Why does Acura bother with the RLX?
They're the kind of gee-whiz features designed for smiles in the showroom: a color head-up display, a customizable digital screen in the instrument panel, instant near-field communications link with a smartphone and even climate control knobs that glow red or blue depending on which direction they're turned.
While most automakers would save such surprise-and-delight features for their high-end luxury models or brand, Honda introduced them not on an Acura but on its bread-and-butter family car, the redesigned 2018 Accord.
Honda had its reasons: the timing of the Accord's release, its halo effect over the rest of the Honda brand and the competitive nature of the sedan segment. But they all drive home the point that within American Honda's walls, the Accord commands deep respect, while Acura remains stuck in a second-fiddle role.
"When you look holistically at Honda and Acura in the marketplace you clearly see that Honda is the brand that's paying the bills and driving success and profitability," Eric Lyman, vice president for industry insights at TrueCar, told Automotive News.
The Accord was Honda's best-selling nameplate for decades and the car has played an outsize role in shaping Honda's identity within the U.S. market, selling more than 13 million since 1976. It wasn't until 2016 that a then-aging Accord gave up its crown at Honda to the redesigned Civic and the CR-V.
Honda saw the redesign of this storied model as an opportunity to introduce a host of new features it had never used.
"The heritage of Accord is tightly wrapped with the history and success of the Honda brand," said Jeff Conrad, senior vice president of the auto division at American Honda. "And as we're looking at technology that we can mature and bring online in time for a product's introduction, Accord is the perfect candidate for it because it's such an important car for us."
Besides, said Conrad, Honda didn't want to wait for the next redesigned Acura — expected to be the 2019 RDX set to debut next year.
Conrad: Won't hold back tech innovations.
"Technology doesn't slow down for you," Conrad said. "So while we try to plan for it and we try to use our latest and greatest technologies on Acura, certain ones, when we've perfected them, if it's going to go on a Honda, it's going to go on a Honda."
Acura vehicles have a reputation for technological prowess. The brand hangs its hat on the Sport Hybrid all-wheel-drive system that's in the NSX supercar, MDX crossover and RLX large sedan. The TLX and RLX have all-wheel steering, while a variety of Acura models offer a dual-clutch transmission, something no current Honda model offers.
The next-gen RDX will be a critical marker for the brand. It will be the first redesign of the compact crossover since Jon Ikeda took over as general manager in 2015 and the first since Acura embarked on this latest recasting of its brand identity.
The RDX is now Acura's best seller, on pace to top 60,000 sales this year, making it a suitable for more headline-grabbing features. And there will be some on the 2019 model.
Acura will get its share of headline-grabbing features, such as the Precision Cockpit.
"We have some really strong innovative ideas that are going to be RDX-first and Acura-first," Ikeda told Automotive News. "Sometimes the cadence of things has worked out the way it does, but you'll see that plenty of things are coming through in the RDX."
In addition to evolved exterior styling, the RDX will be the first Acura to get an element of the Precision Cockpit interior concept shown at the 2016 Los Angeles auto show, Ikeda said.
In the meantime, the Accord stays in the limelight.
"It might rob Peter to pay Paul a little," Lyman said. "But the success they can leverage at Honda is going to pay dividends down the road."