(first posted 5/17/2016) Billed as “Precision Crafted Performance”, Acura, Honda’s upscale brand, launched in March 1986 with the sporty-looking Integra 3-door and 5-door hatchbacks, and the conservative yet sleek-styled Legend luxury sedan. Although these models achieved immediate success both in sales and customer satisfaction, Honda couldn’t waste a minute letting Acura get stale as Toyota and Nissan were readying their own luxury divisions. With the two most important market segments covered, Acura’s next move was to enter the shrinking, yet still potentially profitable personal luxury coupe market with the 1987 Legend coupe.
Despite sharing a common name, the Legend coupe was in fact a very different car from the Legend sedan. Riding on its own unique platform, the Legend coupe featured entirely different sheetmetal and all structural components from the A-pillars back were entirely unique. Only the underbody panels around the engine bay were shared with the sedan.
The 2.7L SOHC 24-valve V6 residing in that bay was also exclusive to the coupe, at least until 1989 when it found its way into the mildly refreshed sedan. Derived from the sedan’s 2.5L V6, the larger displacement 2.7L featured a 3mm larger bore and a sophisticated variable intake control system to maximize torque from idle through mid-range rpm for better low- and mid-range performance. Total output was 161 horsepower and 162 pound-feet torque.
This advanced engine was designed to achieve high output and efficiency, while remaining lightweight and externally compact, allowing the Legend to retain its low, aerodynamic hoodline. In order to achieve this, lightweight aluminum alloy was used for the engine block and cylinder heads, and cylinder bore angle was kept at 90 degrees. The single overhead cam configuration was retained for compactness, but to increase efficiency, valvetrain was designed using the same port shape and crossflow configuration normally found in dual overhead cams.
The standard transmission was a 5-speed manual, while a dual-mode electronically controlled 4-speed automatic with torque converter lockup was optional. Although a relatively common feature in modern cars, the Legend featured a rather novel for the time selectable Sport mode. When shifted past drive into sport, gears would be held longer to shift at higher rpms at partial throttle openings in first, second, and third gears for quicker acceleration and a generally sportier feel.
Regardless of model, all Legends featured a sophisticated four-wheel independent, double wishbone suspensions for both the front and rear, for superior handling and driving dynamics. Speed-sensitive power assisted rack-and-pinion steering was also standard, as were four-wheel disc brakes. Anti-lock brakes were standard on the mid-level L and up-level LS trims. A driver’s airbag was initially standard only on the LS, but was made standard across the board in 1989.
Dimension-wise, the coupe rode on a 106.5-inch wheelbase (2.2 inches shorter than the sedan), and at 188 inches long and 53.9 inches tall, was about two inches shorter and one inch squatter than its sedan counterpart. As stated, designers gave the coupe an entirely new body with no sheetmetal shared between it and the Legend sedan. Versus the more smooth-sided sedan, the coupe featured more aggressively flared front and rear fenders, as well coke bottle rocker panels for a bolder and more sensual appearance.
Along with an airy greenhouse, thin B-pillars were nearly hidden from outside due to the frameless bronze-tint windows, giving the Legend coupe the illusion of being a true hardtop. Unlike most personal luxury coupes by this point, the Legend’s rear windows did actually roll down, though unfortunately, the uppermost portion remained exposed due to the intrusion of the rear wheel wells.
Although there was still a familial resemblance to the Legend sedan and other Hondas, chiefly the Prelude, the Legend coupe had a distinct ambiance of its own. With a slimmer grille and taillights, lower nose and decklid with integrated spoiler, and lower roofline with steeper rear windshield rake, the Legend coupe exuded a sleeker and more grounded stance than the sedan, in true coupe fashion.
Inside, things were more familiar, as the Legend coupe and sedan shared the same ergonomic dashboard, center console, and forward portion of the door panels with one another. Standard interior features for the 1988 model year included power windows and door locks, cruise control, air conditioning, AM/FM stereo with cassette, illuminated entry, tinted windows, and driver’s adjustable thigh and lumbar support.
Base model Legend coupes featured full moquette fabric upholstery, while up-level L and LS coupes featured leather seating surfaces, door panels, rear interior panels, and wrapped steering wheel. Per this car’s 1988 model year, in addition to leather, L models also added a power glass sunroof with sunshade, 10-way power driver’s seat, security system, and heated exterior mirrors.
LS models further upped the ante with automatic climate control, a driver’s information system, premium Bose sound system, and driver’s side airbag. By this generation’s final 1990 model year, the LS had also gained genuine burled walnut interior trim, a 4-way power passenger’s seat, and a standard rear decklid spoiler. Although I personally find the frequently seen Ivory interior color scheme very attractive, one could still get a Legend with blue or burgundy interior, in addition to gray and black.
Just like its preceding sedan counterpart, the Acura Legend coupe was met with overwhelming praise for its driving dynamics, luxury features, technology, and overall refinement. Motor Trend named it their “Import Car Of The Year” for 1987, and Car and Driver named it one of their “10Best” in 1988, 1989, and 1990, among other top honors. With its sportier nature and more distinctive appearance, the Legend coupe even one-upped the Legend sedan in the positive press department.
(Vintage review from the Canadian TV series “Driver’s Seat”)
It should be noted that with a base price of $23,096 USD ($46,491 as of May 2016) in 1988, at the time, the Legend coupe was most expensive Japanese car imported to the U.S. Equally noteworthy, was that in light of undercutting the prices of cars it was positioned against (including the BMW 635CSi, Mercedes-Benz 300CE, and Volvo 780), by upwards of $20,000 USD, most concurred that the Legend was a solid and viable competitor. Buyers seemed to agree too, as Legend sales soared to over 70,000 units in 1988, making it the best-selling import luxury nameplate in the U.S., consecutively from 1988-1993.
The first generation Legend coupe continued with minor updates mainly limited to comfort, convenience, and safety features and color/trim options through the 1990 model year. For 1990, the Legend coupe received new taillight clusters with pink-colored turn signals/reverse lights (which the featured ’88 Persian Red Legend sports) and LS models gained a standard body-color spoiler.
The Legend was completely redesigned for the 1991 model year, growing in size, power, and luxury to better compete with flagships from the newly-created Lexus and Infiniti divisions, as well as the perennial benchmarks, the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class (which wasn’t officially called that yet). Placing a greater emphasis on performance, styling was brawnier and a larger, longitudinally-mounted 3.2L V6 was standard, with the higher output Type II version producing 230 horsepower.
My own amateur photographs of this Olympia White 1988 Legend base model from June 2013 in the Russian Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, CA
A very special thanks to my buddy Tyson Hugie for allowing me to use the professional photos by John Bazay of his now no longer owned Persian Red 1988 Legend L in Scottsdale, AZ