Honda’s Acura goes hybrid in challenge to BMW, Mercedes

Honda Motor wants to boost sales of its Acura premium brand with a new “flagship” sedan that uses two electric motors and a V-6 gasoline engine to generate V-8 luxury-car power and small-car fuel economy.

The RLX, replacing the current RL sedan, goes on sale early next year, Honda said at the car’s debut yesterday at the New York International Auto Show. The large hybrid sedan uses a new 3.5-liter gasoline engine which, in combination with the electric motors and lithium-ion battery pack, delivers 370 horsepower while averaging 30 miles (48 kilometers) per gallon in combined city and highway driving, Honda said.

The model follows the revamped RDX crossover, on sale this month, and ILX sedan due in May as Honda seeks to make Acura, the oldest premium brand from an Asian carmaker, a stronger competitor to Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW)’s, Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz and Toyota Motor’s Lexus. Honda targets a 46 per cent increase in Acura US sales this year.

While Honda makes high-powered V-8s for race cars, the Tokyo-based company has avoided them in Honda- and Acura-brand sedans and light trucks. The RLX is positioned against premium sedans, including BMW’s high-powered 5 Series and 7 Series, Mercedes’ E-Class and Lexus GS and LS models, that have base prices ranging between $47,000 and $71,000.

The RLX “is significant in terms of the gains in gas mileage, but does the buyer in that segment really put gas mileage as a top priority?” said Jesse Toprak, an industry analyst for TrueCar.com in Santa Monica, California. “Styling, prestige, the brand image, tend to be more important for these buyers.”

‘Acura DNA’

Tetsuo Iwamura, Honda’s executive vice president, said in a December interview the company’s new hybrid and “super- handling” all-wheel-drive system that’s being used on both the RLX and racing-style NSX supercar that goes on sale in about two years will distinguish Acura from competitors.

“We have created a true luxury sedan based on our Acura DNA,” Iwamura, who is also president and head of Honda’s US unit, said in a statement yesterday.

Separately, Lexus yesterday in New York showed a redesigned ES sedan, a competitor to Acura’s TL, that will also be available this year in a hybrid version for the first time. Lexus already sells hybrid CT hatchbacks and HS sedans to luxury buyers, as well as gasoline-electric versions of its RX sport- utility vehicle and GS and LS sedans.

The 2013 ES 300h, featuring the “spindle” grille Lexus previously added to its revamped GS sedan, will combine a 4- cylinder engine with a battery pack and motor that gives the car a combined 40 mpg in city and highway driving, the company said. The front-wheel drive sedan will also be sold with a 3.5-liter V-6, Lexus said.

Acura’s peak

Acura US sales peaked at 209,610 vehicles in 2005 and slid to 123,299 last year. Honda wants the brand to sell 180,000 cars and trucks in 2012.

A base version of the RLX will be offered as a front-wheel drive model with only a V-6 engine car, the company said. Honda didn’t give pricing for either version, or immediately provide an annual sales target for the RLX.

Sales of RL, Acura’s top-end sedan since 1996, peaked at 17,572 in 2005. US deliveries of the model, which has a $47,700 base price, plunged to 1,096 last year.

The RLX’s fuel economy is 50 percent better than the current RL, which averages 20 mpg, according to Acura’s website.

The exterior look of the RLX may be too conservative, Toprak said. “They got the gas mileage right, but the styling may be wrong.”

Acura is based in Torrance, California. Honda’s American depositary receipts fell 2.8 percent to $37.32 at the close in New York yesterday. They’ve risen 22 percent this year.

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