Earlier in the year, I reviewed a powder-blue Volkswagen Beetle Convertible, and I witnessed a group of high-school-aged girls ogling the car as it sat in my driveway. In my head, I found it to be a funny-yet-fitting scene that I didn't think of again until a 2014 Acura RLX showed up in my driveway. This time around, an elderly neighborhood couple stopped to give the big Acura sedan a closer look. The RLX is trying to shed past stereotypes of its predecessor, the Acura RL, just like the Beetle. Hoping to avoid becoming the de facto "grandpa car," Acura has completely reworked – and renamed – its flagship sedan.
As the bookend to the new entry-level ILX, the addition of the 2014 RLX might give Acura its strongest sedan lineup ever as the automaker looks to break the cycle of being a middle-of-the-road luxury brand. Stepping up to the big-boy table isn't going to be easy, though, as the competition keeps getting tougher. Forget cars like the Mercedes E-Class and BMW 5 Series, the Acura RLX is going to have its hands full with the likes of the Cadillac XTS, Lexus GS and Hyundai Genesis, not to mention a strong consortium of lower-priced, mid-luxury sedans like the Hyundai Azera, Toyota Avalon and Chevy Impala. The one thing all of these cars have in common is a reputation for being an old man cruiser.
I spent a week with the new RLX to see if it could shake the stigma of its outdated predecessor or if it would just leave me searching for the nearest early bird specials.
Compared to the ultra-anonymous RL, the 2014 RLX is a sharp car, but line it up against other luxury sedans and it's clear that Acura has played it very safe with this sedan's design. The RLX does have an assertive face with a toned-down version of Acura's signature shield grille and those attention-grabbing LED headlights. These "jewel eyes" might add a little too much busyness to the RLX's face, but they definitely help the car stand out in a crowd, while the sculpted front fenders add some athleticism to the design.
Unfortunately, as your eyes move down the rest of the car, there's very little to get excited about. The doors have a similar slab-sided styling to the RL, and the rear view is a major letdown for us, with those chrome-wrapped reflectors that attempt to mimic exhaust outlets, an uninspired decklid and taillights that look like something that found on a Chevy Malibu or Subaru Impreza. We more easily understand when volume cars like the Honda Civic receive timid redesigns so as not to alienate their hundreds of thousands of repeat customers, but we think Acura really missed the opportunity to get daring (maybe not ZDX daring) to attract more style-driven luxury buyers. It has, in effect, carefully updated the look of the outgoing RL, whose only inherent wildness amounts to its "wildly unsuccessful" sales run.
Acura really missed an opportunity to get daring.
As is the case with most current Acura products, the lineage to the Honda brand is easily recognizable inside the RLX. This starts right at the dual-hooded instrument panel, which closely resembles what you will find inside a Honda Accord. That's not to say that this car feels anything like the plebian Honda, but there's just not enough 'wow factor' inside the RLX to separate them completely in the minds of buyers. Compounding this issue is the fact that the RLX fails to offer a panoramic roof. In a similar baffling move that left the option of a navigation system out of the sportier ILX 2.4, we have to wonder how Acura could have left out the option of a big glass roof on its begging-to-be-loved flagship. For a car wanting to play with the big boys in its class, this omission for an all-new model is a head-scratcher.
What the RLX's cabin lacks in visual pizzazz, it makes up for with roominess and refinement that truly defines this car as a luxury sedan with excellent infotainment technology to boot. On the technology front, the dual screens are a helpful tool to see and control vehicle information. The top screen displays navigation info, which can be controlled using the lower touchscreen, with the latter also controlling the audio, phone and other functions. Despite the screens offering haptic feedback, Acura still leaves plenty of hard buttons – something plaguing other trick infotainment systems (especially from Cadillac and Ford) – and the only primary function to annoyingly go without a hard button is the climate system's fan speed control. Acura's high-tech cabin is still very user friendly by offering numerous levels of redundancy for the driver, as systems like the navigation and audio can be operated using the touchscreen display, the large center knob or through voice commands.
Compared to the RL, the wheelbase of the RLX has been stretched by two inches and the car is almost that much wider.
Compared to the RL, the wheelbase of the RLX has been stretched by two inches and the car is almost that much wider, equating to a substantially roomier cabin for all occupants. Up front, the seats are wide but supportive, but it's the rear seating that might be the best place to sit, with ample room to stretch out on long trips and rear and side sunshades on higher level trim lines. Adding to the comfort, all but the base model get nice perforated leather and the upper trim levels receive acoustic glass. Added to all of the other sound-deadening measures, the RLX is left with a whisper-quiet cabin.
