If you were at all car-aware in the 1990s and 2000s, Acura was squarely on your radar. From the brand's first Legends, to the iconic Integra, to the follow-up RSX and the halo-status NSX, Acura's lineup always included something for the gearheads among us, complete with honest-to-goodness manual transmissions.
Not anymore. Come the 2016 model year, the only three-pedal vehicle left in Acura's lineup—the somewhat slow-selling, Civic-based ILX—will lose its six-speed stick in favor of a dual-clutch automatic.
That's a strange shift for the brand that helped define the affordable end of automotive enthusiasm in North America these past three decades. Who's to blame?
Broadly speaking, it's all of us. Which is to say, American car buyers and our vehicular preferences.
"The trend is clear for Acura as it has been for virtually every premium brand as well as mainstream brands," Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst at Navigant Research, told R&T. "There has been a shift in the marketplace away from cars to crossovers and SUVs."
The numbers bear this out: Navigant's research shows a steady increase in CUVs as a percentage of Acura's sales. It also shows a bit of an overall sales slump in the mid-2000s, from which Acura has only partly recovered.
Sam Abuelsamid, Navigant Research
Climbing out of that ditch means Acura has to focus on moneymakers, not fringy enthusiast offerings. And that, of course, means self-shifting crossovers, not the sprightly hot hatches we remember from the Fast & Furious heyday.
"Demand for manuals in cars in the U.S. market has always been low, and that is even more true in utilities," Abuelsamid explains. "As car sales volumes have continued to shrink over the past decade, and emissions and fuel economy regulations get tighter, it gets increasingly difficult to justify the resources necessary to engineer, calibrate and certify a manual transmission for diminishing volumes."
"But wait," the stick-shift purist in all of us cries. "Honda still sells plenty of manual transmission cars. Why can't Acura?"
It's a volume problem. "Three models—Accord, Civic and CR-V—each sell more than twice as many units as the entire Acura brand," Abuelsamid explains. "In each case, the number of manual-equipped vehicles likely exceeds the volumes of any single Acura model. From a business case, it's easier to justify the resources to develop and certify a manual for the Honda than for an Acura."
And don't forget: Outside of the North American market, Acura barely exists at all. The Acura RL doubles as a Honda Legend in Asia; the old TSX was a rebadged Euro-market Accord, but that's gone; the ILX, TLX, and other crossovers barely register a footprint outside North America.
This is the only "shifter" you'll get on your Acura RLX or V6-powered TLX. Photo: Acura
Viewed through that pragmatic lens, it's almost a wonder that Acura was able to enjoy its 90s and 2000s gearhead boom times at all.
"Acura was in the right place at the right time 15 to 20 years ago," Dave Sullivan, an analyst with AutoPacific, told us. "The whole import-tuner scene focused on Honda and Acura. Remember when people used to steal HID headlights off Acuras to put them on their Honda?
"Acura was selling cars with all the go-fast stuff on it from the factory. Then the CUV craze hit."
Both Abuelsamid and Sullivan point to the same clutch of reasons you hear every time a carmaker drops its third pedal: A low stick-shift take rate makes designing, engineering, calibrating and certifying a manual model exceedingly expensive. Today's automatics are both faster and more fuel-efficient than the row-your-own varieties, reversing the manual's long-held advantages.
"It's a lot easier to optimize a vehicle for maximum EPA fuel economy label values using an automatic transmission," Abuelsamid points out.
"Americans would rather hold their phones and drink kale smoothies instead of shift gears," Sullivan groans.
And then there's the reality that, even for those of us who steadfastly clutch our console-sprouted soul-stirrers, today's autonomous cog-swappers just plain do the job better than us. "If you want performance, you can get the car to do the work," Sullivan points out. "Look at the GT-R. Look at the new CTS-V."
So, yes. 2016 will be the dawn of an unprecedented, clutchless era for Acura. In a way, we can only blame ourselves—or at least, our non-enthusiast neighbors, the ones who sneered at the loud, lowered, garish Integras that some of us clung to (including Car and Driver photographer Michael Simari, whose thoroughly-abused track rat you see above). The same ones who ignored the three-pedal TSX sedan in favor of the auto-only MDX crossover, Acura's strongest seller in 2014 by more than a three-to-one margin.
Will it last forever? It's hard to say. Right now, Acura's lineup doesn't hold much for enthusiasts. That will change when the long-awaited 2016 NSX hits the market, of course.
Then again, the NSX only comes with one transmission, and it's the kind that only uses two pedals.
Top photo: CAR and DRIVER / Michael Simari