This is a story about how Acura lost their way, then refocused on design to successfully reinvigorate the brand.
If you're a designer, a car fan or simply someone who follows the sector, we think you'll enjoy and/or learn from this look at what's been going on, behind the scenes, over at the Acura Design Studio. Roughly four years ago the company started making some major changes and now, with the recent release of the new RDX, have had their renewed focus on design validated by some startling sales numbers.
A full-size mockup of the RDX at the Acura Design Studio in Torrance, California
"What we've got going now," says longtime Acura designer and now VP/GM Jon Ikeda, "we know it works."
Back Story: A Rise and Fall (Warning: Boring Business Stuff Ahead)
When Acura introduced the RDX in 2006, they entered an uncrowded market segment: The entry-level, midsize luxury "crossover" SUV. The only real competitor was BMW's X3, which had dominated the segment for years, but which had begun a steady sales decline.
2006 Acura RDX
The RDX overtook the X3 within three years, even as the 2008 recession began gutting the car market. RDX sales increased each year following that, but there was no time to rest, as Audi's Q5 and Volvo's XC60 had jumped into the game.
By 2013 and 2014 the RDX had beat them all, leading the segment in sales. But in 2015, Audi's Q5 pulled just ahead. The following year, the news was worse: Lexus' NX, an even newer competitor than the Q5, was now in the lead.
More troubling was that Acura, as a brand, was starting to lose some of its luster. Three of the automaker's six offerings were sedans, a form factor that customers had begun abandoning. The company had taken a sales hit, as all car companies had, during the 2008-2010 recession; but while most of their competitors had bounced back to pre-recession sales figures, Acura had not.
What Went Wrong?
Parent company Honda's sales figures had bounced back after the recession. Because the two companies share mechanicals, Acura's malaise did not appear to be engineering-based. If a finger was going to be pointed, likely targets would be Design, or Sales & Marketing. The former was either not designing cars that people wanted to buy, or the latter was not doing a good enough job telling the stories of these cars to the target market.
So which was it? Car publications rarely criticize precise elements of marketing, but design criticism always flows freely. The design of Acura's interiors seemed to draw particular fire; here's Car & Driver in 2015 commenting on Acura's TLX, the mid-sized luxury sedan that debuted the previous year: "The instrument panel's small, pixelated information screen already looks dated…Acura's two-tiered center displays are busy, redundant, and distracting in use."
Here's Road & Trackon the same: "The multiple interfaces render the entire infotainment system confusing, made worse by illogical menus, inscrutable controls, and redundant displays. We suspect you'll get used to it over time, but the system is overly distracting and just a pain to use."
They were even more unsparing with the exterior design: "The TLX's styling is less love-it-or-hate-it and more…adequate…. The car comes across as rather bland.
"As usual, Acura excels at making a very good car, but doesn't deliver a slam-dunk on the desirability scale…. The one thing this car needs more than anything else is some gotta-have-it factor. And a name badge that won't confuse its customers."
That last sentence refers to Acura's controversial "beak" grille shown below:
It had begun appearing on cars across the brand in 2009, and a vocal subset of Acura fanatics hated it. One particularly brutal thread circa 2012 on the r/cars/ subReddit was titled "If Acura wants to succeed, they need to fire the lead designer who introduced this god forsaken design theme for the front/rear of their cars...aka the beak." The tone was rather shrill:
"WHY don't they realize that they offer AMAZING tech for the price but they are just so damn ugly and bland on the outside that everyone just moves to Audi, Infiniti, and even Cadillac now?"
Even local newspapers in Ohio, where Honda/Acura have four factories, were worried about an Acura decline, which would impact the local economy. In 2016 the Columbus Dispatch had an article called "Acura hopes design changes boost sluggish sales", writing:
"Analysts say Acura's main problem is that its sport-utility vehicle sales have not risen nearly enough to counterbalance the drop for sedans. This is on top of the long-running criticism of the luxury brand -- that it does not have a clear-enough identity.
"'Acura has always struggled with its brand, what it stands for,' said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst for AutoTrader.com."
The paper asked Acura PR Manager Matt Sloustcher to comment. "Of course, we're never content with things," said Sloustcher, adding:
"This is a long-term game. Over the past year, we've put into place long-term, fundamental building blocks."