That is, until you turn the volume knob up on the optional 450-watt, 14-speaker Krell Audio system. The highlight of this package is the upgraded 'ultra-premium' sound system that one-ups Acura's top-notch ELS audio system with the higher-quality Krell speakers and amps. The system delivers a crisp, clear sound that is probably better than most living room setups. But you're going to pay for it.
At $48,450 (in base form and not including the $895 destination charge), the RLX is a great car, but the as-tested price of our Krell-equipped RLX rang in at $57,845. That's not an easy pill to swallow even in this segment, and this wasn't even the highest-priced model. Go full boat, and you're looking at the RLX with Advanced Package and a price tag north of $60,000. There are a plethora of luxury sedans to cross-shop when you start playing the "What can I buy for $60,000?" game. As much as Acura would like to think the RLX will compete against rear-wheel-drive German sport sedans, this new four-door compares better to the aforementioned Lexus GS, Cadillac XTS and maybe even the Audi A6. The problem, of course, is that except for the rear-drive GS, all of the other cars listed here offer an all-wheel-drive system.
Acura's Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) system may have been one of the only reasons to justify the purchase of an RL – it was standard equipment on that car – but, for now, the RLX is only offered in a front-wheel-drive configuration. Sending power to the front wheels is a 3.5-liter V6, which, while smaller than the RL's engine, is more powerful and more efficient. The first Acura to utilize direct injection and cylinder deactivation, the RLX puts out 310 horsepower and 272 pound-feet of torque – not much of an increase in power over the RL's 300 hp and 271 lb-ft, but big gains in fuel economy partially make up for it.
For now, the RLX is only offered in a front-wheel-drive configuration.
Official EPA fuel economy estimates for the RLX stand at 20 miles per gallon in the city and 31 mpg highway, compared to 17 mpg city and 24 mpg highway for the 2012 RL, but there's no doubt this could have been even better had Acura ditched this six-speed automatic transmission for a more advanced transmission, like the seven- or eight-speed gearboxes that are now commonplace among luxury automobiles. Many of these added-speed transmissions are tuned for squeezing every last mpg from the car, but the RLX's six-speed automatic still exhibited a tried-and-true feel with every up and downshift being exactly where they should – neither too soft nor too harsh.
Down the road, the RLX Sport Hybrid, making its official debut at the LA Auto Show this week, will bring with it the all-wheel-drive system and seven-speed dual-clutch transmission that this car needs to be competitive. In the meantime, however, Acura buyers wanting a big sedan are stuck with this front-wheel-drive model. One redeeming factor that has Acura built into the RLX is the new Precision All-Wheel Steer (P-AWS) system. An acronym that might be better suited for a Jaguar, this system helps the RLX feel less like the front-driver it is by adding some steering assistance to the rear wheels. The rear wheels are able to steer with or against the front wheels depending on vehicle speed, which helps make the RLX easier to maneuver in low speeds and a little more nimble in corners. Taking things a bit further, the rear wheels are also able to angle inward (toe-in) during hard braking to bring the RLX to a stop more quickly. We suspect that last feature isn't particularly good for tire wear, but if you're getting that much use out of it, you're probably putting some good wear on the tires anyway.
The RLX still feels like a front-wheel-drive sedan with a hint of torque steer on hard takeoffs, and if you can get past this FWD curse, it's a decent car to drive. Delivering a smooth and quiet ride that's expected from such a luxury sedan, the suspension setup errs on the side of comfort over handling, but it does so without ever feeling too cushy or disconnected from the road. As we noted during our First Drive back in February, the RLX provides some level of fun on twisty roads, but is much more in its element while driving through the city or on long road trips.
The suspension setup errs on the side of comfort over handling.
That being said, the direct-injected V6 has great power and offers acceleration at just about all engine speeds, whether taking off from a dead stop or passing a car on the highway. If you want a little more, just knock the shifter over into Sport mode for more aggressive transmission shift points as well as quicker throttle and steering response.
The RLX feels much smaller than it actually is thanks to its light-yet-responsive electric power steering that delivers amazingly tight steering maneuvers. Top that all off with a solid brake system that lets the 4,000-pound sedan perform impressively quick stops, and Acura has a well-balanced luxury sedan on its hand with plenty of comfort and just a dash of fun.
With blinders on, the RLX is a big step forward for Acura, but looking at the fullsize luxury sedan segment as a whole, its shortcomings make any improvements over the RL seem less remarkable compared to its rivals. This is, after all, a segment filled with established German sedans and a growing number of high-quality offerings from Asia and the US.
With blinders on, the RLX is a big step forward for Acura.
