Acura, purveyor of “Precision Crafted Performance,” turns thirty this year. While the days of GS-R and Type R Integras are no more, there’s no denying the impact Acura had on JNC history and car culture. For many of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s — especially in southern California — Acura occupies that special place in our hearts much the same way V8 Chevys do for many a baby boomer. In commemoration, let’s take a look at the beginning of it all.
Launched in 1986, Acura was a bombshell. It was unthinkable at the time: A Japanese luxury car. Sure, there had been premium and full-fledged luxury Japanese cars in the past — examples being some versions of the Toyota Crown, Mazda Luce, and of course Toyota Century and Nissan President — they were sold only in Japan.
Here in the states, Japanese carmakers were not usually viewed as the go-to brands to flaunt one’s status and wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact. Though its MSRP was a steal at $19,298, it was met with indignant cries of, “$20,000 for a Japanese car!?”
By the 1980s, however, Honda and Toyota had firmly established holds on the US market not just in sales, but also in reputation. Despite the Big Three’s ostrich-head-in-sand delusion, quality and reliability were the realm of Japanese cars in the minds of most American consumers. The time was ripe to up the desirability index.
Luxury and prestige were considered the domain of the establishment, the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and Cadillac. To join the club, Honda realized the necessity of a dedicated luxury brand with an impeccable and revolutionary car built for the purpose. Enter Project XX, the car that was become the Acura Legend.
It is always useful to remember the context when viewing classic cars. This is especially the case for Honda, because a big part of its genius was how singular and ahead of its time its cars were. While front-wheel-drive is the most common mechanical layout nowadays, Honda had already widely adopted it by the early 70s. Cars like the Civic and Accord had established and defined Honda as a carmaker. In fact, one can argue that FWD, often with a transversely mounted engine, is as much a technical centerpiece for Honda as, say, rotary was for Mazda.
In this light, it makes perfect sense that the Legend was front-wheel-drive. This was the full-fledged luxury sedan imagined in the Honda ideal. The layout optimized packaging, while the transversely-mounted engine over the drive wheels enhanced traction.
That engine happened to be Honda’s first production V6, the 2.5L 24-valve C25A. With single overhead cams, it engineered to be compact, enabling the ultra-low hoodline that had become a signature of Hondas. The aluminum alloy engine employed many features derived from Honda’s contemporary Formula 1 development, such as cross-bolting of the main bearing and PGM-FI, Honda’s computer-controlled electronic fuel injection. The sophisticated powerplant put out 151 horsepower to the front wheels — suspended by double wishbones — via equal-length driveshafts to control torque steer, with either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission.
Its design reflected its mechanical sophistication: elegant and tasteful, but engineered for function first. A low coefficient of drag (0.32) was achieved by the low hoodline and high rear deck in combination with many flush and trimless body components, as well as a smooth underbody. The innocuous and highly technical design was joined by the subtly blistered fenders, injecting a bit of menace hinting at the car’s touring prowess. The greenhouse was prominent, with generous amounts of glass that endowed the driver with an excellent view of the road and surroundings, another quality characteristic of many classic Honda designs.
Honda’s design traits and attention to detail extended to the interior, too. The build quality was substantial, and the touch surfaces felt top-notch. Of course, everything was logically and tastefully designed, a layout immediately familiar to any Honda enthusiast. Again, the view out the car was clear and panoramic, with the most commonly-used controls placed within the driver’s close reach — a distinctive example being the simplified duplicate controls for its Technics stereo on the instrument pod.
To enhance its touring capabilities, the Legend employed comfortable, well-bolstered seats covered in thick moquette. Thoughtful engineering touches abounded, such as a neatly integrated access panel for fuses above the coin tray, defogger vents atop the door cards with their own shut-off dials, and reading lights for the rear passenger that wouldn’t look out of place on a private jet. Overall, the Legend’s interior may not have had the opulence of an Italian purse, but it was certainly luxurious in a highly functional way with astonishing attention to detail.
Debuted in 1986 for the 1987 model year, it was a runaway hit with critics and the buying public alike. The coupe joined the sedan in 1987, powered by a more spirited C27A engine. These cars reflected Honda’s view of what a high-end luxury car should be: to excel in capability without compromises in quality, efficiency, or usability. Its engineering depth was analogous to that of the later Lexus LS400, a car which it paved the way for. The Legend truly was a precision crafted automobile.
Aptly named, the Legend put an indelible mark for Acura in automobile history. In the next installment, we will look at another car that, for many, would come to define Acura and Honda. To be continued…