2003 Acura RL Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Increased horsepower, sport-tuned suspension.
The 3.5 RL is the ultimate luxury Acura. Like nearly all Honda products, the RL is light on its feet and uses front-wheel drive. With only a 3.5-liter V6 for power, it goes head-to-head with rear-drive, V8-powered competitors.
The 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, or more agile. Yet the RL offers poise and grace at a reasonable price. And it's plenty fast enough to satisfy most luxury car buyers.
For 2002, a new exhaust silencer and other refinements have boosted horsepower and torque by 3 and 7 percent, respectively. Wider P225/55R16 Michelin all-season radials and a firmer suspension enhance the RL's already impressive cornering grip. The speed-sensitive power steering has been re-tuned for more road feel.
Acura has kept the RL model lineup commendably simple: There's just one model, the 3.5 RL, listing for $43,150. All are powered by a 3.5-liter V6.
Nearly every conceivable amenity comes with the price of admission, including traction control, stability control, front and side-impact airbags, automatic air conditioning with micro air filtration, full leather upholstery, eight-way power seats with memory and heat, a moonroof, a Bose sound system with a six-disc CD changer, and a power assist for everything that could be power assisted.
The only option offered is a $2,000 DVD-based satellite navigation system.
The Acura RL is the largest car Honda-Acura sells 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 last re-styling in 1999. A sharply chiseled front end showcases a large, formal grille, and sharp creases 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 the current 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.
This is a comfortable, luxurious car. 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.
The RL's cabin seats five in comfort, with interior dimensions that are competitive with the Lexus LS 430 and current Mercedes-Benz 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. A compartment on the left side of the trunk is useful for holding a bottle of wine or other small grocery items that tend to roll around on the way home. The CD changer is located in the trunk instead of in the dash where it's more convenient.
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 driver looks at electroluminescent gauges that are crisp and easy to read, even in bright sunlight. Switches are easy to find and adjust. The dash-mounted ignition switch is easier to use than a column switch.
To shift into Reverse from Neutral or Drive, you have to push the shifter down as well as forward, which we found awkward and annoying when in a hurry. We were not enamored with center console armrest that extends upward.
The optional navigation system features big graphics that are easy to follow. It's easy to program destinations and there's an all-important Cancel button, though turning it off takes too many steps. 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. Detailed maps and instructions for the entire U.S. are available on a single disk.
The Acura RL 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 this is a carefully crafted mechanical beast. Stomp on it from a full stop, and 60 mph arrives in less than 8 seconds. The RL's four-speed automatic transmission shifts crisply and decisively, but never abruptly. Kickdown shifts are immediate. With good torque at all engine speeds, quick lane changes are easy work.
The 3.5-liter V6 features one belt-driven overhead camshaft per cylinder bank, four valves per cylinder, and three-stage variable induction. Retuned for 2002, the 3.5-liter V6 now produces 225 horsepower at 5200 rpm, and 231 pound-feet of torque at 2800. (Last year's engine developed 210 horsepower and 224 pound-feet at the same engine speeds.) The V6 drives the RL's front wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission with a locking torque converter and Grade Logic Control.
Ride quality may be the single most important issue for luxury car buyers. Past RL's have traveled on the soft side of the road, while avoiding wallow and float, and still keeping the driver in touch with the road. The 2002 RL feels a little firmer on the road, and through the steering wheel. And if the driver feels frisky, the RL is up to the job. It turns in quickly for a large, heavy sedan, takes a steady set and tracks through a curve with authority. Large disc brakes at all four wheels keep stopping distances short and reduce brake fade.
In all, the driving experience is exactly what one expects in a solid, well-tuned luxury sedan. Aerodynamic tweaks on the front end, mirrors and underside 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 limits front wheel spin on slippery surfaces.
Additionally, Acura's Vehicle Stability Assist (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.
The Acura 3.5 RL is a superb luxury car, and offers a strong value. It reaches the 90th percentile in every important luxury-car test, and a large share of potential buyers will never miss that last 10 percent. And 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-Benz E 430 will hold its value better than the RL, if you don't mind paying at least $10,000 more for the E430 initially. Even six-cylinder competitors like the Mercedes-Benz E320 can cost $5,000 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 ($43,150) (KA9652JT).
Options As Tested
satellite-linked DVD navigation system ($2,000).
3.5 RL ($43,150) (KA9652JT).
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