People care about Acura.
Roughly half of those comments were in reply to news of this car, the 2014 RLX Sport Hybrid SH-AWD, a sedan that intends to show that Acura cares, too. Underneath a skin almost imperceptibly different from the standard RLX, the one that has given us P-AWS (Precision All-Wheel Steer), is a Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) system that replaces the mechanical components it relies on in the TL and MDX with computerized sophistication and three electric motors. Top that off with more power, and the aim is to provide a machine that does a better job of getting Acura a starting spot in the premium luxury game than the erstwhile and now all-but-forgotten RL that the RLX replaces.
In February 2013, Ewing wrote of the RLX, "It's a vastly improved vehicle that, in a vacuum, is excellent." After a day of twisty bits outside of San Francisco, we have no problem breaking the vacuum seal, getting the RLX Sport Hybrid out in the environment and still declaring it excellent. Problem is, we just can't see how it's excellent enough to beat the competition at the price (still unknown) Acura will want for it.
Since thousands of words have already given their short, san-serif lives to describing the exterior and interior of the RLX, we think it unnecessary to belabor a third opinion on the styling details. The exterior differences between the standard car and the RLX Sport Hybrid are the grille being cast in dark chrome, front LED fog lights placed in a revised lower fascia, 19-inch 10-spoke aluminum wheels that have been designed to reduce cabin noise by up to 7 dB, hybrid badges on the fenders and an SH-AWD badge on the decklid.
There are several big changes in the cabin, however, all meant only for this car. One of them is a heads-up display, Acura's first, that can project the state of features like the SH-AWD system operation, tachometer and turn-by-turn navigation just above the hood. Another is the Reactive Force Pedal, a video game kind of accessory that modifies pedal feedback to help the driver use the proper amount of engine power for the conditions. In the snow, for instance, it will provide more resistance to mildly dissuade your right foot from asking the tires to do too much.
There are several big changes in the cabin, all meant only for this car.
The other is the electronic gear selector – also Acura's first – that replaces the conventional shifter in the front-wheel-drive car. Going further than simply pressing a button or turning a knob, the various gears get their own methods of engagement: Park and Neutral are square plastic pushbuttons, Reverse is actuated by dipping a finger into a hollow and pulling a switch backwards, Drive comes by pressing a shiny, round button that is illuminated by a ring of green light when engaged. Reverse is the only unusual technique, and the whole thing would take you less time to figure it out than it did to read this paragraph.
But there's a new servant that answers those gearshift commands, and that's where we get to the part where the RLX Sport Hybrid says, "All right, boys – showtime!"
The mollifying bodywork hides a reversed rendition of the powertrain we'll get in the coming NSX.
The mollifying bodywork hides a reversed rendition of the powertrain we'll get in the coming NSX: a 3.5-liter V6 up front shifts through a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, aided by an electric motor for driving the front wheels and two electric motors in back propelling the rear wheels.
The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission is packaged with a 35-kilowatt (47-hp) motor that boosts power to the front wheels, as well as gathers regenerative energy from the front wheels and the engine to juice up the 72-cell, 1.3-kW lithium-ion battery pack in the trunk.
The Twin Motor Unit in back is two 27-kW (36-hp) electric motors separated by a clutch, each motor driving one of the rear wheels and able to operate separately. They can send positive (accelerating) and negative (decelerating) torque to either wheel and boast a torque differential wider than that of the mechanical SH-AWD setup, increasing the sedan's handling abilities and gathering energy for the battery pack. All three motors are ruled by the Power Drive Unit 'brain' under the center console, and the two in back operate independently of the 3.5-liter V6.
Trunk space is somewhat compromised compared to the standard RLX, with the Intelligent Power Unit located behind the rear seats dropping cargo space from 15.3 cubic feet to 12, but there is underfloor storage that provides another 0.4 cubic feet.
