(first posted 6/24/2013) Naming cars can be a difficult challenge. Some names are very unfitting; Ford’s Aspire, for example, was the exact opposite of anything ever aspired to. Another misnomer is Lacrosse: Buick named a non-sporty car for a sport about which their average buyer has no clue. On the other hand, if ever there has been one car deserving of its name, it is the Acura Legend. Forgive my boldness, but I believe the ’91-’95 Acura Legends represent the best design ever offered by a Japanese brand.
The Acura Legend was the first Japanese luxury car to be sold in North America. Toyota and Datsun/Nissan had pushed upward with Cressidas and Maximas, but the Legend was the original–a full-fledged Japanese luxury sedan launched under a new brand created specifically as a premium make.
The original Legend was produced from 1986-1990, with styling mostly inline with that of the 1986 Accord: Stretch the Accord a bit in every direction, add composite headlights, and you pretty much had the ’86 Legend sedan. Although not a realistic competitor to say, a Mercedes S-Class, the Legend was every bit what Honda wanted–a larger car with the kind of luxury features and prestige to keep upwardly mobile Accord owners under the Honda umbrella, yet appealing enough to lure buyers who wouldn’t consider a Honda-branded product. The formula worked, and by 1988 the Legend was the best-selling luxury import in the U.S.
The Legend’s success verified the market potential for Japanese luxury brands in the U.S., and in 1989 Toyota and Nissan followed Acura’s lead with their respective Lexus and Infiniti brands, both of which had larger and more lavish V8 flagships. Acura had to update the Legend to remain competitive.
The second-generation Legend arrived as a 1991 model. Bigger, more technologically advanced and considerably more upmarket, the 1991-1995 Legend would never be mistaken for a Honda Accord. Its long, low-slung hood blended into a beltline that swept up at the rear windshield to meet a high trunk lid with an integrated spoiler. The styling was complemented with short front and rear overhangs, flared wheel arches, and a formal roofline, making the new Legend simply breathtaking.
The coupe was even more a sight to behold, with its narrower grille and slimmer headlights leading to a rakish rear roofline and very dramatic rear end. Instead of following Lexus and Infiniti and moving to rear-wheel drive and V8 power, Acura kept its FWD V6 formula.
The sole power train for all models was an all-new SOHC 3.2-liter V6, now longitudinally mounted for improved 60/40-weight distribution. Making 200 horsepower and 210 lbs-ft of torque, it was mated to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. Although that may not sound like much power (in comparison, a 2013 TSX four-cylinder makes 201 hp), it was very competitive 20 years ago, with a 0-60 time of 7.5 seconds for the manual-transmission coupe.
While all models were comfortably appointed, the LS was the top dog. Standard features included heated leather seats, genuine burled walnut trim, automatic climate control and dual airbags, to list just a few. Coincidentally, the LS sedan was the best-selling Legend model throughout this generation’s run.
Nineteen ninety-three brought a higher-output version of the 3.2 and standard six-speed manual to all coupes. Making an additional 30 horsepower, this “Type II” engine, combined with the coupe’s six-speed, upgraded brakes, and suspension, was also available on sedans in a new GS trim level. GS sedans also received the coupe’s body-color grille and sporty 16-inch, five-spoke alloys.
Legends are few and far between in my neck of the woods. However, my recent trip to San Francisco proved a pleasant surprise, with numerous sightings of Legends in good condition. I was truly relieved to discover that there are still plenty of Legends out there.
Our featured CC is an LS sedan, in Canterbury Green with a taupe-leather interior. This exterior color was always my favorite–something other than the 50 shades of gray available on today’s luxury cars. Canterbury Green was offered from ’93-’95. The rear badging was changed for ’94, with new block letters spelling out LEGEND in the center of the trunk lid. So I’ll call this one a ’94. Coincidentally, I recently found a ’94 LS sedan for sale at a Honda dealer in Seattle. It had the same color combination as the one in San Francisco, so it’s only appropriate to use the great interior photos.
Legends have also played a more personal role in my life. While I was growing up, our neighbors across the street owned a black-on-black leather one for some time. In elementary school, my friend’s mother owned a ’91 or ’92 Legend, in Rosewood Brown. I had the good fortune of riding in it several times. It was eventually passed down to my friend’s older brother, and later to my friend himself, as a first car. We’ve lost touch since high school, but I believe he still drives it today.