So what were those building blocks? On a trip to the Acura Design Studio, we got to find out. Some of these remedial steps were to be expected, but others were surprising. We'll start with one of the surprises, which involves longtime Acura designer Jon Ikeda.
Ikeda was instrumental in many of the brand's successes. And he was known not only for his design skills, but for having opinions--and not being afraid to share them, particularly in defense of the design department.
The Outspoken Designer
The meeting wasn't going well. In a conference room, Jon Ikeda and a group of his fellow designers are sitting across from a group of executives, most of them "engine guys" who came up through the ranks from the engineering side. And they're ripping into Ikeda's team. We don't like this; we don't like that; the wheels are no good; forget this color, why isn't this blue?
"Maybe we should get a head designer from outside," one executive suggests.
Ikeda absorbs the insult and doesn't fire back right away, but waits in the pocket. Eventually the talk turns, as he knew it would, to where horsepower and fuel economy could be improved.
"Maybe we should get some engines from outside," he suggests.
The execs go silent.
To the other designers, it's as if Ikeda did this:
There wasn't much doubt that Jon Ikeda, California kid and car nut, would become a car designer. It was just a question of where he would work. When he graduated from ArtCenter in 1989, job options were clear-cut, and all in Detroit: "You worked for the Big Three," he remembers. "Depending on where you ranked in the class, you either worked for the big guy, the middle guy or the third guy."
Following an earlier internship, Ikeda had lined up a coveted job with General Motors. "Everything was locked and loaded," he remembers. But 1989 was a weird year, for at least two reasons: One, the bestselling car that year wasn't from Detroit. For the first time in U.S. history, the award went to the Honda Accord, a Japanese car. (Ikeda didn't know that at the time; 1989 sales figures wouldn't be tallied until '90.)
The second weird thing: Dave Marek, his hotshot classmate and buddy from ArtCenter, who had graduated two years earlier and had the talent to land a job wherever he wanted, was now working at Honda. "I couldn't understand it," Ikeda says.
Marek's last name might as well have been pronounced with a "ve" after the first two letters. "He was always pushing the action," Ikeda remembers. "He was this great guy with a huge persona and he did things really differently." Even so, Ikeda was puzzled: Why would Marek go to Japan when he could've gone to Detroit?
The answer was in an experimental facility in Tokyo's Ginza district. Marek had been lured by a new type of studio Honda had launched there, called Wave. Prior to Wave, Honda's design process was bewildering to ArtCenter guys like Marek and Ikeda: "They find the one guy that draws the best, and he teaches everybody to draw the exact same way. 'Same is good,' that was the culture."
The Wave Studio was meant to break that culture by, well, making some waves. Marek could only do so many cannonballs into the design pool by himself, so made some phone calls to L.A. for backup. "I knew every student at ArtCenter," Marek recalls, "so I picked four guys, and Jon was the top. His work was so cool, he was so opinionated, and he loved racing." (Honda had been heavily involved in Formula One since the 1960s.)
Ikeda already had the GM job in hand, but Marek persisted. "Just gimme one month over here, before you go to General Motors," he urged.
Ikeda figured a month over there couldn't hurt, and cleared it with GM first. "Yeah, go, go, go," Ikeda remembers them saying. "See what they're doing over there." GM probably figured they'd get some free intel on what Honda was up to, if they just waited 30 days for Ikeda to return.
Instead, 30 days turned into 30 years. Ikeda never left Honda.
He didn't think he'd stay. Initially Ikeda found the Wave Studio "a special place, but I still wasn't convinced." Plus Tokyo was very expensive to live in, and Ikeda had a ton of school debt he wanted to clear up. As his 30 days were drawing to a close, Ikeda's bags were packed.
Honda, however, had seen enough of Ikeda's skills to know they didn't want to lose him. "You don't want to work anywhere else," the company told him, "you want to work here." The Jedi mind trick didn't work.
Then Honda figured out how to get to him. "The week I was supposed to leave, there happened to be a Formula One event," Ikeda remembers. "They gave me a ticket, so I went to the race.
