You would think that after 34 years of having the same guitar teacher, I would be better than I am. Yet that’s not really an accurate statement. From the ages of 12 to 14, I went weekly to The String Shoppe on the Ohio State campus for weekly instruction that frustrated more than it educated. My teacher, also named John, was a former New York studio musician specializing in big band and jazz music. I wanted to play Judas Priest riffs. The results were lackluster, to say the least, so I quit in favor of racing my BMX bike.
Two decades later, I sought John out again for some help in playing the old jazz standards to which I had finally come around. In the years since, he has suffered through a series of health scares and personal reversals, while my travel and parenting schedule has accelerated to something just sort of Warp Speed Nine, so nowadays when we meet it’s on short notice and it’s usually just to noodle around on a James Taylor song or something like “East Of The Sun” for an hour or so. It has been a long time since any money has changed hands.
When I stopped by John’s home studio on Saturday — rather predictably, the two songs we fussed with were “Anywhere like Heaven” and “Over The Rainbow” — he expressed interest in the Lotus Evora 400 I’ve been driving as a “long-termer,” while I noted that he’d chopped in his 2015 Accord LX for a 2018 Acura ILX. The conversation that followed has stuck with me all weekend.
The first part of it had to do with his purchase process, which horrified the car salesman in me. I could see maybe two grand’s worth of “gross” in it.
He’d parted with that 2015 Accord LX, which had something like 16k miles, for nothing above his payoff. A car like that is catnip for used-Honda buyers. I doubt it stayed on the dealer’s lot for 36 hours before earning some salesman with an alert “tickler file” a solid commission. While he’d gotten several thousand bucks off his new Acura, I have a sneaking suspicion there was more to be obtained there as well. The default purchase price for any new Acura is: invoice, minus holdback, minus incentives both factory-to-dealer and consumer-to-dealer. The exception, of course, is the MDX, but this wasn’t an MDX. It was a pearl white ILX “Special Edition” with the 2.4-liter and an eight-speed DCT, basically the base TLX powertrain jammed into a smaller space.
There’s something decidedly odd about the way Honda has decided to freeze its Acura offerings on their old platforms, even as the Civic and Accord march on with all the de rigeur appointments of small-displacement turbo engines, bluff noses, and fastback tails. If you ever doubted that Acura has become Honda’s version of Buick — which is to say, old cars for old people — that alone should dissuade you. Unlike with Buick, however, there’s a little method to Honda’s madness here. If you buy an Acura TLX or ILX, you’re getting a platform with up to 10 years’ worth of engineering history in one form or another. The bugs have been worked out. As with the Lexus ES350, these are vehicles that are ideally suited for long-term ownership.
They semi-kinda know what they are doing. My guitar teacher is in his late sixties now. He thought the new Accord was unpleasant-looking and he didn’t see the need for a turbocharger. So the ILX was a perfect fit. It’s about the size of the first-generation TSX/Euro Accord, which was fine with him. He doesn’t like the way the transmission works, which is virtually universal with DCTs and explains very well why the Germans are abandoning the idea even as Toyota pats itself on the back for having never adopted it on a meaningful scale.
So far, so good. Yet as we were zipping around his neighborhood in the Evora, he said, “You know, I wish I could have gotten a standard shift in the Acura.”
“I think you could have,” I responded, but after a quick check of the media materials I realized that Acura ditched the six-speed a few years ago. The ILX used to come with two powertrain options: the 2.4L/six-speed combo from the old Civic Si, sans limited slip diff, and the two-liter/five-speed slushbox matchup that was also standard in the Civic EX of the time. Both of those options are gone, replaced by the One! Great! Choice! of 2.4/DCT. If you were smart enough to buy the 2.4/manual combo in, say, 2013, congratulations!
I’m seeing some sales of those cars at 50 percent of MSRP or more despite having anywhere from 75k to 105k miles on them. That’s $3,000 in depreciation per year to drive 18,000 miles a year. To put that in perspective: Sports Car Market figured out a while ago that it cost at least fifteen dollars a mile in maintenance expenses to drive a 550 Maranello.
Or maybe that’s not the most appropriate possible comparison. Feel free to make you own, using anything from the turn-of-the-century purchase of a Porsche 993 (the market has actually been paying me to drive mine) to, say, being one of the people who was in a hurry to buy a new Alfa Giulia when they came out. Your mileage may vary.
It’s tempting to crucify Acura for putting the stick-shift ILX out to pasture, since all of the development costs were already paid and retaining the vehicle in the lineup wouldn’t have required much more than a few keystrokes. In truth, however, it’s the dealers who are probably to blame. Acura has about 230 dealerships. In order for six-speed ILX production to make sense, it would have to account for at least five percent of production. Which means a thousand cars, which means four cars for every dealer.
An intelligent, thoughtful, customer-connected dealership would have no trouble moving four stick-shift ILXes a year. You have 10 times that many former owners coming in with six-speed TLs, TSXes, and even the occasional long-hauler with an RSX. All of those people are good sales prospects for your manual ILX volume. Unfortunately, the average Acura dealership is nothing but a punishment tour for a megadealer group or an O.G. Honda superstore. It’s where you banish people who can’t “hold gross” on at least 240 CR-Vs and Pilots a year. It’s a place where they rely on people coming in and basically demanding to be allowed to trade in their current MDX on a new one.
Dealerships like that have no use for six-speed Acura sedans. So they petition their dealer reps to cut those cars out of the mix, the same way many Ford dealers have probably told their reps that they would be just fine with a crossover-only lineup. And since the dealers are the true customers of the manufacturers, that spells the end of interesting Acuras.
In the end, those dealers are costing Honda money. I would have cheerfully paid another $10,000 for a stick-shift Acura TLX instead of my stick-shift Accord V6 coupe. I’m not the only person out there who would have spent that extra money. There are two other people in my 88-home subdivision who bought Accord V6 coupes after seeing mine. Both of them would have spent more for an Acura. So that’s $30k of markup gone. But you can’t make an argument like that to dealers who don’t look past the end of the month.
The more I think about it, the more I think that issues like this constitute pretty much the only unassailable argument for a factory-store model. If Honda owned its dealers, it could provide them with a wider variety of specialist product, the way they do to Japanese-market dealers. A lot of people think that factory stores would give customers a better deal. They’re dreaming, and if you need tangible proof of that it’s as close as your nearest Apple Store. But a factory-owned dealer network would offer more choice to its customers. Those customers might be willing to spend more as a result.
Which is what I asked my old friend and teacher on Saturday. “How much extra would you pay for a stick-shift in that Acura of yours?”
“Oh, well, I wouldn’t want to get ripped off,” he replied. “No more than a few grand.” I wonder how many people like him are out there, demanding discounts on cars they don’t really want because dealers are too lazy to handle the cars they do want. And I wonder how many people will hail the “success” of the all-crossovers-all-the-time model when it arrives, not bothering to notice the consequences for the bottom line, customer loyalty, and whatever remains of what we used to call “automotive enthusiasm.”
Something has come unstuck, that’s for sure, and it’s not just the littlest Acura.