2008 Acura RL Expert Review
Click the Acura RL for a high-res gallery
Being first to the party is often not a guarantee that you'll be the most popular. Diamond Multimedia was one of the first to introduce a portable MP3 player with the Rio 500, but it wasn't until some other company brought out a device called the iPod that the market broke wide open. Similarly, Toyota's Lexus division is currently the big dog among Japanese luxury car brands, but it was by no means the first. In 1986, Honda opened up 18 new stores with a brand called Acura.
Over the years, the Acura Legend evolved into the RL as Acura changed its nomenclature. Honda seemed to struggle, however, with what its top sedan was supposed to be. It went from what looked like a fancy Accord to a soft and underpowered Lexus wannabe and finally took a sharp left turn with this latest iteration. The current third generation RL first appeared back in 2005 when it was reintroduced as a luxury sport sedan.
We were actually first exposed to the RL in late summer when Acura held its 2008 model preview at the Waterford Hills race track just north of Detroit. Immediately following that session of thrashing the RL on the track, we asked Acura if we could spend more time with an RL and got one for a week shortly afterward.
All photos ©2007 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.
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The previous generation RL wasa distinctly bland and more upright sedan that was strongly reminiscent of the first generation Lexus LS. In sharp contrast to virtually every other car made, the latest iteration actually got smaller than its predecessor. While the current RL's styling likely won't set your heart aflutter at first glance, it does have perfect proportions and trim mid-sized dimensions.
The grille and headlights sweep back smoothly into the hood and fenders with none of the bulging light clusters like on the new Accord and other recent models. The bodywork is devoid of any current styling cliches like clear lens taillights, fender vents or "Bangelized" flame surfacing. The roof-line curves cleanly from the front fenders to the rear, and there are no odd cut-lines for the trunk lid like you would find on recent cars from Munich. It's just a handsome car that will probably look as good a decade from now as it did on introduction. It may not grab eyes like the new 2008 CadillacCTS, but it won't embarrass you either.
PETA supporters need not apply to the RL club. The inside of the RL is upholstered in marvelously soft cream-colored animal hides. Even on this example that arrived with only a few hundred miles on the clock, the leather looked new but felt like a well worn glove. Like the Accord, the front seats coddle their occupants while providing just the right amount of support in the right places. When we drove the RL at the track, the seats never felt confining and always kept us positioned directly in front of the wheel. That's important, because this car is capable of some impressive cornering feats on the track thanks to it's special all-wheel-drive system.
While I'm personally not a big fan of wood trim inside my car, if a car-maker is going to use it, it should at least do it right. On this count Acura has again done it right. A lovely strip of veneer stretches across the center of the dash and down into the front arm-rests and is repeated in the rear door panels. It's polished, but not to the degree that it looks like plastic. The gauge cluster has large legible numbers and a pleasant blue glow emanating from the center of each gauge. At night, opening the doors reveals foot-wells lit by the same blue light.
The steering wheel is power adjustable for both reach and rake, which, combined with the multiple seat adjustments, means a driver should always be able to find a comfortable position. The wheel itself has an array of redundant controls for the audio system, a bluetooth phone and the adaptive cruise control (ACC) system. The ACC has a radar unit mounted behind the logo in the grille that detects the presence of vehicles ahead. It allows the RL to maintain a minimum following distance by backing off the throttle and gently applying the brakes if someone pulls in front of you or slows down. If the leading car speeds up or gets out of the way the ACC will automatically bring the RL back up to the speed you set. If the car gets to close for the RL to slow down, the system beeps and flashes a warning in the instrument cluster. We decided to test out the system one morning when approaching a traffic jam on the highway. This blogger's life was literally in the hands of Honda engineers, so I hovered my foot over the brake while letting the ACC slow down the car to see what it would do. The RL automatically decelerated from 70 mph to 20 mph, all the while maintaining a safe distance before the warning flashed and I had to take over.
Sitting at the top of the dash is the navigation screen that, like the Accord, is controlled by a joystick/knob on the center stack. As with the Accord, the system does not try to embed all the controls in just the knob. Primary controls have dedicated buttons on the stack and steering wheel. Delving deeper into the menus does require use of the knob though, but this is mainly for setup options. The RL is equipped with the AcuraLink telematics system that can pull up a variety of information onscreen. The coolest feature by far is the live traffic information that pulls up real-time information about construction, accidents and traffic jams along with their distance from your current position. The system worked great and even showed road work sites that weren't listed on the Michigan Department of Transportation web-site.