"I'm there, and I'm watching [Ayrton] Senna and [Alain] Prost from the corner of the pits, and the Honda guys put a bright red team jacket around my shoulders. And then they ran the cars.
Formula One fans: A young Jon Ikeda happened to witness the historic Race 15 of the 1989 Formula One World Championship, where Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost battled it out in McLarens powered by Honda V-10s. A record-breaking 20 different manufacturers were competing. Prost ended up winning the 1989 Driver's Championship, while Honda-powered McLaren won the Constructor's Championship. With 10 first-place finishes in 16 races, it wasn't even close--McLaren-Honda had 141 points, whereas 2nd-place finisher Williams-Renault had just 77.
"And I realized, at that point, why teenage girls used to faint at Beatles concerts. You get all teary-eyed, you don't understand why, but you have to sit down.
"Right at that moment, the Honda guys hand me the papers: 'Sign right here, my friend.' I signed the papers."
"The Human Embodiment of Acura"
Ikeda spent the next six years in Japan, working on the award-winning Honda FSX show car, as well as the Acura RL, the brand's flagship luxury sedan and successor to the Acura Legend.
1991 Honda FSX concept
In '95 he was relocated to Honda R&D Americas in L.A., where he steadily worked his way up to Chief Designer and Division Director. Still split between brands, he served as the design lead for both the 2001 Honda Civic Coupe and the 2004 Acura TL, the brand's bestselling car to date.
In 2004, Ikeda's focus was narrowed to just Acura. In 2005, Honda canceled the NSX, a blow to the Acura brand. Ikeda didn't take it lying down and in 2006, pushed hard for the company to grant Acura a standalone design facility, which he likens to a sibling finally getting his own bedroom. The brass acquiesced and the Acura Design Studio came into existence in 2007, under Ikeda's leadership. (And at 49,500 square feet, it's quite the bedroom.)
Acura Design Studio, ground floor
Ikeda oversaw the Acura Advanced Sports Car Concept that debuted that year, allowing a young but talented designer named Patrick Lukasak to run with it. "So here's this kid just two years out of design school," Ikeda told Automobile Magazine, "and he comes up with this sketch and we're looking at it, and we decide this has all the stuff we're talking about. So we put [him together with master clay modeler Billy Yex] and let them do their thing." (Stay tuned for coverage on how Acura's stylists and clay modelers work together to develop concepts.)
Acura's Advanced Sports Car Concept, 2007
Acura's Advanced Sports Car Concept, 2007
Acura's Advanced Sports Car Concept, 2007
The Advanced Sports Car Concept was expected to manifest as the resurrected NSX. Sadly, the recession hit the following year, and the second coming of the NSX was shelved.
When the economy began to recover and the NSX re-entered internal discussions several years later, "Ikeda was instrumental in naming Michelle Christensen as the exterior designer of the upcoming NSX," Automotive News reported. Christensen became the first female designer in history to pen a supercar.
2016 NSX and exterior designer Michelle Christensen
Ikeda didn't cut Lukasak and Christensen in because he was doing them a favor; he did it because they had the talent. This was a management hallmark of both Ikeda and Marek, and it apparently trickled down from their career-long experiences with the company. (Marek had risen through the ranks since '87 and was promoted to Acura Executive Creative Director in 2014.) "Honda has embraced me, and not tried to make me something else," Marek said in an interview with Canada's Wheels. "If you work hard and you do good work, you grow up in the company. Then you permeate it back to the people who work for you. You trust them and let them do what they do.
"I don't want to hire a bunch of people and tell them what to do. I want them to create what they want to create, and I will guide them. Otherwise, every car would be mine, and what's the point of that?"
Designing cars is a complicated business, and even star designers aren't any good, in Marek and Ikeda's eyes, unless they can form a constellation. Ikeda reinforced to his team that they needed to rely on each other. "As we tell any kid that walks into the studio, you're only as good as the modeler who makes it," he told Automobile. "And we tell the modeler that you're only as good as the guy who makes the data off your skin. And we tell the skin guy that you're only as good as the fabricator who makes the car off your skin data. Everyone understands in our studio, that there's not a lot of me, mine, I."
