Spoiler alert: The 2014 Acura RLX is a good car. But that shouldn't come as a surprise. Despite the fact that Acura is subject to a lot of criticism for things like its odd positioning in the automotive landscape, questionable styling choices in recent years, and the fact that, more or less, its products feel like lux'd-up Hondas rather than something truly unique, the cars have always been inherently good – decent to drive, nice to sit in and reliable to own. That's what happens when you ride that sort of "affordable luxury" line.
Because Acura's sedans don't really fit into any one definable segment, the brand hopes it can draw customers from a broader range who aren't necessarily dedicated to a certain marque. And while there's certainly rhyme to that reason on the more entry-level end of the spectrum, that proposition makes less sense as you move toward higher price points. (Have a gander at the Hyundai Equus, if you will.) On the other hand, Acura pulled data from a 2012 Strategic Vision survey that showed the number one purchase decision for luxury buyers last year was value for the money, with manufacturer reputation coming in at a close second.
Which brings us to the 2014 RLX, a flagship that will compete in the mid/high luxury segment, battling cars like the BMW 5 Series and Audi A6, but, according to Acura, reaches up into 7 Series and A8 territory, as well.
"This is the best car Acura has ever produced," said Michael Accavitti, the automaker's vice president of national marketing operations. And he may be right. But is it truly good enough to be a more renowned player in this higher-end segment than the outgoing RL was? (That shouldn't be too hard, given the fact that the RL was the worst-selling car of 2011.) We hit the roads around Napa Valley to find out.
When Acura first debuted the RLX in concept form at the 2012 New York Auto Show, it showed that the brand was finally starting to refine and smooth out the angular design language that first appeared on the 2008 TL to mostly poor reviews. In production guise, the RLX is a handsome car, and certainly more striking than the RL that came before it, but there are still a few awkward bits to address. First of all, if that rear end looks familiar, it's because it bears a keen resemblance to the BMW 7 Series. That isn't a bad thing, but we aren't the only ones who immediately noticed this while staring at the Acura's rump.
The rest of the design is all well and good, though not very emotional. The fascia looks sharp, especially with the two-by-five LED headlamp cluster in full shimmer, and the profile shows attention to clean, smooth surfaces, though the downward slope just aft of the front wheel well seems a bit abrupt. It's a nice car to look at, but nothing about the RLX's appearance will lead you to believe that it isn't just a front-wheel-drive Honda underneath.
The RLX is a handsome car, and certainly more striking than the RL that came before it.
At 196.1 inches in length, the RLX is only one-tenth of an inch longer than the outgoing RL, though the wheelbase has been increased by two inches versus the old car. The 2014 model is also 1.8 inches wider than the old RL (77.4 total) and the car stands just under half an inch taller. To put it in another perspective, those dimensions are all just ever so slightly larger than that of a BMW 535i, though the Bimmer does ride on a four-inch-longer wheelbase.
All RLX models come standard with the Jewel-Eye LED headlamps you see here, though stepping up to the Technology package will net you the handsome 19-inch wheels of our test car (18s are standard) wrapped in Michelin Primacy 245/40R19 all-season tires. Other features that come on every model include 12-way power/heated seats, Pandora radio, Bluetooth and USB/iPod connectivity, ELS premium audio, a multi-view rear camera, electronic parking brake, about a billion different alphabetic safety features, and the brand-spanking new P-AWS (Precision All-Wheel Steer) system that makes its debut on the RLX. (We'll get to that shortly.)
Our fully loaded Advance model came packed with things like a sweet-sounding Krell audio system, active cruise control with a low-speed function that will actually bring the car to a dead stop, heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats, sunshades for backseat riders and Milano leather. Cozy stuff.
While the cockpit isn't up to Audi levels of ambiance, it's a really nice place to be.
So many mid/high-level luxury cars have well-appointed-but-boring cabin designs, and while the RLX isn't up to Audi levels of cockpit ambiance, it's a really nice place to be. We do wish that the glossy wood trim were replaced with some swanky aluminum inserts, but that's a personal aesthetic preference. Still, every touchable surface feels great, and the design of the instrument panel and center stack is easy to navigate. We like the sculpting of the dash and the way it flows into the prominent console area that houses a two-screen design (sort of like the Honda Accord). Up top is an eight-inch screen that displays vehicle functions and navigation data, controlled by the large knob near the bottom of the stack, and below is a seven-inch touchscreen for on-demand functions like audio selection and heating/cooling operation. That lower screen also has haptic feedback behind it, so you'll feel a slight buzz when you're getting touchy-feely. It's not off-putting, but not entirely necessary, either.
Models equipped with navigation also get a smaller TFT color display in the gauge cluster, controlled by small switches on either side of the steering wheel. It's not complicated to use, and only after about 10 minutes behind the wheel, we had the entire system figured out.
The launch of the 2014 RLX also brings forth the latest version of the Japanese automaker's AcuraLink in-car connectivity, now featuring remote features on a smartphone app. The whole package features a more prominent in-vehicle experience that better integrates what's on your smartphone to what's in the car. It's sort of like Toyota Entune in this regard. Pricing for the AcuraLink system will be revealed closer to the car's launch, but specific features include real-time traffic (including data for surface streets, not just highways), vehicle messaging, map services, vehicle remote, diagnostics tools and full-blown concierge services.
The RLX's 38.8 inches of rear legroom bests smaller numbers from its midsize luxury competitors.
