The Acura RLX is the brand's new top-of-the-line sedan, replacing the discontinued RL and conceived to give Honda's luxury division increased traction in the heart of the luxury segment. It's a segment that continues to be dominated by a Germanic trio, Audi A6, BMW 5 series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, all of them either rear- or all-wheel drive, all strong performers, all heavily endowed with panache and prestige.
So what does the RLX bring to the table to enhance Acura's credibility in this high stakes game? The new car is certainly not without virtues. New sheetmetal, new engine, new (to this model) chassis technology, improved fuel economy, new interior, and a wealth of electronics some devoted to infotainment, others to safety features.
Basics: at 196.1 inches of overall length, the Acura RLX is just 0.3 inch longer than the RL, but its 112.2-inch wheelbase represents a stretch of 2.0 inches. That, plus a 2.0-inch expansion in width, gave the design team plenty of raw material for improving interior volume, particularly in the rear seat area, a weak point with the RL.
The engine is also new, an aluminum 3.5-liter SOHC V6 with four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing, and direct fuel injection. Its output, 310 horsepower, 272 pound-feet of torque, is all but identical to the 3.7-liter V6 that propelled the RL (300 horsepower, 271 pound-feet), but the key development objective for the 3.5 was fuel economy, and in this the new engine represents a big improvement: 20/31 mpg City/Highway, according to the EPA, versus 16/22 for the RL. Some of this gain is attributable to the adoption of direct fuel injection, more of it to cylinder deactivation, which shuts down half the engine in steady highway cruising.
The new V6 is allied with a 6-speed automatic transmission, sending power to the front wheels. While the car's overall gearing is oriented toward optimizing fuel economy, the RLX will get out of the starting blocks and across an intersection with reasonable haste. Beyond that, forward progress becomes a little more deliberate, respectable, but not extraordinary.
While the RLX propulsion inventory is thus far routine, the RL-X does bring one mechanical distinction to the table, one that gave the Acura product people an opportunity to exercise their penchant for peculiar acronyms. They call it PAW-S, for Precision All-Wheel Steering. Basically, the rear wheels contribute to steering, counter-steering at low speed to enhance maneuverability, turning with the fronts at high speeds for increased stability. Honda has tried this before, with disappointing sales results. This time around the take rate will be better, since the feature is standard equipment, rather than an option.
Styling has rarely been a strong suit at either Honda or Acura, and the RLX is consistent with corporate design caution. Aside from a phalanx of LED headlights, lending a bit of sci-fi mystique to the front end, the new sedan is unlikely to attract more than a casual glance as it glides along in traffic. The grille, with its slightly beaky center element, is recognizable as Acura emblematic, but beyond that and the LEDs the design is bland and breaks no new ground. The same could perhaps be said of the German troika that dominates the class, but if the Teutons are familiar from one generation to the next, that familiarity includes a big helping of prestige.
Acura RLX ($48,450); RLX with navigation ($50,950); RLX with Technology Package, $54,450; RLX with Krell Audio Package ($56,950); RLX with Advance Package ($60,450)
Acura RLX is bigger than the old RL. It's longer than the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, BMW 5 Series and Audi A6, and it's wider than all but the E-Class. The Acura rides on a slightly shorter wheelbase, however.
The Acura engineering team cites gains in body shell rigidity, thanks to extensive use of hot stamped high strength steel in selected areas, and in the finished product conveys a sense of praiseworthy solidity.
An aluminum hood, doors and decklid save about 76 pounds in the body-in-white. However, with curb weights that range from 3933 to almost 4000 pounds, the RLX is generally heavier than the three German sedans.
The 2014 RLX sports a new double wishbone suspension system up front, and a new multilink arrangement at the rear designed, of course, to accommodate P-AWS.
There's also a new capless fueling system, a la the technique pioneered by Ford. When it functions properly (i.e., no leakage), as was the case on our test car, this feature eliminates the ugly sight of a forgotten fuel cap flapping in the breeze, eventually to detach itself entirely. It's easy to use: Open fuel door, insert fuel filler, close fuel door. If you forget the latter step, the system won't mind and won't dribble.