Many years earlier a Formula-One-stirred Ikeda, his brand new team jacket smelling of exhaust fumes, had signed employment papers with Honda. Roughly 26 years later, Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer told Automotive News: "You could argue Ikeda's the human embodiment of Acura."
Even so, in 2015 Ikeda's "not a lot of me, mine, I" commitment was about to be put to the test. At the time, the company brass was beginning to put some of those long-term building blocks that Sloutscher had mentioned into place. One of them would throw Ikeda for a loop.
The Phone Call
Honda had a lot of enlightened principles when it came to design management. But as with any organization, conflict is inevitable. Sometimes there's "an internal strife that you go through, to get to something great," Marek says, just after telling us the anecdote about Ikeda suggesting outside engines. Ikeda "wasn't afraid to be a loud voice."
Marek says those things with admiration. Ikeda's contributions to the brand were incalculable, and when he'd pipe up during meetings, it wasn't to create dissent; it was to defend design, and specifically Acura within its parent company's massive umbrella. "We are a product-based company. We make a lot of things, from lawnmowers to jets," Ikeda says. "Part of that is Acura. But, as all things start to become equal, it becomes more and more important for the brand to stand up: What do you stand for?
"This is critical," he continues. "Even if you're Apple, you don't come up with the iPhone every day, and you know others could start making things that are very similar. So what do you stand for?"
One of Ikeda's key gripes was the disconnect between design and marketing. His team would work hard on something for years, sweating every last design detail, only to see the resultant product mis-marketed at the end, presented as something else. "When we make something, I know what we're doing in design. I know what the designers are trying to do. But by the time it comes out, sometimes on the selling end, there's this disconnect, where the marketing doesn't represent what we were trying to do."
"To a designer or engineer that's working on these products for four or five years, that's your kid. You raise this kid, then time comes to hand the kid off to the sales guy--'Please take care of my kid, please represent him the way we raised him.' Then all of a sudden, they dress him up in another pair of clothes and send him off to do something different, and you're like 'What are you doing?' And now the kid's lost."
"That's what I started complaining about," Ikeda says, "probably too loudly."
The result: One day in 2015, Ikeda got an ominous phone call. An assistant informed him that the CEO wanted to talk to him. And not at the Design Center, but over at Studio 8, where Sales and Marketing was based.
This was irregular. Ikeda asked what all of this was about. No one knew. "You better go talk to them," his boss at R&D said.
At the appointed day and time, Ikeda reported for the meeting.
"Basically, they felt the brand was at a loss, and they were making some changes," Ikeda says. The brass knew he had issues with the sales and marketing side. They also knew he was passionate about the brand. So they presented him with a way to reconcile these things, for the betterment of the company.
In Ikeda's words, here's the gist of what he was told:
"Think you can do better with Sales and Marketing? Then come over and do it."
Ikeda was being promoted--out of design. His new job title would be Acura Vice President and General Manager. That encompassed sales, marketing, service, dealer relations, all fields he had no experience with.
He was stunned. "I've done no sales," he pointed out. "I don't know any of this stuff."
"Don't worry, we'll put people in place to help you with all of that," the company told him. "We need you to refocus the brand."
If Ikeda wasn't crazy about leaving design behind, he couldn't fail to see that it would be beneficial to inject consistency, from a designer's standpoint, into the long process of creating a car and getting a customer behind the steering wheel. Ikeda spoke design. He was design. He knew what the other designers wanted to do. With him in charge of the business end, there would be no danger that a designer's original intent would become diluted or misrepresented by marketers that didn't speak design. It was a personal sacrifice that he couldn't deny would benefit the brand and, at the end of the day, be better for his fellow designers.
"And if things aren't working, and you've got to think your way out of it," Ikeda reasoned, "you're probably better off getting creative people involved."
Ikeda moved his things to his new office at Studio 8.
Acura's Precision Concept: "The North Star"
Acura's Precision Concept, 2016
Meanwhile, Marek and his team were shoring things up on the design side. The mission was "returning Acura to its roots as Precision Crafted Performance," says Marek, invoking the company slogan. "And design is critical to that. We recognized the need to infuse more emotion into our designs."
