Last December in tiny Lincoln, just off the Interstate 20 corridor in Talladega County, Honda workers celebrated the 3 millionth vehicle as it rolled off of the plant’s assembly line.
Mass production at the Honda Manufacturing of Alabama plant began in November 2001. Since then, the facility has become the sole production source for Honda’s Odyssey minivan, the Pilot sport utility vehicle and the Ridgeline pickup truck.
But last spring, workers began assembling the first Acura built in Alabama and the first luxury model for the Alabama plant. It’s already boosting sales and getting rave reviews for technology and design. The 2014 Acura MDX luxury SUV was a finalist for the North American Truck/SUV of the Year but was edged out by the General Motors Silverado, according to a news conference at the North American International Auto Show.
Honda describes the new Acura MDX SUV’s sleek exterior and interior as “Executive Aero Sculpture.” The car this year, says HMA Vice President Mike Oatridge, weighs less than the previous version.
“From the old MDX to the new MDX, it went through a pretty good diet plan, ” says Oatridge. “We dropped about 275 pounds off of the total weight of the car by utilizing many types of materials, such as aluminum.”
The new MDX is more than 193 inches long, 77.2 inches wide and 67.6 inches in height. It can carry up to seven passengers, is equipped with adaptive cruise control and offers available options, such as keyless entry and start. The car also comes with what is called the Acura Jewel Eye™ LED headlights.
“The dual headlights on the outside are among the most distinctive features, ” Oatridge says. “It’s a very aggressive type of styling, and people are very much drawn to it.”
The MDX is powered by a direct-injected, 24-valve, 3.5-liter V6 engine that produces about 290 horsepower. It has an EPA fuel economy rating of 18 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway.
A front-wheel-drive version of the MDX gets 20 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway.
“There is a lot of expectation from our customers for value, ” says Oatridge, “and that value comes in many different ways, whether it’s fuel economy, styling or quality. But probably the highest expectation is in the quality of the vehicle. If we can provide high value to our customers, then they buy our product.”
The manufacturer’s suggested retail price for the new Acura MDX starts around $42, 290 and AutoGuide.com, an online, new car shopping consumer resource, named it as “Utility Vehicle of the Year” in December 2013.
Oatridge says the company’s efforts to attract discriminating consumers wanting both luxury and quality required sizable investments in the Lincoln plant.
“This market is very competitive now and because of that, we had to make several changes here to ensure that we were competitive, ” Oatridge says. “We have invested about $450 million into this plant in the last 24 months. We’ve added about 400 jobs. And a lot of that was to allow us to meet the quality expectations and the production expectations of a luxury customer. We have to make sure the luxury features operate and function the way they are supposed to before they leave the factory. To do that, we have actually expanded our vehicle quality area substantially to allow us to test all of the features to make sure they function as they are designed to function.”
The car also has a number of safety enhancements, such as Collision Mitigation Braking System, Lane Keeping Assist, Multi-Angle Rearview Camera, Blind Spot Information and a driver’s knee air bag.
Attention to safety helped Honda’s 2014 Acura MDX capture a top Five-Star Overall Vehicle Score in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration New Car Assessment Program. Moreover, the new Acura MDX also was selected as a Top Safety Pick for collision safety by the Institute for Highway Safety, as was the 2014 RLX.
Mass production of the 2014 Acura MDX SUV began at the Talladega County plant on May 2, 2013. As of November 2013, sales of the MDX were up 80.8 percent compared to the same time the year before, says Honda spokeswoman Samantha Corona.
Oatridge says that between 10 and 15 percent of the units built in the Lincoln plant are exported. The cars are shipped primarily to markets in Central and South America, the Middle East, Russia, Asia and to several Oceana nations.
With the addition of the Acura MDX, HMA is now exporting cars for the first time to China and South Korea, Corona says.
The Lincoln assembly plant now has more than 4, 000 full-time associates working in the $2 billion facility. The plant has an annual capacity to produce some 340, 000 vehicles like the 2014 Acura MDX, as well as V-6 engines.
“We have worked very hard with the state of Alabama at the state level, county level and at the city level, and they all have provided good support to us in hiring and training our people, ” Oatridge says. “In fact, the state, through AIDT, built a training facility for us and helped train the diverse groups of people who went to build cars here.”
In 2005, Honda partnered with the AIDT, the state’s training agency, to create a training facility in Pell City that simulated the paint line at the Honda plant so workers could learn the process.
“Everyone who works here is very proud of the products that we build, ” Oatridge says. “The value of our car comes from the associates who work here. They have a lot of pride in that car because they understand that our job is to make our customers happy. By being nominated for North American Truck of the Year, it really quantifies that our customers are happy with the products we’re selling and that we are focused on the right spot. So from a morale point of view, it’s kind of that gratification of a job well done.”
Gail Allyn Short is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.
text by Gail Allyn Short • photos by Cary Norton