Lost Legend (Part Two)

We continue the story of the Honda Legend, a car that will soon be consigned to history.

1990 Acura Legend sedan (second-generation). Image: hondanews.com

The second-generation Legend was launched in October 1990 in both saloon and coupé form. Surprisingly, given the relative youthfulness of the superseded model, the new car was not a reskin, but an all-new design which shared nothing with either it or its Rover 800 sibling.

The new Legend was a significantly larger car. The saloon’s wheelbase grew by a substantial 150mm (6”) to 2,910mm(1) (114½”), while overall length grew by 140mm (5½”) to 4,950mm (195”). The growth in size negated the possibility of a smaller, more tax efficient JDM version(2). The new model was now a more direct competitor for the BMW 7 Series and Jaguar XJ saloon.

The most significant mechanical revision was that the engine was now mounted longitudinally rather than transversely. Honda indicated that this layout was more conducive to achieving the best levels of mechanical refinement and minimising noise in the cabin. To keep a low bonnet line, the V6 engine retained its unusual 90° configuration, but was otherwise completely redesigned. Its capacity was increased to 3.2 litres, producing power of 212bhp (158kW) and torque of 221lb ft (300Nm). The SOHC cylinder heads were revised, with equal length rockers for inlet and exhaust valves that no longer required pushrods to actuate the latter. The engine was positioned behind the front axle line, giving the car what Honda called a FWD midship design and optimising its weight distribution.

Car Magazine tested the new Legend saloon in December 1990. The reviewer seemed to be rather miffed that Honda had decided to go it alone and no longer co-operated with Rover on its flagship saloon. He contended that the Japanese automaker “acknowledges, grudgingly, that it learnt a lot” from Rover but there was now “a streak of confidence, perhaps arrogance, at Honda”.

The reviewer was also perplexed by the fact that, rather than try to understand why “the first Legend flopped in Europe and barely kept its head above water in Japan”, Honda had simply designed the new model to suit more precisely the tastes of the American market, where the first had been most successful. He was also underwhelmed by the smooth, aerodynamic(3) styling of the car, describing it as looking “like an Accord”, an observation not intended to be taken as a compliment.

Smooth: 1990 Acura Legend coupé (second-generation). Image: favcars.com

Whatever his reservations, the reviewer had to acknowledge the static and dynamic qualities of the new Legend. The interior “continues the Honda tradition of elegant simplicity” but “has a richness not seen before”. The level of standard equipment was high, with heated, power-adjusted seats, driver’s and (optional) front passenger’s airbags. The car’s ride quality was “exceptional…at least on a par with a good Mercedes”. It also handled well, “with good turn-in and stable, confidence-inspiring tracking”. The Legend had the “same intangible feel of solidity and strength as a Benz”.

For all those positive attributes, the reviewer summarised the Legend in a rather mean-spirited manner, saying that it “is sure to be a huge success in America” but he could “see no reason for it to achieve any special success in Europe”. It was “a worthwhile improvement, but…not yet [a] justification for arrogance”.

As predicted, the Legend continued to find most sales success in North America. After two years, the engine was uprated to produce 232bhp (173kW). Otherwise, the Legend remained on the market for a total of five years with only minor trim and equipment changes before being superseded by the third-generation model in October 1995(4). Total US sales over five years were 208,982(5).

Cautious: 1995 Honda Legend (third-generation). Image: drom.ru

The new Legend was a cautious evolution of the 1990 second-generation model, with which it shared the same platform and wheelbase. Overall dimensions were virtually unchanged. There would, however, be no third-generation coupé variant and the US Acura version dropped the Legend name in favour of RL. This was done to differentiate Acura further from Honda and emphasise the marque rather than individual model names, following the lead of Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus.

1995 Honda Legend (third-generation). Image: remarkablecar.com

The new model reprised the same qualities of its predecessor. It was beautifully engineered and built, very well equipped and dynamically accomplished, but still lacked a strong marque image, whether sold as a Honda or an Acura. It remained on the market for nine years with only minor trim changes, additional equipment and a mid-term facelift in September 1998. The latter introduced a larger shield-shaped grille that encroached into the front bumper. Total US sales over nine years were 110,866, while European sales were just 3,802 over the same period.

