2000 Acura RL Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Remarkable poise at a reasonable price.
World-class stature is hard to define, hard to come by, and hard to lose once it is earned. Acura, Honda's luxury division, makes no bones about its lofty mission for the 3.5RL flagship sedan. It aims to deliver everything a luxury buyer would expect from the best of the traditional luxury marques 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. After spending considerable time behind the wheel, we'd say the 3.5RL hits its mark squarely.
This sedan does a lot of things well, and appears completely devoid of shortcomings. The 3.5RL is well rounded, well equipped and reasonably priced. Like so many Honda products, its strength is balance. There are expensive sedans that are smoother, more powerful, more agile or faster. Yet the RL offers poise and grace, and it's fast enough to more than satisfy most luxury car buyers.
Little was changed for the 2000 model, as more than 300 separate improvements were made last year to enhance safety, comfort and performance. The exterior was restyled last year as well.
Only one model is offered, the $42,000 3.5RL with a 210-horsepower V6 and a four-speed automatic transmission. In Acura's wonderfully simple pricing structure, the 2000 RL's long list of features comes standard in the base price. Full leather, full power, heated seats, moonroof, and a six-CD changer are all standard. RL offers just one option - a $2,000 satellite navigation system.
The 3.5RL used to be called the Legend, a clear indication when Acura launched the Japanese luxury segment way back in 1986 of the company's intention to take on Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar and other luxury marques and to establish a heritage of its own. Several years ago, in emulation of the traditional naming systems used by those premier brands, Acura began switching to alphanumeric model designations. The '3.5' designates the displacement of its 3.5-liter V6; 'RL' stands for 'road luxury.'
The Acura RL is the largest Honda-built car in the United States. It is distinguished from other sedans that break the $40,000 barrier by its basic drivetrain layout: While many luxury flagships use rear-wheel drive and a V8 engine, Acura starts with front-wheel drive and a big V6. This arrangement may lack credibility in the eyes of some purists, but it shouldn't.
Outside, the sharply chiseled front end with a large, formal grille carries over from '99, as do sharp creases that run the length of the car just below window height. Chrome trim surrounds the grille, windows, rear deck and rub strips. The RL possesses a substantial, commanding look, similar in spirit to the LS 400 or Mercedes-Benz E-Class.
Beneath the skin, the RL's body structure is designed to minimize flex and vibration. Vibration dampening devices in the chassis, including hydraulic mounts for the rear suspension, ensure occupant ride in silky serenity.
Acura's side-impact airbags are among 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 airbag will not deploy. Furthermore, 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.
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. Plastic finished with pearlescent flecks and mica provides 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 dampen vibration. 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 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 driver looks at electroluminescent gauges that are crisp and easy to read, even in bright sunlight. Switches are easy to find and adjust.
The Acura 3.5RL transports driver and passengers in comfort with a high level of satisfaction and style. With dampening devices throughout the car, very little engine vibration finds its way into the cabin. 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 a carefully crafted mechanical beast. Accelerating from 0 to 60 mph comes in a quick 8 seconds flat. The RL's four-speed automatic 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 in 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. Large disc brakes at all four wheels keep stopping distances short and reduce brake fade. 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-wheel-drive layout offers inherent foul-weather advantages over rear-wheel drive, and Acura enhances that advantage with an effective traction control system that controls front wheel spin on slippery surfaces.
New for 2000 is Acura's Vehicle Stability Assist system. Like other such systems now on the market, VSA manages individual wheel braking forces and throttle control to maintain directional stability during hard cornering, sudden collision-avoidance maneuvers, or any sudden loss of traction. 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. The menu is easy to use with a little practice. Punch in an address 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 system gets upgraded for 2000 with a larger, color LCD screen and a DVD player - an industry first. Detailed maps and instructions for the entire U.S. are now available on a single disk. Previously, dealers had to reprogram the system software if owners moved or wished to travel outside of their home region.
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 Acura RL, perhaps. But with its own navigation system and 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 3.5RL couldn'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 for anything else.
Options As Tested
satellite-linked DVD navigation system ($2,000); destination charge ($455).
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