While the RLX didn't blow our minds, it has managed to put up stronger numbers with buyers in its short time on the market, at least compared to the old RL. In just its first three months on the market (through June), the RLX had already sold more units (1,564) than the RL sold in all of 2011 and 2012 combined (1,475). That minor achievement notwithstanding, the RLX has only sold 3,780 units through October, which still puts it at the bottom of the Acura heap – excluding the discontinued ZDX. It's yet to be seen how the car will resonate with the newer and younger buyers that Acura so badly needs, although based on what I saw in my driveway, it's still your grandfather's Acura. But maybe I shouldn't judge a book by its cover... at least when it comes to my neighbors. I've since spotted that same elderly couple checking out a Subaru WRX STI parked in my driveway. So there's that.
New Car Test Drive
All-new flagship sedan emphasizes quiet and smooth.
The Acura RLX is the brand's new top-of-the-line sedan, replacing the discontinued RL and conceived to give Honda's luxury division increased traction in the heart of the luxury segment. It's a segment that continues to be dominated by a Germanic trio, Audi A6, BMW 5 series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, all of them either rear- or all-wheel drive, all strong performers, all heavily endowed with panache and prestige.
So what does the RLX bring to the table to enhance Acura's credibility in this high stakes game? The new car is certainly not without virtues. New sheetmetal, new engine, new (to this model) chassis technology, improved fuel economy, new interior, and a wealth of electronics some devoted to infotainment, others to safety features.
Basics: at 196.1 inches of overall length, the Acura RLX is just 0.3 inch longer than the RL, but its 112.2-inch wheelbase represents a stretch of 2.0 inches. That, plus a 2.0-inch expansion in width, gave the design team plenty of raw material for improving interior volume, particularly in the rear seat area, a weak point with the RL.
The engine is also new, an aluminum 3.5-liter SOHC V6 with four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing, and direct fuel injection. Its output, 310 horsepower, 272 pound-feet of torque, is all but identical to the 3.7-liter V6 that propelled the RL (300 horsepower, 271 pound-feet), but the key development objective for the 3.5 was fuel economy, and in this the new engine represents a big improvement: 20/31 mpg City/Highway, according to the EPA, versus 16/22 for the RL. Some of this gain is attributable to the adoption of direct fuel injection, more of it to cylinder deactivation, which shuts down half the engine in steady highway cruising.
The new V6 is allied with a 6-speed automatic transmission, sending power to the front wheels. While the car's overall gearing is oriented toward optimizing fuel economy, the RLX will get out of the starting blocks and across an intersection with reasonable haste. Beyond that, forward progress becomes a little more deliberate, respectable, but not extraordinary.
While the RLX propulsion inventory is thus far routine, the RL-X does bring one mechanical distinction to the table, one that gave the Acura product people an opportunity to exercise their penchant for peculiar acronyms. They call it PAW-S, for Precision All-Wheel Steering. Basically, the rear wheels contribute to steering, counter-steering at low speed to enhance maneuverability, turning with the fronts at high speeds for increased stability. Honda has tried this before, with disappointing sales results. This time around the take rate will be better, since the feature is standard equipment, rather than an option.
Styling has rarely been a strong suit at either Honda or Acura, and the RLX is consistent with corporate design caution. Aside from a phalanx of LED headlights, lending a bit of sci-fi mystique to the front end, the new sedan is unlikely to attract more than a casual glance as it glides along in traffic. The grille, with its slightly beaky center element, is recognizable as Acura emblematic, but beyond that and the LEDs the design is bland and breaks no new ground. The same could perhaps be said of the German troika that dominates the class, but if the Teutons are familiar from one generation to the next, that familiarity includes a big helping of prestige.
Acura RLX ($48,450) is offered in one model augmented by four option packages. RLX comes standard with leather trim and automatic climate control.
Acura RLX is bigger than the old RL. It's longer than the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, BMW 5 Series and Audi A6, and it's wider than all but the E-Class. The Acura rides on a slightly shorter wheelbase, however.
The Acura engineering team cites gains in body shell rigidity, thanks to extensive use of hot stamped high strength steel in selected areas, and in the finished product conveys a sense of praiseworthy solidity.
An aluminum hood, doors and decklid save about 76 pounds in the body-in-white. However, with curb weights that range from 3933 to almost 4000 pounds, the RLX is generally heavier than the three German sedans.
The 2014 RLX sports a new double wishbone suspension system up front, and a new multilink arrangement at the rear designed, of course, to accommodate P-AWS.