After the appropriate five-year life cycle, the Legend was redesigned for 1996. The 1996 redesign is probably one of the biggest disappointments in the history of automotive redesigns. In a very evolutionary approach, it kept the overall footprint and many components of the ’95 but melted away all of the Legend’s sculpted lines, aggressive demeanor, in the process stripping it of any specialness, sportiness or personality.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, the car wasn’t even called Legend, but “3.5 RL”, denoting its engine size and “refined luxury”. This change to alphanumeric names over individual nameplates was supposedly to create greater brand association with Acura–but honestly, how many people didn’t know the brand of a popular model that had been on sale for a decade? I can just see that crackpot conversation among product planners: “A research analyst told me not enough people know the Legend is made by Acura. What shall we do?” “I know! We’ll change its name to random letters, and then give it a generic redesign so no one will mistake this Acura for a Legend. Problem solved!”
Not surprisingly, the RL never matched the success of the Legend–not in sales, nor in following. Aside from being the first car to offer an in-dash GPS system in 1997, very few enhancements were made over its run. A 1999 face-lift gave it a slightly more upscale look, but it was far too little and too late for a rapidly aging design that was still to see five more years of production. By that point the RL was selling less than 10,000 units annually, barely an echo of what the Legend achieved.
Changing names doesn’t reduce confusion, it only creates more. I just don’t see any justification for dropping a nameplate that had developed such a loyal following and sold so strongly (it was the best-selling luxury import nameplate for six consecutive years, 1988-1993). I wonder if Acura management knew how un-legendary their new flagship was in comparison with the outgoing Legend. If they did, then perhaps it actually made sense to drop the name it could not live up to. Either way, I think RL secretly stood for Real Letdown.
A much-belated redesign finally occurred for 2005. The 2005 RL was a good car in its own right, even if no one bought it. And I think it captured much of the specialness of the ‘91-‘95 Legend, with its graceful lines, aggressive stance and elegantly appointed interior. Power was up a considerable 75 horsepower, to a total output of 300, and the RL was the first model to debut Acura’s sophisticated Super-Handling AWD system. Its interior featured a dramatic sweeping dash, with attractive materials and numerous high-tech features.
Had the 2005 RL been introduced in 2001, it would have been perfect. But by 2005, higher beltlines, sweeping rooflines and ever-taller trunks were in, and the 2005+ RL looked small and outdated very soon. That impression was only solidified by the 2009 TL, which had grown to nearly the same size as the RL, and now offered essentially the same features for around $10,000 less. Once again, the RL faded into the mist, selling fewer than 5,000 from 2008 onward. When I purchased my TSX this past September there wasn’t a trace of RL to be seen at the Acura dealership; it was neither mentioned in any sales literature, nor was a single example present on the lot.
Its new RLX successor, while nicely appointed and technology-laden, is rather plain looking. Like the original ’86 Legend, it looks too much like an up-sized Accord. It’s still a decent automobile, but lacks the vigor of the 1991-95 Legend.
Often, Acura is criticized for not being on a par with BMW, Mercedes, and even Lexus in terms of luxury and performance. The criticism, while true, is unfair because Acura isn’t their direct competitor. It’s naive to think a $36,000 TL will match a $52,000 E-Class in every area. But not every luxury car buyer needs a track-ready, 400-hp RWD blitzkrieg. As evidence, the bulk of Lexus’ sales come from the ES and RX, both of which are front-wheel drive and heavily related to lesser Toyotas.
Acura has always offered its own take on luxury: reliable Honda components and build quality along with more upscale features and technology. It’s a formula Acura has stuck with since 1986. There is no denying Acura’s take on luxury is not for everyone, perhaps not even many. Had they kept the Legend name and continued its upmarket direction, Acura would probably be a more respected brand today. In any case, it’s a good thing that there are lower-tier luxury brands which, like Acura, offer more than enough luxury, but without pretense.
And I love my Acura. It is a solid and impeccably built, well-rounded machine, with the right balance of sportiness and luxury for me. Today’s Acuras may not be as legendary, but there’s still a justifiable difference between the features, performance, and material quality of a regular Honda.
And on that rather personal tangent, one last look at our Legend. Simply beautiful, truly a Legend.