2001 Acura RL Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
World-class luxury for less.
As you might expect from Honda/Acura, the 3.5 RL represents a decidedly different approach to a world-class luxury sedan. V6-powered and front-wheel driven, the RL nonetheless challenges the top traditional luxury models, many of them boasting more cylinders, more horsepower, and more conservative rear-wheel drive. Yet, after spending considerable time behind the wheel, we'd say the 3.5 RL has hit its mark squarely-at a price just about $10,000 less than the benchmark Lexus LS 430.
This RL does a lot of things well, and nothing badly. Like so many Honda products, its strength is its balance. There are expensive sedans that are smoother, more powerful, more agile or faster. Yet the RL offers poise and grace at a reasonable price--and it's plenty fast enough to satisfy most luxury car buyers.
The 1999 RL benefited from an exterior restyling and more than 300 engineering improvements; Acura has made few changes since then. For 2001, the RL's long list of standard equipment has expanded to include carpeted floor mats and an emergency inside trunk release.
In Acura's wonderfully simple pricing structure, only one model is offered: the $42,150 3.5 RL, with a 210-horsepower V6, a four-speed automatic transmission, and a long list of standard luxuries, including full leather, full power, heated seats, moonroof, and a six-CD changer.
The 2001 RL offers just one option, a $2,000 DVD-based satellite navigation system.
Back in 1986, Acura launched its luxury flagship as the Legend-the name itself signaling Honda's intention to take on Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar and to establish a heritage of its own. Several years ago, Acura dropped the Legend name in favor of the alphanumeric designation 3.5 RL, where '3.5' designates the displacement of its 3.5-liter V6 and 'RL' stands for 'road luxury.' Since the 3.5-liter V6 is the only engine available, the car is often referred to as simply the RL.
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 other luxury flagships use V8 engines to drive their rear wheels, Acura makes do with front-wheel drive and a big, longitudinally mounted V6. This arrangement may lack credibility in the eyes of some purists, but it doesn't seem to hurt the RL's real-world performance.
Outside, the RL hasn't changed significantly since its 1999 restyling. A sharply chiseled front end still showcases a large, formal grille, and sharp creases still run the length of the body just below window height. Chrome trim surrounds the grille and windows, and accents the rear deck and rub strips. The RL possesses a substantial, commanding look, similar in spirit to the LS 430 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 occupants 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 3.5 RL 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 the LS 430 and Mercedes 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, and 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 V6 is running.
But not when the driver jabs the gas pedal: The RL steps out 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.
Additionally, Acura's Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) system 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 DVD 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 was upgraded last year 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. Acura RL's DVD navigation system was ranked highest in the J.D. Power and Associates 2000 Navigation Usage and Satisfaction Study.
The Acura 3.5 RL performs in the 90th percentile in every important luxury-car measure, and a large share of potential buyers will 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 430 is a bit smoother, quieter and quicker than the Acura RL, perhaps. But with its own navigation system and comparable equipment, the LS 430 retails for nearly $15,000 more. History suggests that a V8-powered Mercedes E 430 will hold its value better than the RL. Yet that E 430 costs at least $10,000 more at the outset. Even six-cylinder competitors like the Mercedes E 320 can cost $3,000 more than the RL, without as many amenities. That makes the RL a mighty attractive alternative.
You might say that, without a V8 engine or the class-standard rear-wheel drive, the 3.5 RL 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.
3.5 RL ($42,150).
Options As Tested
satellite-linked DVD navigation system ($2,000).
3.5 RL ($42,150).
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