It was now clear that sales of the Legend / RL were in an accelerating long-term decline. Average US annual sales for the first-generation model were 53,769. For the second-generation model, the figure was 41,796 and for the third-generation model, just 12,318. A different approach was needed to arrest the decline.

Sporting: 2004 Honda Legend (fourth-generation)

The 2004 fourth-generation Legend / RL was a completely new design with a more aggressively sporting look in place of the quiet formality of previous generations. A new 3.5 litre V6 was introduced, now with a more conventional 60° angle between the cylinder banks and reverting to the first-generation model’s transverse orientation. It was fitted with Honda’s VTEC system, which varied valve opening and timing to enhance performance at higher revs, while improving fuel economy at lower engine speeds. The new engine produced 296bhp (221kW).

The most significant technical change was the adoption of four-wheel-drive. This was done because there was a perception that front-wheel-drive was regarded as incompatible with buyer’s expectations of a premium sporting saloon. The wheelbase was shortened by 111mm(4¼”) to 2,799mm (110¼”). Overall length was reduced by 33mm (1¼”) to 4,917mm (193½”).

2004 Honda Legend (fourth-generation). Image: topspeed.com

Auto Express magazine tested the Legend in March 2007 and was underwhelmed. As was often the case with Honda engines, maximum torque was not achieved until a relatively high 5,000rpm and, coupled with an automatic transmission with only five speeds and widely spaced ratios, the car “never feels particularly enthusiastic”. That said, handling was almost the equal of the BMW 5 Series and ride quality was better than the M Sport version of the latter. A low roofline and short wheelbase (for its class) meant that accommodation was rather limited, and the styling was described as “bland and anonymous”. Overall, it was rated at two stars out of five.

The fourth-generation Legend / RL remained on the market for eight years, achieving US sales of 45,446, an annual average of just 5,681. The change in approach clearly had not worked. Potential buyers cited the lack of a V8 engine option and ‘pure’ rear-wheel-drive versions as reasons for shunning the model. European sales were inconsequential: just 3,036 Legends found buyers before the model was withdrawn in 2009.

The fifth and, as we now know, final-generation Legend (now dubbed RLX in Acura guise), was launched at the Los Angeles motor show in November 2012 and went on sale in March 2013(6). Two versions were offered, an FWD model with the 3.5 litre engine and an AWD hybrid model with three electric motors, two at the rear and one at the front, driven by a 1.6kWh Lithium-Ion battery pack mounted behind the rear seat. The hybrid version had improved front-to-rear weight distribution, 57:43 vs 61:39 for the standard car, but also weighed a substantial 357lbs (162kg) more.

Tech-fest: 2020 Acura RLX (fifth-generation). Image: autotrader.com

The car was another technical tour-de-force. The V6 engine again featured Honda’s VTEC system as well as VCM (Variable Cylinder Management) which disabled one bank of cylinders under light loads. Maximum power and torque were 310bhp (231kW) and 272lb ft (369Nm). The FWD model featured four-wheel steering and the AWD model was equipped with a sophisticated traction control system.

The exterior design was strangely anonymous, however. The car (again) looked like an enlarged Accord with hints of contemporary Lexus. By now, the move from saloons to crossovers was accelerating and only the premium marques with the strongest images could resist this trend, to some degree at least. Total US sales of the RLX from 2013 to 2020 inclusive were just 17,341, an average of just 2,168 per year. In the face of such a precipitous decline, Honda’s decision to discontinue the Legend / RLX has to be the right one.

Despite all its technical sophistication, its static and dynamic qualities, a multitude of advanced features and exemplary build quality, the Legend has never succeeded in lifting its maker into the ranks of the automotive elite. The company appeared to lose its way with the third-generation model, which was too cautious an update of its predecessor and remained on the market for far too long.

The switch in emphasis from luxury to sporting saloon with the fourth-generation model was a gamble that failed because buyers of the latter want marque recognition, not discreet anonymity. The fifth-generation model, for all its technical sophistication, was probably the least accomplished in design terms so, sadly, the Legend will bow out with a whimper in 2022 and quickly be forgotten.

