Automotive History: 1997 Acura EL – It Worked in Canada

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Do you see a Civic? So does everyone else. Like the narrow-bodied Pontiacs of old, the 1.6EL is a curious Canadian-only vehicle that has an interesting story to tell. Especially nowadays when the ideas behind the EL have graduated from Canada to being an integral part of the Acura lineup everywhere it is sold in the form of the ILX. Based on the tale I’m about to tell you, it should do fine. But will it?

EL front

One way to go around the problem of moving a brand downmarket, is to do what Sloan’s Cadillac did in 1927, and introduce a new brand to move downmarket (LaSalle, in this case) without compromising the parent’s image. The good thing about doing this is that it works both ways, as Honda demonstrated when it launched Acura in 1986. That way they got rid of all the stigma of people having to pay luxury-car prices for something with a Honda badge. Plus you get people talking about this cool new brand that’s backed by such a good company as Honda. So long as it doesn’t have a Honda badge.

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Early on, Acura moved quickly up luxury car sales charts thanks to very compelling products. However, it seems that Canada wasn’t having much of the entry-level Integra. What they were having a lot of was another Honda – the Civic. During these years, the Civic was working up to become the best-selling passenger vehicle in Canada, a spot that it reached in 1997 and one it hasn’t left despite stiffer competition and that rather unfortunate redesign in 2012. Honda had been producing the Civic in their plant in Alliston, Ontario since 1988 and, I imagine, developing a new vehicle to suit their very specific (read: Civic-crazy) needs.

1997 1.6 EL

And so, in 1997 the Acura 1.6EL was released as a replacement for the Integra. It would come back another day in the form of the RSX. But replacing something that was always (on this continent at least) an Acura with something transparently based on your company’s value offering is very dangerous ground: the smart-buying public that wants a small luxury car can smell a phony product at fifty paces and will run into another brand’s loving arms if it feels duped.

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The initial signs were not promising. Despite the TL-ized front end, exclusive alloy wheels (optional), body moldings and reworked lights, it was very difficult to hide the fact that this was very much a Honda Civic in drag. Under the hood it had the exact same 127HP 1.6-liter inline-four as in the Civic EX. From the Civic SI it got a reworked and stiffened suspension and sway bars for superior handling.

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The interior also looked similarly unchanged. Comparing it to the normal Civic interior, the differences are minor. The center console was slightly reworked, better-ish materials were used and the instruments were bathed in an orange LED glow.

EL interior

It also received a very generous dollop of noise insulation. The EL offered buyers features one couldn’t get in a Civic like remote keyless entry and decklid, a rear window-integrated radio antenna, and rather nice optional leather upholstery. Other features optional on Civics, such as a sunroof and cruise control, came as standard in the EL.

EL exterior

The 1.6EL, with its high specification and sporty suspension, was seemingly targeted at that upwardly mobile junior. Possibly buying his or her first brand new car, this demographic wanted something with Civic’s reliability and ease of ownership, but desired something with a little more prestige and class associated with an upmarket brand. This was reflected in the EL’s price: CA$17,800. That’s just a few dollars north of CA$25,000 today, or about ten grand more than what 2015 Civic sedan goes for. So, did these minor changes add up to something Acura would profit from? Did Acura manage to get their balance absolutely right? Did the Acura hit the spot with their first Canadian-built vehicle?

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The EL flew off dealer lots, quickly becoming the best-selling Acura in Civic-crazy Canada. Admittedly, these numbers weren’t astronomical, as Acura sales in Canada have never topped 26,000 in their best year, but the EL did manage to account for nearly 50-percent of Canadian Acura sales in its first two years. For comparison, first year EL volume was about one-seventh that of the Civic.

EL and Civic

When the seventh-generation Civic came along in 2001, Acura didn’t stray too far from their winning formula: take a Civic, add a touch of refinement, some additional new features, and a modicum of extra performance.

Acura CSX

With the introduction of the eighth-generation Civic they decided it was time for a name change, and the EL became the CSX. Once again featuring slightly modified styling from the North American-spec Civic, the CSX shared its front and rear fascias with the Japanese domestic market Civic. As a matter of fact, the CSX was developed before the JDM Civic, so in this case, one might say the Honda is actually the rebadged variant. The 2006-2011 CSX never achieved the same sales volume as the EL however.

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For 2012, Acura’s smallest Canadian offering was renamed again, although still Civic-based. The biggest change was that this model was now sold in the U.S. as well. In comparison to the EL and CSX, the Acura ILX looks considerably different from the Civic. Its sheet metal (including doors) is all unique, with a longer hood, different roofline, and more aggressive lines giving it a more “cab-rearward” athletic look. The interior is also entirely different, with many upgrades and a distinctive look.

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Unfortunately, it seems that not everyone in the world is as fond of it as the Canadians were of the EL in those early days. The ILX has been somewhat of a slow seller in both Canada and the U.S. and Acura hopes that a redesigned 2016 version will correct that, giving it a better chance against new competitors such as the Audi A3, BMW 2-Series, and Mercedes CLA. If you ask me, I still don’t think it will work out so well this time.