Instead of 310 horsepower and 272 pound-feet of torque in the gas-only RLX, the Sport Hybrid gets 377 total system horsepower and 377 lb-ft. The result is a much quicker car in a straight line – Acura doesn't go in for official 0-60 mile-per-hour times, so we're not sure by how much yet – and through corners, and better gas mileage thanks to assists from the electric-motor-enabled EV mode, cylinder deactivation during steady-state driving and idle stop. The standard RLX gets 21 city, 31 highway and 24 combined miles per gallon, while the RLX Sport Hybrid gets 28 city, 32 highway and 30 combined.
The Sport Hybrid is slightly more balanced at 57-43 front-to-rear.
The RLX Sport Hybrid gets even more out of the ingenuity because of model-exclusive details like increased torsional rigidity and rear lateral stiffness compared to the standard sedan, a center of gravity that is eight millimeters lower and a different weight distribution because of the battery pack and Twin Motor Unit: whereas its FWD sibling has a front-rear balance of 61 percent to 39 percent, the Sport Hybrid is slightly more balanced at 57-43 front-to-rear.
Heading north out of San Francisco on a meandering route to Petaluma, the RLX Sport Hybrid possesses all of the finishing-school behavior you'd expect of a luxury midsize challenger. From a stop, a revised cam profile helps the engine restart smoothly, active control mounts and a dual-mass flywheel do their jobs to maintain composure when the gasoline engine is in three-cylinder operation, and acoustic glass mutes the din of a grubby world.
The only bit of naughty business comes from the brake pedal, which isn't nearly as progressive as we like. An electric servo setup, the traditional hydraulic brakes are electronically controlled and supplemented by negative torque applied to the front and rear wheels by the electric motors. In many cases, the electric motors will do most of the braking, with the friction units called in as backup or at low speeds for the final run to standstill. Acura says it was designed "to operate seamlessly with none of the rough engagement feel of competing systems," but that wasn't our experience.
Once out on an open stretch of challenging coastal road, however, that minor transgression was forgotten entirely as the SH-AWD system revealed what it can do. The four wheels can be made to do a number of rotational dances at the command of their electric-motor overlords, all depending on throttle position and placement in a corner or on the straight, and the result is a sedan that handles beautifully.
The four wheels can be made to do a number of rotational dances at the command of their electric-motor overlords.
The transmission adapts to vigorous use and will hold any one of those seven gears higher into the rev range when you put on your Serious Face, but you can press the Sport button to ensure a clear line of communication, sharpen the steering and throttle response and get rev-matched downshifts. Hard charging also seems to loosen up the ECU controlling those front brakes, which, by the way, use larger discs than on the standard RLX and two-pot calipers, instead of single-pot units.
The Short Cut video reveals how involved it gets, with the display screen showing the road we were driving on the left and the various torque applications on the right. For a sedan that, from the outside, begs to be rode hard and put away wet about as loudly as, oh, any other Acura or Honda sedan (read: barely audibly), the handling might be better than any of its competition. The SH-AWD's efforts are further bolstered by flat cornering enabled by the dual-stage dampers and the friction brakes going to work during extreme turn-in maneuvers.
For proof, Acura brought a Lexus GS450h and an Audi A6 3.0T Quattro Tiptronic for back-to-back testing on a stretch of Highway 1 laid out like Chutes and Ladders. The great thing about such roads is that you don't need to break the speed limit to find most cars' handling limits because tight curves are better at slowing you down than signs. Shame, then, that the Lexus ran itself out of the competition by the third corner; even in Sport+ its electronics didn't appreciate our cornering speeds. The stability program repeatedly cutting engine power only made it easier for us to hear the chirping and squealing tires.
Driving the RLX Sport Hybrid and the A6 Quattro back-to-back was the eye-opener. We'll refer to Steven Ewing again, who sampled the Mercedes-Benz E350 and BMW 535i during his First Drive of the standard RLX with P-AWS. He wrote, "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."
Driving the RLX Sport Hybrid and the A6 Quattro back-to-back was the eye-opener.