There's also a new capless fueling system, a la the technique pioneered by Ford. When it functions properly (i.e., no leakage), as was the case on our test car, this feature eliminates the ugly sight of a forgotten fuel cap flapping in the breeze, eventually to detach itself entirely. It's easy to use: Open fuel door, insert fuel filler, close fuel door. If you forget the latter step, the system won't mind and won't dribble.
With its longer wheelbase and fractional reduction in overall length, the proportions of the RLX have an athletic look, and the jewel-eye LEDs lend a bit of distinction to the front end as well as a lot of lumens to navigating dark country byways. But in the main, the RLX follows the Honda/Acura design philosophy of timeless styling, a conservative look, low on flash, but long on staying power.
As you'd expect of a car in this price category, the Acura RLX is handsomely appointed within, with soft touch surfaces everywhere, first rate materials, and lots of space. In fact, Acura claims best-in-class rear-seat legroom, and it would take someone of NBA stature to scrape his head against the roof.
As you'd also expect, there's gizmology and connectivity galore, with an available eight-inch navigation screen stacked atop a seven-inch touch-screen controlling all sorts of infotainment choices. Although the nav system won't allow any manual adjustments or selections when the car is moving, not uncommon in the golden age of product liability, and the voice command element requires what amounts to an irritating and lengthy discussion to achieve results, Honda/Acura navigation technology is still near the top of the charts in terms of accuracy. Also, its real-time traffic info includes conditions on surface streets, which can be very helpful when the driver is pressed for time.
The expanded gizmology inventory extends to safety features, and here too Acura follows the industry trend toward more and more nannyesque driver aids. For example, the optional Lane Keeping Assist helps inattentive drivers stay between the lines. The optional adaptive cruise control system now includes a low-speed follow feature, which commuters may find helpful. Similarly, the Forward Collision Warning system may help inattentive drivers avoid whacking the car just ahead, although its panicky alerts and flashing lights are irritating to those trying to dissect traffic on their morning commute.
Many of the RLX's electronic safety aids are optional, but with or without them the car's excellent structure are expected to continue the Honda/Acura tradition of top ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the influential Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
As a driving experience, the Acura RLX skews heavily toward comfort and unobtrusive motoring. The cabin is extraordinarily quiet (think 2 a.m. in St. Paul's Cathedral), something that's been a strong suit for Acura's premier sedan ever since the original Acura Legend. Ride quality is creamy; it takes some very gnarly pavement to even remotely disturb occupants, and in general the going is about as serene as it gets in this market segment.
Power is respectable, although the 6-speed automatic seems a little dated in a class where 7- and 8-speed transmissions are becoming increasingly common. The new aluminum 3.5-liter SOHC V6 with four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing, and direct fuel injection is rated at 310 horsepower, 272 pound-feet of torque. Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 20/31 mpg City/Highway.
Like almost all new cars today, the RLX is equipped with an electric power steering system, one of many measures the industry has adopted in the quest for improved fuel economy. At just 2.6 turns lock-to-lock, it's quick, but it's also vague, a trait common to many systems of this type; the driver doesn't have an accurate sense of where the front wheels are pointed. Like all idiosyncrasies of a particular car, this is something an owner gets used to in short order, but it's not a trait shared by the Germanic pacesetters in this class.
Acura touts the new PAW-S system (Precision All-Wheel Steering) as cutting-edge technology, and the implication is that having the rear wheels participate in the steering puts the front-wheel-drive RLX on a more or less equal footing with the rear-wheel-drive German competition. Our impressions fall short of parity with rear- and all-wheel drive cars. The system undoubtedly makes the RLX a little handier around town and does lend a bit of confidence at higher speeds on back roads, but the speeds have to be distinctly higher for this to be tangible and it's unlikely owners will be exercising their cars in this manner. The RLX is exceptionally comfortable, but it's not the kind of car that invites back road barnstorming.
The all-new 2014 Acura RLX is unquestionably luxurious, with an exceptionally high index of quality and quiet, competent comfort. Its value proposition is a little hard to endorse: a front-wheel-drive sedan such as the new Kia Cadenza delivers similar cosseting and better dynamics for considerably less money, and a V8-propelled rear-drive Genesis sedan undercuts even a base RLX. If relaxed dynamics, posh interior appointments, serene motoring, and good fuel economy expectations are the priority, the RLX merits a place in the luxury sedan sunshine.
Tony Swan filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from Detroit after his test drive of the Acura RLX.
Acura RLX ($48,450); RLX with navigation ($50,950); RLX with Technology Package, $54,450; RLX with Krell Audio Package ($56,950); RLX with Advance Package ($60,450).
Sayama, Saitama, Japan.
Options As Tested
Acura RLX Advance Package ($60,450).
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