2014 Acura RLX first drive
Acura's flagship sedan may finally have hit the sweet spot in its segment
Calistoga, Calif. — For better or for worse, Acura is sticking to its guns. Over the quarter-century since Honda created Japan's first luxury brand, Acura has consistently set its sights low. While rivals Infiniti and Lexus launched with full-size rear-wheel-drive V8s aimed directly at the European elite, Acura's flagships have been mid-size front-drivers motivated by smallish V6s.
Sure, the RL (née Legend) was priced well below S-Class Benzes and 7 Series Bimmers. But compared with Acura's own mid-level TL, it asked a lot more money for not a lot more car.
The outgoing RL was actually a sweet car to drive, but who knew? In 2011, Acura sold precisely 56 of them in Canada. Compare that with the 743 Mercedes S-Classes — or 3,898 copies of the midsize E-Class, which more closely matched the RL in price and size — sold that year.
Now here comes an RL replacement that is still mid-size, still propelled by a V6, still front-wheel drive. Is Acura even trying?
According to Acura executive vice-president Jerry Chenkin, Acura is indeed trying — but on its own terms and according to its own core values: "Acura DNA is all about efficiency and power-to-weight ratio — performance through technology, not just a bigger engine," he says.
Efficiency is more than just about gas
In the case of the RLX, efficiency begins with packaging. Within a midsize-plus exterior that, at just under five metres, stretches almost exactly midway between the Mercedes E-Class and the short-wheelbase S-Class, it claims the roomiest interior of the "mid-luxury" class, with up to a whopping 76 mm more rear legroom than competitors that include the BMW 535i, Lexus GS 350 and Audi A6.
Although only a few mm longer than its predecessor, the RLX achieves significantly more room in part from a 50-mm longer wheelbase, but also because the absence of a rear axle (the RL was AWD) frees up real-estate in the aft end of the car. That all said, you can still buy more room for similar or less loot in secondary alternatives such as the Hyundai Genesis, Lincoln MKS and Infiniti M.
Efficient and effective use of fuel is pursued with the combination of an aluminum-intensive lightweight body with a direct-injection V6 that makes a robust 310 horsepower on all six cylinders, or shifts to three-cylinder operation for class-leading fuel economy in moderate driving.
On paper, the fly in the powertrain ointment seems to be the six-speed transmission. It's at least one ratio in arrears of key competitors. That may explain why the BMW 535i, which comes only as an AWD but has an eight-speed automatic, pips the FWD RLX for fuel economy; of course, so do the hybrid or diesel options available on some rivals.
The best is yet to come
Later this year, Acura will debut an AWD Hybrid RLX that employs two electric motors to not just drive the rear wheels but also help steer the car by independently generating negative or positive torque to the individual wheels. With another electric motor up front sandwiched between the gas engine and a seven-speed dual-clutch automated transmission, the so-called Sport Hybrid SH-AWD will output at least 370 horsepower, while achieving remarkable fuel economy.
Meanwhile the FWD RLX also features its own version of active rear-wheel-steering. Precision All-Wheel Steer (P-AWS) mechanically swivels the rear wheels up to 1.8 degrees either way. According to the situation it is used to enhance agility or to promote stability. Additionally, Agile Handling Assist uses selective brake application to promote even more turning output for less steering input.
Naturally the RLX comes loaded with electronic convenience and safety features. Most notably: not one but two screens on the dash, so fewer layers are needed for control of the nav-sys, HVAC and infocommutainment systems; cloud-based AcuraLink connectivity; an available Krell audio; Lane Keeping Assist System that is pro-active instead of reactive — it detects a potential drift out of lane, and gently steers the car back in line; and adaptive cruise control with low-speed follow that automatically keeps a preset following distance in low-speed traffic, and can stop completely if the vehicle in front does the same.
While no luxury car can do without the digital distractions, Acura is recruiting buyers who also want to enjoy the driving experience. Dynamic driving aids are intended to support Acura's new "Man-Machine Synergy" ethos: technology should enhance your enjoyment of the car, not interfere with it.