 

(1) This was the longest wheelbase on any mass-production Japanese car at the time.

(2) Japanese customers were instead offered the Vigor, an Accord with luxury trim.

(3) The Cd was 0.34, actually slightly inferior to the first-generation car’s 0.32.

(4) The second-generation Legend saloon was licenced to Daewoo and produced as the Arcadia in South Korea from 1994 to 1999.

(5) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.

(6) The Honda version was not introduced in Japan until February 2015 and was never offered in Europe.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

41 thoughts on “Lost Legend (Part Two)”

  1. Another excellent installment in this series, Daniel. I’ve always liked the second generation Legend. A large car without design fripperies. Only clean lines, good proportions, solid engineering and nothing more. Of course hardly anyone bought it in the Netherlands.

    I saw a very well kept coupe on October 24th last year and had to take a quick shot of it and send it to a friend in the States who is big on Honda. The photo isn’t that great, since I only had one opportunity to take it, as I was waiting at a traffic light and nearly home.

    1. Good morning Freerk. I agree, the second-generation Legend (especially the saloon for me) was a delightful design, smooth and minimalist. It was one of those ‘perfect’ designs where nothing could be added or taken away to improve it. Here’s a nice photo of it:

      The first-generation model was a bit fussy for my taste, compromised by the need to offer it in two sizes, hence those wheel arches, which I thought looked a bit odd on a formal saloon.

    2. Agree re: the second gen Legend – a fine piece of design. The coupe looked just like the sedan but with two fewer doors, but was in fact subtly (and no doubt expensively) different almost everywhere.

      Unfortunately, it drove like a boat. Great drive train of course (it’s a Honda, what do you expect?) but use anything approaching half throttle and the front end would rise up from the street and the car would sit back on its rear springs. Lift off or brake, and all that weight in the nose would come down again, hard.

      I guess the answer was to buy one out of warranty and fit some coil-overs. Ah well, too late now. Yet another missed opportunity in my automotive life.

      I very much want a 4th gen Legend (the last one sold in the UK) but I, ahem, fear I’ve missed the boat with that now, too.

    3. Hi Jacomo. One of those subtle differences between the second-generation saloon and coupé was the treatment of the rear panel. The saloon had tail lights that wrapped around into the rear wings, whereas the coupé had inset tail lights.


      I wonder was the difference driven by aesthetics or aerodynamics?

    4. That Mk2 rear reminds me of the following and that certainly is not meant as a compliment

  2. Agreed, the second-generation Legend is very pleasant indeed. I do wonder whether or not Pininfarina were indirectly involved, as they’d been in the two previous generations of Honda designs. My assumption would be that Honda were left to their own devices this time around, but applied plenty of what they’d learned from their colleagues at Cambiano over the previous decade.

    Personally, cars like the second-generation Legend helped define my younger self’s impression of Honda as the most sophisticated of the Japanese manufacturers. There was a quiet confidence to those cars’ appearances that I appreciated even at a young age.

  3. In side profile, there is more than a touch of the E38 7-Series about the Mk2 Legend. I too rather like its sober and refined look – if I were to quibble I would say that the boot is a tad too lengthy aft of the rear axle and a little bulky too. I think the 2-star Car rating seems very mean-spirited and, as you say, maybe the author had the hump somewhat about Honda leaving Rover behind with its new large executive class car. Who was the author, as an aside?

    We had a jolly debate here many moons ago comparing the fourth generation car with the C6 as left-field choices in this class. I’ve always liked the fourth-gen car and still admire it on the rare occasions that I come across one. It was something of a chassis tour-de-force, had attractive styling and looked good inside too – I’d still be tempted if the C6 died and I could find a decent example, even though they are getting on a bit now and parts might be hard to come by.

    Thanks for the short series, Daniel, always informative and providing a solid platform for a debate.

