In the Autoblog Garage: 2008 Acura RL

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.

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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.

Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own — we do not accept sponsored editorial.

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