We continue the story of the Honda Legend, a car that will soon be consigned to history.
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 Surprisingly, given the relative youthfulness of the superseded model, the new car was not a reskin, but an all-new design which shared nothing with either it or its Rover 800 sibling.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.
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).
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.
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.
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”).
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.
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.