The Christensen-penned NSX revamp debuted in 2016, checking the emotive-design box. (If you haven't seen the car in person, we recommend making it a point--2D doesn't do it justice. Walk around the car, study it up close. It's stunning.) Acura had their halo car back. But this was just one of the building blocks in the company's strategy, not the end goal.
A six-figure supercar would lure curious masses into the dealership, and several hundred hotshots would buy them each year, no problem; but what Acura ultimately needed was five-figure cars that five figures worth of people would drive home from the dealership in. And these five-figure cars needed to share DNA with the NSX in order to make the sales feasible.
Replicating that DNA would take time, but Marek and his team knew how they'd get started. "The Precision Concept," he explains, "is our North Star. We aim at this."
Revealed the same year as the new NSX, Acura's Precision Concept, also penned by Christensen, was a socks-knocker that debuted at the Detroit Auto Show.
The Precision Concept
The Precision Concept
The Precision Concept
The Precision Concept
It was bold. It was emotive. It was surprising. And the press' reaction to it, illustrating the common perception of Acura at the time, was a remarkably consistent series of backhanded compliments.
- "Acura has been struggling to keep up with Lexus and Infiniti," said Top Speed. "The fact that [Acura's lineup consists of] rather bland corporate design, limited body styles, and a couple of engines didn't help either. But, that may change soon, as the brand just previewed its next design language with a bold looking concept car at the 2016 Detroit Auto Show."
- "If you've been concerned about where Acura was headed, you're not alone. The company has struggled lately," wrote Road & Track. "Part of it has had to do with some unfortunate styling decisions that have been made…. The Precision Concept is what Acura hopes will change all of that."
- "A bold step," wrote Car and Driver, "for a brand teetering on irrelevancy."
Perhaps Acura's designers absorbed the insults, as Ikeda did at that meeting, and waited for their chance to fire off a comeback. One with four wheels.
Back to the Grille Again
Here's the older "beak" grille that had drawn such ire from fans:
Here's the new "diamond pentagon" grille on the Precision Concept:
This should be a transportation design school lesson. While there are myriad minor changes, the major gestural change, which was rotating those two outer lines in towards the center, pulling the headlights with it, completely changes the expression. And gone is the faux-metal, silver plastic band. Instead the emblem floats over a grille made up of dark diamonds radiating outwards from the center. In person the effect is cool, like you're looking at the corner of an anechoic chamber.
Diamond pentagon grille on a 2019 RDX
As a first practical step, the Precision's new grille design was subsequently facelifted into all of the cars in Acura's line-up. (This yielded forum posts from Acura fans like this one: "Hi guys, I have a 2016 ILX with the company's shield grille and was wondering if the new 2019 diamond pentagon grille is a direct fit. Any help would be most appreciated.")
Diamond pentagon grille across the line-up
The grille swap was a positive step forward, but admittedly a minor one. What Acura needed, and wanted, was to produce a full vehicle, from the ground up, that lived up to the promise of the Precision Concept.
Building Blocks Lined Up with Precision
The Precision wasn't a mere design study. "That's not the role of this vehicle," Marek explains. "It's not just a show car. It's also internal PR. This concept sets the direction for the future of our design. [It exists so that] internally, everyone understands and supports the direction."
The Precision Concept
The Precision Concept
Moving forward, every concept sketch, every clay model, every spline would be held up against the Precision Concept. If it aligned, thumbs-up, keep it going; if it didn't, pull out a fresh sheet of paper, put the clay back in the oven, go to File and click New.
Every once in a while you'll see a movie where the city it's set in--usually New York or Los Angeles--is said to be its own character within that movie. Similarly Acura's Design Studio, as much as the individual designers inhabiting it, played a role in what happened next.
"So we have three studios [under Honda's umbrella] in southern California: The Honda Studio; an advanced design studio in downtown L.A.; and us, the Acura Design Studio, where you're standing," Marek says. "We're the only studio in California that has every aspect of design. In this building we do product planning, we do concept, we figure out who the customer is, we do styling.
"We do development all the way through; once [the brass] commits we don't toss the sketches over the wall and say 'build that.' Instead we literally follow the car through every step, staying involved through the physical development, feasibility, working with engineers, everything."