    1. Hi Christopher and S.V. Yes, the second-generation Legend is a really delightful example of Honda’s quiet sophistication and elegance. How I miss that now! The Car Magazine journalist who was so sniffy about it was someone called Kevin Radley, not one of the magazine’s big hitters, as far as I am aware , at least.

      The fourth-generation model is also a good looking car, but it doesn’t say ‘Honda’ to me at all. It has a ‘Bangle Butt’ (but more neatly executed) rear end, hints of the Peugeot 607 in its side profile and a generic American sedan front end. It all hangs together very nicely, though:

      That is more than one can say for the fifth-generation model, which is easily the worst of the lot.

    2. I think Kevin Radley was a Japanese resident who became CAR’s correspondent for a time. If memory serves correctly, he didn’t write for CAR for that long because he was killed in a crash a year or two after that. Maybe he had some other animus with Honda’s people, or maybe he was trying to match what he believed were his readers expectations.

    3. Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, Michael. That would explain why his name wasn’t familiar to me. Apparently, he was formerly an automotive industry analyst for Jardine Fleming Investment Services Ltd. in Tokyo.

    4. The Mk2 is a superb looking car and getting better with age, but that Mk4 could be the poster child for gimpy FWD proportions with it’s cab forward stance, high bonnet line, and front wheel tucked all but into the door shutline; it’s an object lesson in how FWD cars, and saloons in particular, always look rubbish.

    5. Hi David. The second-generation Legend was, of course, also a FWD car, but the difference in stance is, I would suggest, because it (and the third-generation model) had longitudinal engines, instead of the transverse installation of the first, fourth and fifth-generation models. The high bonnet line on the fourth and fifth-generation models was because of a switch from 90° to 60° V6 engines.

  4. The second generation Legend is a design that would be in museums and referred to with reverence if it had been a European car. It´s quite distinctive and not to be mistaken for anything else. These kinds of designs were for me the epitome of cool saloon shape-making. The Japanese hit their stride around this time with these restrained shapes with lovely detailing. And the engineering was very good too.
    This sentence made me think. “He contended that the Japanese automaker “acknowledges, grudgingly, that it learnt a lot” from Rover but there was now “a streak of confidence, perhaps arrogance, at Honda”.” First, Honda had a lot more reasons to be confident than Rover could have been. Rover´s back catalogue of great cars was a handful of UK successes in the 1960s and 1970s whilst Honda had hit sixes with the Civic, the Prelude, the Accord and numerous motorcycles across Japan and the US and even the Civic was a common sight in Europe. As for arrogance? I can´t see how the journalist came up with that. The Legend was incredibly reserved, cool like a frozen cucumber. I´d have to put one in my hypothetical museum of fine cars.

    1. Hi Richard. It’s a little while since I wrote this piece, but I re-read the Car Magazine review this morning and that snippy, borderline xenophobic, tone runs right through it. Honda was well shot of Austin Rover when it came to developing the second-generation Legend. It’s instructive to remember that the third-generation Legend was already four years old by the time the Rover 800 was finally retired in 1999. That tells you all you need to know about the relative capabilities of the two companies.

  5. Agreed. I think one could make the case that the second Generation Legend was pretty much peak Honda, stylistically. They seemed to lose focus, both in design terms, and in also in product planning terms, in the late nineties.
    That said, there’s a Mk4 around town where I live. I think it’s on its second owner now, but it’s still being well cared for, and seems to get better looking in my eyes, as time goes by…

    1. Hi Eduardo. That’s a shame, although I won’t be sorry to see the back of this particular visage:

      Is that grille possibly a ‘worm-hole’ to another galaxy? The absolute killer, however, is the bonnet shut-line above the grille.

    2. Daniel, I made the mistake of reading about the Avalon on Wikipedia, as I was not familiar with the vehicle.
      There is a picture of the rear and a picture of the front of a better equipped version. Believe me, the bonnet shut-line above the grille is the least evil.
      Do not go to this site if you do not want to lose your faith in human mankind.

      Regarding the Legend/RL: did I understand correctly that this vehicle was sold simultaneously as both a Honda and an Acura?

    3. Hi Fred. Thank you for the warning, but it’s too late, I’ve already scalded my eyeballs on those images and need to lie down in a dark room to recover.

