact that the front wheels are turned."
In our First Test of the car, some of that technological overkill was apparent. "Despite its high performance," we wrote, "we have mixed emotions about the RL driving experience. All the different electronic systems that help the car corner take away the road feel that true driving enthusiasts crave. To put it simply, this car doesn't 'talk' to the driver the way a real sport sedan does." And the lack of bottom-end power meant the car lacked the punch to slug it out with V8 competitors. The 7.3-second 0-to-60-mph time wasn't bad, nor was the 15.3-second (at 92.8 mph) quarter-mile effort, but this is not a car that pounces off the line with much authority.
Yet in a comprehensive assessment of the new RL and its competition, the Acura shone, taking 1st place in our 2005 comparison test of all-wheel-drive luxury machines. "It's not the fastest or the flashiest," we concluded, "and in this test it wasn't even the cheapest, but the 2005 Acura RL ran away with 1st place anyway. We were looking for the all-wheel-drive sedan with the right balance between performance and luxury and we found it most often in the RL.
"At $49,470 it was the second most affordable of the five and with everything standard all you have to do is pick a color. Its styling won't get you many second looks, but you'll never second-guess yourself for buying it either."
We second-guessed ourselves and entered the RL into another comparison test soon after that one. And the RL took 2nd in our comparison test of $50,000 luxury sedans from Japan — regardless of how many or which wheels were driven. About the only change to the 2006 RL is the application of a new 6-year/70,000-mile warranty that all other Acuras received as well.
The new RL is obviously something unique in the market. But Acura is well established now — and whether the RL thrives or fails matters little to the brand's viability. In short, it doesn't matter anywhere near as much as it did with Acura's first flagship sedan, the Legend.