Acura's Expedited MDX Joins Ranks of Luxury SUVs in New York

  • Maserati displays first sport utility at this year's auto show
  • Acura gets sportier design; Lincoln shows gull-wing concept

The New York International Auto Show typically features a lot of luxury models and a few sport utility vehicles. This year, the two come together with a parade of luxury SUVs.

The Lincoln Navigator concept model

Photographer: Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

Honda Motor Co. unveiled a sportier version of its Acura MDX on Wednesday, while Maserati’s first SUV -- priced to start at $72,000 -- made its U.S. debut. Ford Motor Co.’s Lincoln showed a Navigator concept model equipped with gull-winged doors, one sign of the design influence spreading from Elon Musk’s Tesla.

Luxury SUVs are the sweet spot for automakers looking to draw U.S. buyers while gasoline is still cheap and consumers are willing to spend. Sales of the vehicles, which can cost $45,000 or more, jumped almost 17 percent in the U.S. last year while luxury cars declined 4.4 percent. Baby boomers are helping feed the trend with their affluence -- and their aging knees and hips.

“Baby boomers like SUVs because they’re easier to get into and out of,’’ said Michelle Krebs, an analyst at Autotrader.com. “This is where the growth is. This is where you can get higher transaction prices.’’

New York is the logical place for manufacturers to unveil high-end designs because it’s the biggest U.S. market for new and used luxury vehicles, Krebs said. After press days Wednesday and Thursday, the show runs March 25 through April 3.

Expedited Acura

The new Acura MDX SUV

Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg

Automakers are wasting no time to take advantage of the luxury-SUV demand, and for Acura there is added urgency. The redesigned MDX it unveiled at this year’s New York show comes just 2 1/2 years after the current model began hitting showrooms. In past decades, automakers stuck with their existing designs, with much less extensive mid-cycle revisions, for four years or more.

The MDX accounts for a third of sales at Honda’s 30-year-old Acura unit, which has struggled to match German rivals’ performance and luxury cachet. And while it’s still Acura’s top seller, demand for the MDX declined 11 percent to about 58,200 last year -- giving extra importance to the redesign.

“Acura is Buick-like in its positioning -- it’s not perceived as a full-blown luxury brand, nor as being mainstream,’’ said Alan Baum, an independent auto analyst in West Bloomfield, Michigan. “That’s a difficult place to make yourself heard.’’

MDX Redesign

To attract more buyers, Acura gave the MDX a sportier appearance, designer Damen Schell said. The vehicle includes dual exhaust pipes and chrome panels along its sides. The reworked front grille showcases a logo that has grown by 40 percent to just over 6 1/2 inches (16.5 centimeters).

“The current Acura has a sort of soft appeal,’’ Schell said. “We wanted to make it bolder, a little tougher, and at the same time much more luxurious.’’

The new MDX will come with an optional hybrid system that uses electric motors to drive the wheels. This system boosts horsepower by 12 percent to 325, and increases fuel economy in city traffic by 40 percent, to 25 miles (40 kilometers) per gallon.

Acura could have sold more MDXs if its factories had more room, said John Mendel, executive vice president of Honda’s U.S. arm. The company will start building the SUV next year in East Liberty, Ohio, in addition to Lincoln, Alabama.

Maserati’s SUV

Maserati, a luxury unit of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, is using the New York show to introduce the Levante to U.S. audiences after its public debut in Geneva earlier this month.

The automaker is attempting to blend the appeal of Italian styling, the elevated seating and enlarged cargo area of SUVs, and engine options that produce a top speed of 164 miles per hour. The model features an air suspension system that can adjust to five different heights and six levels of capability and comfort.

“The Levante will open up the opportunity of Maserati ownership to a huge category of consumers that may not have otherwise envisioned themselves behind the wheel of an Italian luxury car,’’ said Eric Lyman, vice president of industry insights at researcher TrueCar Inc.

Maserati said the Levante will go on sale in late summer at a baseline price of $72,000.

Lincoln Navigator

The Levante was born from a concept vehicle shown five years ago. Buyers won’t have to wait that long for a new Lincoln Navigator, whose design was revealed Monday night.

This week’s Navigator concept, which Lincoln President Kumar Galhotra said carries “strong hints” about the vehicle that will eventually hit showrooms, comes with a V-6 turbocharged engine producing more than 400 horsepower. Gull-wing doors that swing away from and then over the vehicle were shown on the concept vehicle but won’t be included in the production version.

The SUV’s gear-shifting mechanism resembles keys on a piano. Lincoln tried hard, Galhotra said, to use video screens to present critical data like speed and fuel consumption, without bombarding drivers with too much information.

Eric Noble, president of automotive consulting firm CarLab, praised the Navigator’s retro look, which includes chrome moldings along its sides and a 1950s-style dashboard that stretches all the way across the passenger compartment. Its big scale, with a third row of seats, reflects a U.S. culture that at least partially equates size with luxury, Noble said.

“It used to be, you had to trade off” fuel economy to get the extra size, Ford Chief Executive Officer Mark Fields said after the Navigator’s introduction at the Javitz Center on Wednesday. “That trade-off is a lot less now, because of the technology we’ve been able to employ in our engines.”

SUV Notes

  • Fiat Chrysler’s Jeep brand showed a high-end trim package called the Grand Cherokee Summit, complete with handcrafted leather interior, blind-spot detection and lane-departure warning systems. Michael Manley, global head of the Jeep brand, said the Summit option is important now that Grand Cherokees can sell for more than $45,000 and draw buyers from BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
  • Actor Matthew McConaughey introduced the Lincoln Navigator on stage and said he would stay as its celebrity spokesman for “a few more years.”
  • Porsche product-experience manager Frank Wiesmann said the automaker considers its sports cars and SUVs to be complementary vehicles -- sometimes a sports-car fan just needs extra space. There’s no plan for now to expand beyond the Cayenne and Macan SUVs, he said.
  • While not a luxury model, the 2017 Highlander introduced by Toyota Motor Corp. includes a new front with darker accents in the grille and headlamps, and a 3.5-liter direct-injection V-6 engine to boost horsepower. The model is expected to be available this fall.
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