1999 Acura RL Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Value at the high end.
After a week and nearly 600 miles in an Acura 3.5RL, at least two things are clear. Acura's flagship sedan does not have a single shortcoming. Nor is the 3.5RL the best $40,000-plus luxury sedan by any single standard, or in any particular area. This car does a lot of things well, and it does almost nothing badly.
Acura is American Honda's luxury division, and like so many Honda products, the 3.5RL's strength is balance. There are expensive sedans that are either smoother, more powerful, more agile or faster. Yet the RL is plenty smooth, powerful and agile, and it's fast enough to more than satisfy most luxury car buyers.
Acura makes no bones about its mission for the 3.5RL. This sedan is supposed to deliver everything a luxury buyer expects -- from the quiet solace of a leather upholstered, wood-trimmed cabin to a supple, controlled ride -- at a price that's more than $10,000 less than a Lexus LS 400, the car often cited as the benchmark for Japanese luxury sedans. And if the RL is built to be well rounded and well equipped at a reasonable price, then it succeeds in spades.
With the 1999 model, Acura has undertaken a thorough freshening of the 3.5RL. It has more than 300 separate improvements intended to enhance safety, comfort and performance. This restyled RL has a more stately, engaging presence, and a longer list of standard equipment.
The 3.5RL used to be called the Legend. Then Acura began switching its cars to alpha-numeric model names. The Legend was the first in a wave of Japanese luxury cars that washed onto North American shores in the late 1980s. And some executives at Acura still regret giving up the brand equity that went with the Legend nameplate. The 3.5RL has yet to build the name recognition the Legend enjoyed.
The RL is the largest Honda-built car in the United States, and it's distinguished from other sedans that break the $40,000 barrier by its basic drivetrain layout. While many car companies build their luxury flagships with rear-drive and V8 engines, Acura starts with front-wheel drive and a big V6.
Most of the '99 RL's exterior panels have been redesigned. The front end is more sharply chiseled, with a larger, more formal grille. Sharp creases run the length of the car just below window height. Chrome trim is around the grille, windows, rear deck and rub strips. The changes give the RL a more substantial, commanding look, similar in spirit to the LS 400 or Mercedes-Benz E-Class.
The new sheetmetal covers a number of substantive changes. The RL's body structure has been strengthened with the aid of a Cray supercomputer to reduce flex and vibration. There are new vibration dampening devices in the chassis, including hydraulic mounts for the rear suspension. The brake discs are larger at all four wheels to shorten stopping distances and reduce brake fade.
New side-impact airbags are probably the most sophisticated in production. They deploy from the seat bolster, rather than the door panel; seven electronic sensors measure the size and position of passengers. If a youngster in the front seat is leaning against the door, for example (a situation where the airbag might do more harm than good), the bag will not deploy. Further, the front passenger airbag deploys with less force in light contact or at a lower speed than it would in a heavy impact or at higher speeds.
The '99 RL comes with virtually all the comforts and conveniences, from heated seats to a six-CD changer, in the base price. The only factory installed option is the satellite navigation system fitted in our test car.
From any of its seats, the 3.5RL has the look and feel of an expensive car. Camphor wood trim is polished to a satin luster. Plastics are finished with a spray that contains pearlescent flecks and mica for a rich, durable finish. Leather surfaces are supple, with the appropriate, no-doubt-it's-leather scent.
RL's cabin seats five in comfort, and interior dimensions are competitive with cars such as the LS 400 and E-Class. The front seats are firm enough for good support, but never hard on the backside; computer-designed seat springs are intended to dampen any vibration rising from the floor pan. There's adequate rear headroom. Rear passengers can adjust the register on the back of the center console to direct airflow toward their feet or face. A pass-through portal to the trunk accommodates long items such as skis.
All the amenities are there, including an automatic day/night rear-view mirror and driver-position memory that links the seat, steering wheel and side mirrors. The center armrest is adjustable for height. The driver looks at electroluminescent gauges that are crisp and easy to read, even in bright sunlight.
Most switches are easy to find and adjust, though we might quibble with placement of a few. The driver's temperature adjustment dial sits where one intuitively expects the stereo volume control, while the volume is higher and to the driver's far right. A trunk-mounted CD changer is standard equipment.