Given the L.A. location, the studio also has access to the best students and graduates from Ikeda and Marek's nearby alma mater, ArtCenter. "We've got a lot of people from a lot of great schools," Marek says, "but ArtCenter is where most of our designers hail from."
And now we see what the building blocks that Sloutscher mentioned to the Ohio newspaper were:
- The Acura Design Studio, led by Marek, is staffed with top talent and has the facilities to develop a car from start-to-finish.
- Ikeda, a designer, is in charge of Acura's business end. Design has their full support.
- The NSX serves as the halo, building brand awareness and getting people to the dealerships.
- The Precision Concept has provided the direction for a new line of vehicles.
Now all they needed to do was execute. The first Acura model scheduled for a re-boot was the RDX, Acura's well-selling but beleaguered-by-competition crossover. The stakes were high. If they screwed this up, they'd lose market share in what had become one of their most important segments.
For the next several years, Acura's designers hunkered down to create an all-new RDX. And for the first time, it would be decoupled from Honda's CR-V platform; the RDX would be its own vehicle.
The car design process has multiple steps, which are all too involved to cover in this article; we'll look at them in detail with the next series of entries, debuting later this week. In the meanwhile, let's look at what Acura's designers emerged from the studio with.
The Redesigned RDX
Marek and his team had done it. Transposing DNA from a sports sedan onto an SUV form factor is not an easy task, but if we look at these shots below, comparing the Precision Concept to the RDX, we can see the spirit and gestures that the design team successfully replicated:
Despite the difference in proportions between the two vehicles, the spirit, the emotion, the character lines are all there. One of the most daring risks the designers took, and in my opinion pulled off, was the C/D pillar on the RDX, preserving the gesture of the Precision's fastback while still providing the proper roof of an SUV. And enough of the cross-contouring from the Precision was ported to the RDX that, if you were blindfolded and running your hands over scale clay models of the two, I believe your fingers would instantly recognize the similarities--and indeed might have a little trouble telling them apart.
That's just my opinion. But what did the automotive press have to say? Here's Road & Track commenting on the redesign:
"The new Acura RDX nails it.
"Behold the exterior. Prismatic, angular, and sleek, the RDX is a handsome, sometimes striking SUV—tidy like a Nakamichi receiver and as Japanese as a Gundam robot. It's not self-consciously restrained like rivals from the Continent. Even the handsome Volvo XC60 looks uneventful by comparison."
"The all-new 2019 [RDX] may be made from the perfect recipe," wrote Automobile Magazine, "to stand out from the rest of the luxury CUV segment. Our tester, in A-Spec trim and deep Performance Red Pearl is a sharp looker to defy the sameness of its rivals….
"The interior design continued the exterior's crisp and sporty lines. Fit and finish was impeccable and the ergonomics were just right."
Ikeda and his team had done it, too. As soon as it hit the market, the RDX posted startling debut figures, beating every other vehicle in its class. As The Drivereported, italics theirs: "The 2019 RDX— the vanguard of a new generation of Acura models—has exploded out of the gate. In June, its opening month in showrooms, the new RDX outsold every compact luxury SUV in America, its 7,292 sales smoking even the Mercedes-Benz GLC-Class, with its 6,608 units moved. The RDX also enjoyed the best sales month of any Acura SUV in history, and the most buyers for any Acura model since the TL sedan in April 2006."
Competition in this segment is fierce, and from month-to-month the top sales crown changed hands several times after June. But by the end of 2018, the RDX had racked up annual sales figures of 63,580, versus 51,295 in 2017, and about the same for the previous two years. This appreciable increase of 12,285 units was in spite of the fact that the car had been launched mid-year; had it debuted in January of 2018, the figures would likely have been even higher.
We'll have to wait until 2019 is through to see how a full year of sales with the new model will turn out; but in February of 2019, the most recent month for which complete sales statistics were available at press time, the RDX had again topped the segment.
Acura had the hit that they needed and wanted. The building blocks had been Spocked into place, and the design team had Kirked their way to a design-affirming victory. This wasn't an easy process but, as Ikeda said up top, Acura can be confident that what they've got going now, works.
What does Acura got going now? At the Acura Design Studio, we took a look at the six design departments all responsible for the redesigned RDX. Here's Part 1: The Stylist.