North American Int’l Auto ShowDETROIT – Forget about the SUV appeal to adventurous off-roaders interested in vehicular mountain climbing under the big sky.

Honda Motor Co. Ltd.’s Acura luxury division is appealing to young urbanites with a new RDX cross/utility vehicle, a prototype of which debuts here at the North American International Auto Show.

“We saw a growing need for a premium entry-level (CUV) to meet the needs of urban warriors,” says John Mendel, American Honda Motor Co. Inc. senior vice president.

“We anticipate segment growth of 500% over the next five years. This is a vehicle that will attract younger buyers to the brand.”

Smaller than Acura’s midsize MDX, the RDX springs from an all-new global light-truck platform. Mendel calls it an “urban adventure vehicle.”

Acura RDX

“It’s funny, because most SUVs don’t get used as SUVs,” he says. “Rarely do they go off-road. This vehicle handles nimbly and has sporty handling.

“We expect it to appeal to a lot of car owners who felt that traditional SUVs lacked the combination of sport/utility and sport sedan handling and performance.”

The ’07 RDX will be built in Marysville, OH, and go on sale this summer. Mendel forecasts annual sales of 30,000 to 50,000 units, purposely keeping the range wide enough after American Honda executives over-predicted sales of the Ridgeline pickup truck, which debuted in 2005.

A price on the RDX has not been announced. Mendel says it will be less than the “$35,000-ish” MDX.

The RDX features a 2.3L 4-cyl. all-aluminum turbocharged gasoline engine, producing 240 hp. It is the first application of forced-induction technology in Acura’s history.

The vehicle’s so-called “Super Handling All-Wheel Drive” automatically distributes torque fore and aft as well as splitting the rear torque left to right for enhanced handling, traction and stability during sporty driving and inclement weather.

Safety features include rollover sensors and a body structure that helps disperse collision forces over a larger frontal area.

Inside the 5-seater is a driver-oriented cockpit “and console storage big enough for one of the urban warrior’s most valuable weapons – a laptop computer,” says Mendel.

The Acura division is 20 years old this year. It is coming off its best sales year, with 209,000 deliveries in the U.S. in 2005, about a 5% increase and the first time it has broken the 200,000-unit mark.

Acura opened its auto show press conference by airing a 2-decade-old clip from a “Today Show” TV interview, in which a Volvo Cars executive said of the then-new Acura brand: “I don’t think they will be able to penetrate the North American market.”

Mendel says: “We’ve come a long way since that comment.”

Honda President and CEO Takeo Fukui says Acura will expand its market from exclusively North America to China this year and Japan in 2008.

A new design studio opens next year in California, where there currently is a research and development center.

“We are taking big steps to make Acura a global brand,” says Fukui. “We are confident because of the strength of the brand in North America.”

sfinlay@primediabusiness.com