      Regarding the Legend/RL, is far as I am aware it was sold either as an Acura or a Honda depending on the market, not both in competition with each other.

    4. Fred: As an Acura in North America, China, and Kuwait. As a Honda everywhere else.

  6. The comments in the article from Car magazine about Honda look foolish and bitter in retrospect, particularly the repeated references to “arrogance” in light the authors seeming lack of understanding of how insignificant the European market was for a new large premium saloon given how small the market is, the relative lack of spending power, and the endemic snobbery in that sector that sees excellent luxury sell in penny numbers while absolute rubbish like the W210 will sell like hot cakes.

    I also find it highly unlikely that Honda learned anything of any serious value from Austin Rover Group during the XX/HX project, despite the journalist claiming grudging admissions of such. It is very telling that Rover were never allowed anything like that level of input into any future ‘collaborations’, with the HHR 400 and Rover 600 being little more than badge engineering exercises; the only thing that Honda is likely to have learned was ‘don’t let a company with a twenty year unbroken track record of complete and total failure have any input into your products’.

    You’d have had to be a poor car company indeed to have anything to learn from the twitching corpse of British Leyland in the early/mid 80s, and Honda certainly were not that. I think a quote from Michael Edwardes says it all:

    “Compare the two companies in 1978: BL had a large, complex and unprofitable range – 16 model families, no less. Honda had just two. BL had more than 30 car factories, with no less than eight assembly plants. Honda had two assembly plants…Overall the companies were comparable in terms of output”

    1. It is amusing to wonder what Honda might have learned. I think the assumption was that Honda could learn about “character”. Edwardes´ quote is deeply ironic. Honda made the same number of cars with less effort and to a higher standard. It´d be interesting to hear what Honda veterans would say about what they learned or more accurately, experienced on their visits to Longbridge and other museums in the Midlands.

    2. Leafing through a couple of old copies of Car from this period and there was something of a snide tone running through most of Mr. Radley’s reports from Japan. Even his first report on the Lexus LS 400 was damning with faint praise. (Too perfect was the gist of it). Perhaps he suffered from an element of ‘English Exceptionalism’, which is by no means a modern disease within the British media, or more likely a sense, probably reinforced by the Editor that it was necessary to pander to the dearly held beliefs of the UK readership. It’s also worth remembering that Radley’s predecessor Hittori Yoshi (if memory serves) was also pretty scathing about the JDM scene.

      Looking back, Car was rather xenophobic and rampantly Eurocentric in its outlook.

      I’ll add my voice to the chorus of approval towards the second-generation Legend. It’s a fine looking car. The Coupé was gorgeous. Yet Minato gets little or no credit.

      At least it does here.

    3. I remember that article, even though it was a long time ago now. My assumption at the time was that the thing they could have learned from ARG was about interior packaging and ambiance.

  7. You need to pay 12,000 euros for a 1996 Honda Legend coupe and it´s in Hungary (I found it on Mobile.de). I presume the 1990 car would be more easily obtained by importing a US example.

  8. Having only just found time to read this instalment and the following comments, what a delight to see such approval of what I’ve always thought was Honda’s finest achievement; the second generation Legend. But in view of how it subsequently evolved I’m not at all sorry to see it go.

    As for Car, not all there were of the same mind – I seem to recall that LJKS was something of a Honda fan…. even forsaking his beloved Bristols for a Prelude?

  9. The Mkll looks great doesn’t it? For me it solves the two big visual problems of the original car, that of looking like a slightly bigger Accord and the way the 1 year older Legend managed to look a whole model cycle older than it’s- generally perceived- inferior Rover sibling. If I’m been picky the skinny C pillar on the Mkl coupe looked better though.

    My understanding of the Rover Honda alliance is that it was on a car by car basis rather than constant co-operation over a set time. Both of them developed some cars independently of each other during the years they worked together. I’d be interested to know why there was no Rover 800 mkll (Or 900 perhaps). Honda’s model cycle is about 5 years whilst AR tended to eak their cars out for around a decade, this may be a reason Rover may not have been interested in an 800 replacement, alternatively they may not have wished to present a car whose dimensions would be into Jaguar territory. Despite Jaguar already been divested- and so a rival marque rather than an overlapping sibling- there may not have been much appetite for going head to head with them incase it exposed a big credibility gab for the Rover.