In the back there is plenty of space for two full-sized adults and more limited space for three. For those wanting some protection from the sun, a power retractable shade can cover the rear window and similar shades can be pulled up from the rear door window sills. The rear seat back doesn't fold down but it does have a pass-through for long thin items. When compared with better known competitors like the BMW 5-series, Mercedes E-Class, Infiniti M35 and even the new Cadillac CTS, all five cars are within and inch or two in all major dimensions, have similar power and weight and, except for the less expensive CTS, are roughly the same price with comparable equipment. The only dimension where the RL differs much is the wheelbase, which is a little shorter at 110.2 inches, compared with a range of 112.4 to 114.2 inches for the others.
Under the hood, the RL has a VTEC-equipped 3.5L V6 pumping out 290 HP and 256 lb-ft of torque. The engine's output is sent to the road via a five-speed automatic trans-axle that distributes the work to all four wheels. Acura calls its system Super Handling-All Wheel Drive, and it incorporates a pair of electronically-controlled clutches in the rear axle that work in conjunction with the stability control system to direct drive torque to the individual wheels that will keep the car on its intended path. The torque vectoring takes over some of the work that the brakes normally have to do for the stability control system. It also helps maintain forward momentum during hard cornering, whereas a conventional system would just scrub off more speed. Overall the system intervenes in a remarkably seamless manner with none of the jerking around that's exhibited by some other cars (We're talking to you, Toyota!). The RL just tends to go where you point it, which makes us very forgiving that it's not rear-wheel-drive like the majority of its competitors. While most of those cars do offer AWD as an option, they're just simply not as good as the Acura's system.
The Opulent Blue Pearl RL that Acura provided was loaded with every available option and priced out at $54,036 including delivery charges. That may seem steep, but all of the RL's competitors come in around the same price save for the Cadillac CTS. The question for you as a buyer is whether or not Acura has earned the kind of clout that can demand such a premium price tag. For instance, you can build a 2008 BMW 535xi sedan with the Sports Package for just over $55,000. Plus, the all-wheel-drive CTS comes in at about $10K less than either car, and considering the Caddy's critical acclaim so far, that doesn't bode well for RL sales. However, if the styling of the CTS doesn't turn your crank and a BMW is too pretentious, the RL is certainly worthy of a look. If you don't need the navigation system or the adaptive cruise control, a base RL can be had from a more palatable $46,200. After a day of thrashing the Acura RL at the track and then a week of driving on the freeway, city and back roads, we can say that the Acura RL is probably the most under-appreciated luxury sport sedan on the road.
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The Acura RL is sporty and fun to drive, combining a free-revving, 290-horsepower V6 engine with all-wheel drive, and a nicely balanced suspension for great grip, responsive handling and superior stability. Yet it rides smoothly. The throttle and brakes are smooth and easy to modulate, making the RL a comfortable car in stop-and-go traffic.
Acura's innovative all-wheel-drive system makes the RL easy to drive and helps keep its driver out of trouble. Called Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive, the system overdrives the outside rear wheel when motoring around corners, improving the handling balance and enhancing stability. Indeed, the RL is very stable in corners. We found it smoothes over minor driver errors, making us look and feel skillful. With this setup, the RL handles adverse weather exceptionally well, making it an excellent choice in Seattle, Denver, Chicago, Boston, or anywhere else that gets rain and snow. And while the 24-valve VTEC V6 provides plenty of punch, it's relatively efficient, netting an EPA-estimated 26 mpg Highway.
The RL offers the latest in navigation, communications, and collision-avoidance technology. Acura's navigation system is the best in the business. But the RL also offers AcuraLink traffic information in real time for 44 major cities: Clogged freeways are highlighted in red, flying freeways in green. This system works impressively well. We've put it to good use in avoiding traffic jams in Los Angeles.
The Acura RL can help drivers avoid pile-ups. The optional Collision Mitigation Braking System works with the Adaptive Cruise Control. Using radar, the system will alert the driver, pretension the seatbelts, and slam on the brakes when it senses an imminent impact. We tested this system in a controlled exercise and were very impressed with its ability to warn the driver and help avoid an accident or, in the worst case, reduce the severity of the impact.
For 2007, some of the features that used to be standard have been made optional to reduce the base price. Acura's satellite navigation system and Active Front Lighting, which aims the headlights into turns, are no longer standard.