With its longer wheelbase and fractional reduction in overall length, the proportions of the RLX have an athletic look, and the jewel-eye LEDs lend a bit of distinction to the front end as well as a lot of lumens to navigating dark country byways. But in the main, the RLX follows the Honda/Acura design philosophy of timeless styling, a conservative look, low on flash, but long on staying power.
As you'd expect of a car in this price category, the Acura RLX is handsomely appointed within, with soft touch surfaces everywhere, first rate materials, and lots of space. In fact, Acura claims best-in-class rear-seat legroom, and it would take someone of NBA stature to scrape his head against the roof.
As you'd also expect, there's gizmology and connectivity galore, with an available eight-inch navigation screen stacked atop a seven-inch touch-screen controlling all sorts of infotainment choices. Although the nav system won't allow any manual adjustments or selections when the car is moving, not uncommon in the golden age of product liability, and the voice command element requires what amounts to an irritating and lengthy discussion to achieve results, Honda/Acura navigation technology is still near the top of the charts in terms of accuracy. Also, its real-time traffic info includes conditions on surface streets, which can be very helpful when the driver is pressed for time.
The expanded gizmology inventory extends to safety features, and here too Acura follows the industry trend toward more and more nannyesque driver aids. For example, the optional Lane Keeping Assist helps inattentive drivers stay between the lines. The optional adaptive cruise control system now includes a low-speed follow feature, which commuters may find helpful. Similarly, the Forward Collision Warning system may help inattentive drivers avoid whacking the car just ahead, although its panicky alerts and flashing lights are irritating to those trying to dissect traffic on their morning commute.
Many of the RLX's electronic safety aids are optional, but with or without them the car's excellent structure are expected to continue the Honda/Acura tradition of top ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the influential Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
As a driving experience, the Acura RLX skews heavily toward comfort and unobtrusive motoring. The cabin is extraordinarily quiet (think 2 a.m. in St. Paul's Cathedral), something that's been a strong suit for Acura's premier sedan ever since the original Acura Legend. Ride quality is creamy; it takes some very gnarly pavement to even remotely disturb occupants, and in general the going is about as serene as it gets in this market segment.
Power is respectable, although the 6-speed automatic seems a little dated in a class where 7- and 8-speed transmissions are becoming increasingly common. The new aluminum 3.5-liter SOHC V6 with four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing, and direct fuel injection is rated at 310 horsepower, 272 pound-feet of torque. Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 20/31 mpg City/Highway.
Like almost all new cars today, the RLX is equipped with an electric power steering system, one of many measures the industry has adopted in the quest for improved fuel economy. At just 2.6 turns lock-to-lock, it's quick, but it's also vague, a trait common to many systems of this type; the driver doesn't have an accurate sense of where the front wheels are pointed. Like all idiosyncrasies of a particular car, this is something an owner gets used to in short order, but it's not a trait shared by the Germanic pacesetters in this class.
Acura touts the new PAW-S system (Precision All-Wheel Steering) as cutting-edge technology, and the implication is that having the rear wheels participate in the steering puts the front-wheel-drive RLX on a more or less equal footing with the rear-wheel-drive German competition. Our impressions fall short of parity with rear- and all-wheel drive cars. The system undoubtedly makes the RLX a little handier around town and does lend a bit of confidence at higher speeds on back roads, but the speeds have to be distinctly higher for this to be tangible and it's unlikely owners will be exercising their cars in this manner. The RLX is exceptionally comfortable, but it's not the kind of car that invites back road barnstorming.
The all-new 2014 Acura RLX is unquestionably luxurious, with an exceptionally high index of quality and quiet, competent comfort. Its value proposition is a little hard to endorse: a front-wheel-drive sedan such as the new Kia Cadenza delivers similar cosseting and better dynamics for considerably less money, and a V8-propelled rear-drive Genesis sedan undercuts even a base RLX. If relaxed dynamics, posh interior appointments, serene motoring, and good fuel economy expectations are the priority, the RLX merits a place in the luxury sedan sunshine.
Tony Swan filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from Detroit after his test drive of the Acura RLX.