Luxury buyers expect a long list of amenities, but all the gadgets in the world don't do a thing if the car that carries them doesn't fulfill its basic duty: Transporting driver and passengers in comfort, with a high level of satisfaction and style.
The 3.5RL meets its obligations, and then some. If its V6 engine is inherently less smooth than a good V8, Acura has nonetheless gone to great pains making amends. There are vibration dampening devices throughout the car, including a balance shaft in the engine and electronically controlled hydraulic engine mounts. Very little vibration finds its way into the cabin via the steering column, foot pedals or floor pan. At idle, it's easy to forget the RL is running.
But not when the driver jabs the gas pedal. The RL gets rolling in an exhilarating rush, and the subdued roar of the engine never lets anyone forget that it is, after all, a carefully crafted mechanical beast. Accelerating from 0 to 60 mph comes in about eight seconds flat -- not a class benchmark, but quick. While five-speed automatics are increasingly the luxury-car standard, the RL's four-speed is very effective. It shifts crisply and decisively, but never abruptly. Kickdown shifts are immediate. With good torque at all engine speeds, quick lane changes are easy work.
Ride quality may be the single most important issue for luxury car buyers, and the 3.5RL travels on the soft side. Yet it never wallows or floats over bumps, and it never allows the driver to forget that the tires are connected to the pavement. And if that driver gets a bit frisky or aggressive, the RL is up to the job. Steering is light, yet the car turns quickly for a large, heavy sedan. It leans over a bit at turn-in, then takes a steady set and tracks through curves with authority. Measured by its willingness to be driven hard, the 3.5RL sits near the middle of the luxury car pack.
In all, the driving experience is exactly what one expects in a solid, well-tuned luxury sedan. Airflow managing tweaks on the front end, mirrors and undertray keep wind noise to a minimum, even at triple-digit speeds. The RL's front-drive layout offers inherent foul-weather advantages over rear drive, and Acura enhances that advantage with an effective traction control system that controls front-wheel spin on slippery surfaces. An RL owner needn't fear the onslaught of rain or snow.
Nor, with the optional navigation system, should he or she worry about finding a destination. The satellite-guided navigation system almost falls into the too-amazing-to-believe category. Punch in an address (the menu is easy to use with a little practice), and in seconds the system calculates a route to get you there. Deviate from the prescribed route and it quickly recalculates. The display shows both a route map and directions for turns, with plenty of warning. The voice prompt, which can be turned on or off, has advantages, though it takes some getting used to. The machine speaks in a female voice with a Japanese accent, and it identifies many roads -- even surface streets -- as 'freeways.'
The navigation system isn't just a novelty. Going to a new cross-town restaurant for the first time? Type in the address and the system will guide you. Acura's navigation system comes programmed with software that covers roughly one-sixth of the United States, depending on where the buyer lives, and a full guide for the Interstate system. In terms of new locations or subdivisions, the database is up to date. Further, the purchase price includes software adjustments or updates for two years. If a buyer moves, or plans a driving vacation in another region of the country, a dealer will reprogram the navigation system free of charge.
The Acura 3.5 RL performs to the 90th percentile in every important luxury-car category; a large share of potential buyers will probably never miss that last 10 percent. In the rare air of luxury sedan prices, the RL comes with an exceptionally handsome window sticker.
A Lexus LS 400 is a bit smoother, quieter and quicker than the RL, perhaps. But with its own navigation system and the comparable equipment, the LS 400 retails for nearly $15,000 more. History suggests that a V8-powered Mercedes E430 will hold its value better than the RL. Yet that E430 costs at least $10,000 more at the outset. Even six-cylinder competitors like the Mercedes E320 can cost $3,000 more than the RL, without as many amenities. In such terms, the RL is a mighty attractive alternative.
You might say that, without a V8 engine or the class-standard rear-wheel drive, the RL can't compete with the best luxury sedans. Or you might ask, given its overall balance of luxury and performance, why anyone would pay a dime more than it takes to buy an Acura 3.5RL.
Options As Tested
Satellite-linked navigation system ($2,000), floor mats ($109).
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