The 2007 Acura RL is available with three levels of equipment (one more than last year), and with no additional options.
The base RL ($45,780) comes loaded with nearly every luxury and convenience feature imaginable, including leather upholstery.
With the Technology Package, the RL ($49,400) comes with Satellite Navigation, AcuraLink with Real Time Traffic reporting, a rearview camera, Zagat reviews, Active Front Lighting, and wood interior trim.
The RL with Technology Package plus CMBS and PAX ($53,200) adds Acura's Collision Mitigation Braking System and Michelin PAX run-flat tires.
Accessories include a wood steering wheel and shift knob, all-weather floor mats, a trunk net and cargo organizer, and an engine-block heater for cold climates.
Safety features include Super Handling All Wheel Drive, Vehicle Stability Assist with traction control, and anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and Brake Assist. Passive safety features include driver's and front-passenger's dual-stage, dual-threshold airbags, side curtain airbags designed to provide head protection for passengers in all outboard seating positions, and side-impact airbags designed to provide torso protection for driver and front passenger; with an occupant position detection system for the front passenger. A tire pressure monitoring system is also standard. The optional rearview camera can help alert the driver to small children behind the vehicle when backing up.
Sleek and sporty, the Acura RL is an attractive car, though not particularly interesting. Parked next to a Toyota Camry, the RL looks anonymous.
Its muscular exterior styling is designed to suggest abundant power. In front, a dramatically sloping hood leads down to an aggressive front fascia with angular headlight treatments, Acura's signature five-sided grille, and distinctive lower air intake openings. The front end is smooth with nicely integrated bumpers and headlamps.
The rear is short to reduce aerodynamic drag and improve maneuverability. The rear three-quarter view is suggestive of a BMW 7 Series: Viewed from the side, the rear deck seems separated from the fenders.
High-intensity discharge headlights employ the Active Front Lighting System, which swivels the headlight beams up to 20 degrees in either direction when the steering wheel is turned, providing better visibility when cornering.
The cabin is luxurious and functional. The seats are comfortable for cruising yet supportive for hard driving. The wide armrests have a nice soft feel. The Acura RL is a roomy car, though the back seats don't offer as much room as some of the other cars in this class do.
The cabin is finished in handsome leather with attractive stitching. Real wood is used sparingly and tastefully around the cabin on all but the base model, and it's not too shiny. Acura says it used the finest materials and exacting attention to detail in the interior design. It shows.
The Technology Package includes satellite navigation, which features voice recognition and a large, eight-inch display screen. Positioned at the top of the center stack, the display looks like it might be a touch screen, but it isn't. Instead, an interface dial functions something like a computer mouse to control all accessory functions. Positioned on the center stack, in front of the shifter, the dial is rotated like a knob and rocked like a joystick to select among function menus displayed on the screen. Pushing down on the knob selects the highlighted function. Functions controlled by the interface dial include the climate control system, audio, navigation, and the AcuraLink satellite communications system. This interface dial is similar in concept to that of BMW's controversial iDrive, but Acura added redundant buttons on the instrument panel and steering wheel for most of the commonly used functions and it's easier to use than BMW's system.
Acura's navigation systems are perennially among the best available and the RL's system works very well. In the past, we've praised them for their ease of operation, clear instructions, speedy route calculations, and absence of errors. As with all of these systems, there is a learning curve, however. You'll need to study the owner's manual and exercise patience before you can fully master the system and use it to its maximum advantage. Even then, trying to program navigation or other functions while driving is very dangerous; you should pull over, program your destination, get organized, then set out.
AcuraLink satellite communications delivers in-car traffic information in real time for 44 major cities, helping drivers avoid congested roads. It works best in the cities that have the infrastructure to support it, Los Angeles among them. Traffic flow is shown by color-coding the highways in three levels: light traffic is shown in green, normal traffic in yellow, slow traffic in red. The driver can view the map and choose the routes with the lightest traffic. The system uses live data from the highway departments using technology developed by XM Satellite Radio. It's easy to use, and commuters in cities with this technology will find it's well worth the cost of the package.
Bluetooth wireless technology allows hands-free dialing and communication and integrates compatible cell phones. As with other features, the Bluetooth cellphone setup can respond to voice commands. The Keyless Access System automatically unlocks the doors and allows the driver to start the car without having to dig the keyless remote out of pocket or purse.
The back seats are comfortable, though they don't offer quite as much space as some of the other cars in this class. The rear doors open wide, making it easier to get into and out of the back seats. A retractable rear sunshade filters the sun, nice for back-seat riders on bright days. Retractable rear headrests improve rearward visibility when people aren't back there.