To this driver, there no more than the width of a piece of paper between the performance of the Acura and the Audi, and our top choice could have gone either way depending on which second you asked us for our opinion. We didn't get to a point – nor a corner – where we thought either car was obviously faster, but it must be said that the Acura was slightly less fussed to drive as fast (if, indeed, we were going as fast – these weren't timed runs). Nevertheless, there was a difference, and it goes back to what Ewing wrote about the BMW he drove: "you just can't match the rear-drive dynamics and precise steering of the 5er." The Acura is every bit as good as the Audi – and might be infinitesimally better – but it was noticeably less fun. Not by much. But noticeable.
Here's the difference in our memory of the event: right now we remember how good the Acura is, whereas we remember driving the Audi. At heart, it's the same philosophical argument that hovers over the driving experiences of such supercars as the McLaren MP4-12C against the Ferrari 458 Italia and the Nissan GT-R versus the Porsche Turbo, only this time we're having it about an Acura RLX Sport Hybrid. That, by itself, is a stellar victory for Acura and the RLX Sport Hybrid.
The powertrain package also throws up a stiffarm to accusations – the kind found among those aforementioned 1,200 comments – like "One day Honda will realize people want a V8, and not a V6," and "FWD is a compromise." As far as compromises and defining what people want, perhaps you should click over to Autoblog's BMW and Mercedes-Benz pages to read the daily news of their front-wheel-drive offerings. What convinced those two RWD stalwarts to make sweet love to Beelzebub in order to spawn FWD bastards? Because, after making their reputations with RWD credentials and German construction, they discovered they had done the job so well that the aspirational hordes actually buying their cars had no idea which wheels did what and didn't care as long as it had the right little circle in front.
What enthusiasts want is a car that delivers on its promises, is fun and, ideally, handles better than we have a right to expect based on its price and market position, and we don't care if an automaker harnesses the power of sunshine and dead sea creatures to do it... as long as it has a manual transmission. But that's another story. Performance-wise, the RLX Sport Hybrid is a first-rate drive.
Performance-wise, the RLX Sport Hybrid is a first-rate drive.
The problem is that you have to dig through all of that milquetoast styling to get to it, which you can only do after forking over what will probably be Audi money. The sticker on the A6 that Acura brought to the event was $63,495. The front-wheel-drive RLX P-AWS from our Review was $57,845 and the model in our First Drive was $61,345. Even minus those two extra cylinders and perpetual-motion driveshaft, the RLX Sport Hybrid is good enough to earn the attention of anyone who appreciates proper handling, but based on its exterior styling and Honda cues, it would have to be the kind of person who doesn't mind eating a filet mignon off a paper plate. All right, so that's a tad harsh, but the point stands.
That buyer, by the way, is just the one Acura refers to in the 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 a close second. Of course, those buyers are out there – Acura has sold about 4,400 RLs and RLXs so far this year. But in spite of Strategic Vision's findings, those buyers are a minority, because the central point of luxury is largely antithetical to the idea of value for money. For proof, note that the 911 Turbo outsells the much less expensive GT-R, the E-Class outsells the less expensive 5 Series and much less expensive A6, and the A6 – which only does a third of the business of the E-Class in the US – has always done multiples of RL/RLX sales.
Acura is pitching a wolf in sheep's clothing to people who mainly want a sheep that's been branded with the right badge.
Acura says the competitive set is "hybrid and/or all-wheel-drive versions of Audi A6, BMW 5-Series, Infiniti Q50, Lexus GS, and Mercedes-Benz E-Class." The target buyer is a married, 48-year-old man with a median household income of at least $200,000 and who works in finance, real estate or health care. Those are the same customers buying the competition, but in the RLX Sport Hybrid, Acura is pitching a wolf in sheep's clothing to people who mainly want a sheep that's been branded with the right badge... or a wolf.
We're glad Acura made the RLX Sport Hybrid, since it was good to get into one of the brand's cars and utter a genuine, "Yeah!" We were right, too, when we said that the 2014 RLX Sport Hybrid "is the V8 alternative we've been waiting for." But that's because it is the heavier, detuned-yet-fiercely-handling harbinger of the Acura NSX we really want.