NEW YORK -- Acura plans more differentiation among its products and may add a smaller vehicle in an effort to double sales.
Honda's luxury brand has fallen hard during the recession. U.S. sales dipped 27 percent to 105,723 vehicles last year. But John Mendel, executive vice president of sales at American Honda Motor Co., said he is aiming at 200,000 -- a level Acura last reached in 2006.
Mendel did not say when he expects Acura to hit that mark but said a new strategy is in the works.
"You will see a clear definition within the portfolio of small, medium and large vehicles," he said. "There will be less blurring between capabilities. There potentially is room for some expansion as well."
Acura is taking a close look at small-premium cars such as the Volvo C30, Audi A3 and BMW's upcoming front-wheel-drive cars. Acura made its early gains with the Integra and RSX in the 1980s and 1990s before killing the RSX after the 2006 model year as the brand tried to move upmarket.
"Those cars were about performance and fun," Mendel said. "We can build on that."
But he said Acura "never had a really clear direction, other than as an intercept brand, a utility player."
Said Mendel: "Everyone considered us entry-luxury or near-luxury. Now we are clearly defining this area of smarter luxury. We have a very strong direction."
Dave Conant, a multiline dealer with a new Acura store in Mission Viejo, Calif., said he doesn't know how quickly Acura can manage such a turnaround.
"I wouldn't bet on those volumes in the next several years, but I wouldn't bet against Honda's ability to pull it out in time," Conant said.
Signs of Recovery
Acura already is showing signs of recovery, according to Edmunds.com. Buyer consideration of the brand has been rising since September and is at a three-year high.
"Acura is suffering no more than the industry overall," said Edmunds analyst Ivan Drury. He added: "Others in the segment have fared far worse."
But Todd Turner, a consultant with Car Concepts in Thousand Oaks, Calif., said Acura is not popping up on shopping lists.
"The brand has polarized its design to such a degree that only a mother could love it," Turner said. "Acura's consideration set is neutral, which basically means they are in a holding pattern for the foreseeable future."
"We don't have any baggage," he said. "We're not anchored by people saying that the brand is too old, too stodgy or too opulent for them. The naysayer says we are not strongly defined. But that means we can be what we want to be and not worry about perception. This is an opportunity for us."
Problem: Closing the Deal
Lincoln Merrihew, an analyst for the Boston market researcher Compete, said that if Acura has a problem, it is not attracting consumer interest; it's converting those shoppers into sales.
According to Compete, Acura converted 21.9 percent of shoppers into sales in 2007. That dropped to 18.8 percent in 2008 and just 13.7 percent in 2009.
Acura's market share has declined as well during the past five years, and the sales slump has been felt across the entire lineup. Acura's volume leaders, the TL sedan and MDX crossover, once sold 75,000 and 60,000 units, respectively. But they fell to just half those amounts last year.
Mendel said as-yet-unveiled products "in the middle of the lineup will give a more clearly defined hierarchy to the brand that isn't so defined today."
Meanwhile, Acura will evolve away from the extreme design used for the ZDX crossover. Mendel said future vehicles will be less polarizing.
"In order to create a ripple, you have to create a splash," he said. "The ZDX sets a tone. We were countering the criticism that Acura was bland. The strength of keen-edge design is in the lines, surface tension where the metal bends. You will see that more and more."