The trunk is nicely finished and offers 13 cubic feet of space. The keyless access system prevents locking the key fob in the trunk.
The Acura RL is smooth, responsive and enjoyable in everyday driving. On winding roads, it delivers agile handling and a taut, poised feel. It grips the corners, has excellent transient response and stops in a short distance. The ride is a nice balance, firm enough to feel expansion joints but not so firm as to be harsh. The RL cruises easily and comfortably. The cabin is quiet, benefiting from a noise cancellation system that reduces road noise and tire noise but especially boom from the engine exhaust.
Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive improves the handling of the RL considerably. SH-AWD distributes power not only between the front and rear wheels but also between the left and right rear wheels. The system controls this distribution of power precisely to enhance handling. Essentially, the system overdrives the outside rear wheel in corners to reduce the understeer that is inherent with all-wheel-drive layouts. As a result, the RL doesn't plow in corners. It simply motors around them.
We found this all-wheel-drive setup particularly helpful in tight corners where it keeps the nose of the car tucked in. The car seemed to respond well to throttle in the corners. The effects of overdriving one of the rear wheels is most noticeable at competition speeds, but the system improves handling feel even at a moderate pace. The RL just feels precise. It goes exactly where you want to go. The SH-AWD improves handling stability on dry or wet roads and the all-wheel drive improves traction and stability on snow and ice. The system is biased to the front. When cruising along, 70 percent of the engine's power goes to the front wheels, and 30 percent goes to the rear wheels. Stand on it, however, and up to 70 percent of the power goes to the rear wheels. That means little or no wheel spin when accelerating.
The driver can sense the front-wheel-drive bias of the RL. The rear-wheel-drive BMW 5 Series sedan feels livelier than the RL, making it more fun to drive. With its firmer suspension, the BMW feels more taut than the RL. However, the RL is easier to push to the limit in unfamiliar corners. So the RL would be an excellent choice if you had to choose a car to try to outrun bad guys over an unfamiliar mountain road, and that would be particularly true if the conditions were slippery or unpredictable. The styling isn't flashy enough for James Bond, however.
The 3.5-liter V6 engine generates plenty of acceleration performance and the RL responds quickly to jabs at the throttle. The V6 delivers impressive power, rated at 290 horsepower at 6200 rpm and 256 pound-feet of torque at 5000 rpm. Luxury cars with V8 engines offer more power and more low-end response, but the RL delivers solid performance. The Acura RL can accelerate from 0-60 mph in less than 7 seconds, so it can compete with a BMW 530i. Acura's 24-valve, single overhead-cam, aluminum VTEC V6 combines strong power with low emissions and reasonable fuel economy: The RL meets the government's stringent standards as a LEV2-ULEV Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle and earns an EPA-estimated City/Highway 18/26 mpg.
The five-speed automatic transmission is excellent and aids the RL driving experience considerably. Shifting is crisp and quick but super-smooth, making the RL more responsive and more enjoyable. It seems to shift up early, but never seems to hunt for gears. The driver can shift manually using the shift lever (located on the center console) or with paddle shifters located on the steering wheel. Using this Sequential SportShift feature is fun, but we usually prefer to put the transmission in Drive and let it do the job it does so well, allowing us to concentrate on braking, steering and accelerating.
We found the brakes to be excellent, with a good, firm pedal. The brake system employs big, ventilated brake rotors with four-piston aluminum calipers in front, with ventilated discs in the rear. Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD) automatically adjusts.
The Acura RL embraces the agile handling and quick acceleration performance of a sports sedan. It's easy to drive and helps keep its driver out of harm's way with the latest in all-wheel drive and active safety technology. Yet it rides nicely, coddles its occupants and exudes a sporty, luxurious ambience. Brakes and throttle are super smooth for comfortable driving in stop-and-go traffic. The Collision Mitigation Braking System helps drivers avoid pileups, while the real-time traffic system helps them avoid traffic jams. We recommend springing for the top-of-the-line, fully loaded model.
NewCarTestDrive.com editor Mitch McCullough filed this report after driving RLs in the Washington and Los Angeles metro areas.
Acura RL ($45,780); RL with Technology Package ($49,400); RL with Technology Package plus CMBS and PAX ($53,200).
Options As Tested
Acura RL with Technology Package plus CMBS and PAX ($53,200).
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