Front passengers in the RLX are treated to supportive, nicely appointed leather seats with good amounts of side and butt bolstering. In back, the three-passenger bench is equally supportive, and two full-size adults will have no trouble getting comfy back there. When it comes to all-important rear legroom, the RLX's 38.8 inches of stretchable space bests smaller numbers from midsize luxury competitors like the BMW 5 Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Lexus GS and Audi A6.
Now, the tricky part: on-road demeanor. The big problem that Acura faces here is that even with its fancy P-AWS technology, the RLX is still a front-wheel-drive offering in a segment of rear- and all-wheel-drive players. Acura will soon offer a SH-AWD version of the RLX with a three-motor hybrid drivetrain producing somewhere around 370 horsepower, all mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. We took a prototype of this car around Sonoma raceway for two short laps back-to-back with the front-drive P-AWS car, and can already tell that it's absolutely superior. But that's another story for another day of driving.
Before we move on, here's the one problem we see with Acura advancing as a luxury brand from a driver's perspective. Because it relies so heavily on Honda technology, Acura has always been behind in terms of powertrain technology. Whereas other companies are already using seven- and eight-speed transmissions, Honda's luxury arm is just now rolling out six-speed units to its cars. And while other automakers are fitting turbochargers and superchargers to efficient direct-injection engines, Acura is just now using DI for the first time. The three-motor hybrid with DCT setup really intrigues us (and from our short stint behind the wheel, impressed us), so perhaps that can add some extra cache to the RLX package when it launches.
Acura will soon offer a SH-AWD version with a three-motor hybrid drivetrain producing around 370 hp.
In the meantime, the standard RLX is powered by Honda's 3.5-liter Earth Dreams V6, tuned to 310 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 272 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm. Power runs to the ground via a six-speed automatic transmission with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters (if you feel so inclined) and a sport setting that changes transmission mapping, throttle response and steering feel. We've enjoyed the 3.5-liter V6 in the Honda Accord, and we feel the same way about it here – there's a linear power delivery, good throttle response and an adequate amount of power on tap.
The RLX in no way feels slow, thanks in part to a transmission that's willing to work with you when it comes to properly delivering power. We drove the car along a long stretch of Sage Canyon Road in Napa Valley – a truly excellent road, if you get the chance – and with the transmission in Sport mode, the RLX was eager to hold a gear for long stretches of quick curves and would even preemptively downshift every now and then when it detected braking before turning into a corner.
It's actually quite eager to perform on winding roads.
If we're honest, the RLX is actually quite eager to perform on winding roads. The whole package feels light on its feet – our loaded Advance model weighing in at 3,997 pounds – but a lot of that can be credited to the nicely weighted, engaging steering and well-tuned suspension (MacPherson struts up front, a multilink setup out back and high-strength stabilizers both fore and aft). Pedal feel from the stopper is solid, though after long stretches of driving, we noticed a detectible amount of fade from the brakes.
The real reason to like the RLX on twisty roads is its Precision All-Wheel Steer system, a bit of technology that actively steers the rear wheels during turning and braking. This isn't the first time we've experienced technology like this, but that doesn't make it any less good in this application. While cornering, the inside wheel will toe in and the outside wheel will toe out, making steering efforts through a turn even easier, and because of this extra effort from the rear wheels, understeer is reduced. During lane-changes, both wheels will turn in the direction of travel to provide direct, stable response, and during straight line braking, both wheels will actually toe in (picture a downhill skier coming to a halt), which aids in stopping performance.
The real reason to like the RLX on twisty roads is its Precision All-Wheel Steer system.
In addition to our canyon drive, Acura let us loose through a handling course set up in the paddock of Sonoma Raceway, where we could really test the agility of the steering and P-AWS system against a couple of key competitors. It only took us two laps in the Mercedes-Benz E350 to tell that the Acura easily outpaces it, but the real competition came from a BMW 535i. In terms of a FWD large car, the Acura is easily best of the bunch, but you just can't match the rear-drive dynamics and precise steering of the 5er. And while one wasn't available to test, we're willing to bet that the Audi A6 with Quattro would stomp all over the whole group. We put the RLX somewhere in the middle of the pack.
The 2014 Acura RLX will officially go on sale on March 15, 2013, with a starting price of $48,450. Models with navigation start at $50,950, adding the tech package brings that up to $54,450, the Krell audio pack takes it up to $56,950, and our top shelf Advance model hits the $60,450 mark. (All prices do not include $895 for destination.) Option a rear-drive BMW 535i up to similar levels of equipment and you're looking at close to $70,000 for a vehicle that matches our Advance tester. But spec a fully loaded RWD Lexus GS 350 F Sport with all the trimmings and you only hit $54,275.
It's a vastly improved vehicle that, in a vacuum, is excellent.
The RLX looks most attractive to people who want something ever-so-slightly larger than the 5 Series crowd but don't want to shell out for the full-on premium sedan treatment. If that Strategic Vision data about luxury buyers really looking for value above all remains true, then the RLX is definitely worth considering. But once again, we're back to where we started. Yes, the RLX is good. Very good. Is it the best Acura ever built? In terms of technology and refinement, absolutely. It's a vastly improved vehicle that, in a vacuum, is excellent. The problem here is that it isn't quite far enough removed from its Honda bones to be considered a stand-out product in this highly competitive segment.
That SH-AWD hybrid, on the other hand...