  10. Hello all. Great to see that the design of the second-generation Legend is held in such high regard on DTW. If only manufacturers had the courage to break away from the current fussy and overwrought norm and offer something like this instead. Volvo probably comes closest at present.

    1. amen, Daniel!

      I‘d have a second (and also third and fourth, tbh) gen Legend over anything in its class on sale in 2021.

    1. Hi Charles. That’s certainly an interesting tale about the Freelander and HR-V. Was Honda’s behaviour unethical, given that AR actually sent them the Freelander’s blueprints, albeit in error? I suppose it’s analogous to finding a lost wallet with the owner’s ID inside, then spending the cash rather than returning it. That said, I’m sure Honda would claim they were already working on a Rav-4 competitor and the HR-V’s similarity to the Freelander was merely coincidental.

    2. I like AROnline, as they approach their main subject matter as true fans, and they are often critical too, how could they not be? However, the relationship with Honda seems to be exactly where they get their cheerleader pom poms out and dance around. I went there when Daniel published part one of this series, looking for facts, and of course for an AR-centric perspective, because where else? Surely enough I found just what I was seeking, or at least I thought I did:

      “In terms of chassis configuration, Austin Rover and Honda were miles apart in what they thought was needed in order to produce a worthy chassis. Honda were lifelong advocates of the double wishbone school of suspension design, whereas Austin Rover wanted to cook up something more conventional, in order to free up much needed interior space.”

      The second sentence however, immediately goes awry: “lifelong advocates”? “advocates since the fourth generation Civic (1983)” would have been technically correct. And as far as I am able to glean, the interior dimensions and boot space of both cars were around the same. Maybe the answer is really a few sentences below, that old saw : “limited amount of wheel travel”. But if that was the reason, why spin the yarn about space efficiency?

    3. Gooddog
      If you continue to look, you will find
      “Hover, Honda won this argument”
      Rover800 and Legend have the same suspension
      McPherson and double wishbone were the demands of both sides on what front suspension the new car should have, not the final result

    4. Oliver, Honda did compromise on the rear suspension, and I assumed that “interior” referred to parts aft of the firewall. Perhaps the reference is to bonnet height and the “much needed space” refers to clearance for AR’s engines?

    5. On balance and maybe not even that, I still suspect Rover did most of the adaptation and I still think Honda didn´t gain anything detectable concerning ambience. I would be interested to hear a counter argument though the evidence might not be something one sees so much as touches. Rover was in a more vulnerable position and so I think they did not have so much weight to throw around.

  11. So it seems we agree that the second generation Legend was the best, at least regarding looks. To me the saloon it’s nice but not great; however the coupé really looks good, and the idea of a biggish two door coupe in pseudo GT style always appeals to me. Last year I had the chance to buy one in very good condition and relatively low miles for only 3,000 euros. I let it pass. Arghh!!

    On the other hand, being the second gen Legend a rather discreet car, and believing what I’ve read in more than one website, it’s surprising that it was a bit of a success between drug dealers and other lowlifes in US…rappers were fans of the Legend, too.

    1. That’s interesting, b234r. I thought the Legend would have been far too understated to appeal to rappers. (Apologies for the crude stereotyping, but the Cadillac Escalade is, I am led to believe, the vehicle of choice for the rap community.)

      If you’re a drug dealer, however, the Legend’s understatement and anonymity would be an asset, I imagine!

  12. It seems the second gen Legend popularity was in the ’90s, I suppose after a few years they “upgraded”, literally, to the Escalade.

    It’s a well publicited fact that rapper Ludacris still owns his 93′ Legend complete with 280,000 miles on the clock. It even appeared in the cover of one of his records.

    After a minor shunt, Honda restored his Legend.

    http://www.hotcars.com/story-ludacris-acura-legend/amp/

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