Acura RL: Accurately Assessing a High-Tech Wonder

The Acura RL, flagship of Honda’s flagship line, suffers a lame-duck reputation among the automotive cognoscenti. Up against flashier rivals with more-potent powertrains and more-prestigious pedigrees, the premier Acura must by now be afflicted by a severe inferiority complex. The hierarchy having already been set, the RL lost the performance race to BMW, the cachet crown to Mercedes, and the value award to Lexus–pretty much before the new-for-2005 model was even unveiled. Part of that predetermined predicament is due to the old RL’s poor performance in the marketplace; but the provocation to which most pundits attribute panning the RL is simple cylinder snobbery. Bringing only a mere V6 to battle against a bevy of V8-powered rivals, conventional wisdom had the Acura mortally disadvantaged from the start. Under that pretext, the RL was prejudged inadequate by the majority of automotive reviewers–and any chance it had of overcoming the outgoing RL’s notoriously wretched mediocrity perished–prematurely.

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Nevertheless, the RL proved awfully popular in the press fleet, and we’ve just now been granted an opportunity to evaluate it equitably. Primed by popular sentiment, we weren’t expecting much when we finally got behind the wheel–and were thus pleasantly surprised. Indeed, to our trained/keen senses, the RL’s V6 never felt wanting at all. Perhaps the best way to sum up this Acura’s spirit is to liken it to the auspicious Accord. Both convey a sense of harmony betwixt the car and the road; never feeling overburdened and yet without extraneous strength or flair. The RL is ridiculously easy to drive, hallmarked with the trademark Honda nimbleness and precision.

Truth be told, the Acura RL’s drivetrain is an extraordinary piece of engineering; a veritable mechanized marvel. At its heart lies the much-maligned V6; actually an all-aluminum 3.5-liter that rates among the most powerful engines of its kind. VTEC variable valve timing and lift give this motor a free-revving feel, and its astounding 290 horsepower actually bests the output of several rivals. At 256 lb.-ft., the RL’s torque, however, appears outclassed, at least on paper. In practice, however, the RL’s engine feels plenty potent; reminiscent of a light-pressure turbo with smooth power delivery and seemingly bottomless reserves. We measured the 0-to-60 mph run in a scant 6.8 seconds. That’s on par with most of the RL’s rivals on the lower end, although positively tortoise-like next to some V8-powered heavyweights.

Come to think of it, disparaging the RL is only justified when the Acura is evaluated among the full-size segment. Classified as full-size in some publications and a mid-sizer in others, the RL’s dimensional measurements mostly split the difference between the S-Classes, 7-series’, and LSs of the world, and the step-down E-Class/5-series/GS category–the majority of which are sold with 6-cylinder engines. At $49,000, the RL is definitely dearer than the intermediates, but when the Acura’s standard equipment is factored in, the price of entry reaches equilibrium–and the other flagships appear exorbitant.

Although deemed inferior by sheer precognition alone, the RL’s powerplant bests the competition’s bigger motors by at least one measure–economy. With fuel prices rapidly reaching $3 per gallon, efficient engines–doing more with less displacement–are becoming desirable even in extravagant transportation segments like SUVs and luxury sedans. The RL’s EPA ratings are 18/26 m.p.g. city/highway–in league with its svelter mid-size rivals but far more frugal than the automotive aristocracy.

Pure power output doesn’t tell the RL story, though. Acura further fits every RL with the Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive system, which actively assists in cornering duties by routing power to the outside wheels in a turn. The resulting accuracy is astounding; the RL’s point-and-shoot mannerisms are more akin to an RSX than a 104″-long luxury sedan.

Part of the snubbing the RL has received at the hands of the press may perhaps be due to Acura’s cautious exterior styling. The V-shaped grille, sloped nose, and slab-sided body are all familiar brand characteristics–little free-thinking was allowed in this exercise. Bold it may not be, but beyond the basic blandness, the RL at least features some impressive visual detailing. The clear-lens headlamps, with their cylindrical lighting elements, look both expensive and distinctive. The shark-fin antenna, sparse chrome accents, and delicate-looking 17-inch wheels also stand out. Like the Accord, the RL is probably not for the extroverted–fortunately for Acura, many consumers eschew ostentatious automobiles.

Inside is another story, however. The Acura RL has one impressively individualistic interior, visually dominated by the high-tech center stack, central control knob, and navigation/control screen. Subscribing to the contemporary theory of integrating as many functions as possible into the main a/v system, though, apparently did not liberate the designers from the need for beaucoup buttons–the little guys are everywhere (even the steering wheel has 14).

The RL’s nav system ranked as one of the industry’s better; the lack of a touch-screen is made up for by the intelligence and intuitiveness of the software, as well as the ease of data-entry via the central knob (“interface dial”). One much-ballyhooed feature in the RL–XM NavTraffic–delivers real-time traffic information about nearby roadway conditions and marks upcoming impediments so that they may be avoided. More details on the XM NavTraffic system can be found in our Automotive Technology section, under Feature Articles. Suffice it to say that while we found the concept eminently laudable, the execution is lacking in some areas.

Integrated into the nav screen, and operated by the same interface dial, is the AcuraLink communication system. Broadcasting data through the XM satellite hookup, AcuraLink checks for mechanical problems and monitors maintenance schedules, and sends an email-like message when service or repair is required. At the owner’s behest, it can even contact a preferred dealer (or find one for you), arrange an appointment, and transmit diagnostic information to technicians. In the event that a serious service bulletin or recall affecting your Acura is announced, AcuraLink will notify owners and provide pertinent information as well. Additional message categories include quick tips and updates from Acura or other RL owners to supplement the manual. Through Bluetooth technology, AcuraLink further affords hands-free operation of enabled cell-phones; calls are relayed through the audio apparatus, while data such as incoming caller ID is displayed on-screen. OnStar is included as well.

Voice control capability augments both the AcuraLink and navigation systems; gender-selectable synthesized speech can verbalize addresses and climate/entertainment settings, and even read AcuraLink messages aloud. Just about every feature in the RL can also be employed via voice control; drivers can place phone calls, enter navigation destinations and manage temperature or stereo configurations by speaking specific commands aloud. We found Acura’s system to be a sound improvement over similar accoutrements from other makes; it interpreted our orders accurately over half the time, and with it we could avail ourselves of any convenience we wished without distracting manual manipulation.

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Beyond navigation, the Acura RL boasts abundant features and frills; most of them electronic and nearly all standard fare. Roll-up window shades in the rear doors are complemented by a motorized screen at the back. Nocturnal vision is augmented by xenon HID headlamps, which swivel left-to-right according to steering inputs. Acura also fits the RL with an amenity we’re coming to particularly appreciate–the Keyless Access system allows you to enter and start the RL with the fob/transmitter in your pocket or purse. Audio quality is excellent to boot; the RL is graced with a superb 10-speaker Bose stereo, with the requisite 6-disc CD changer and mp3 capability (no iPod input is provided, however, although word has it one’s in the works). Driver and passenger are pampered with power-adjustable, heated seats, and dual-zone climate control. Tilting and telescoping steering wheel adjustments are accomplished electronically, too, as is dimming the rear-view mirror. A separate Multi-Information Display in the instrument panel allows customization of automatic door locking, headlight delay, and so on, while constantly calculating gas mileage, range and average speed.

A word of caution is appropriate, here–this is not a car for technophobes. Swarming with telemetry and automated devices, the Acura RL demands determined study just to decipher most functions; dexterity and deliberate cogitation are essential to become adept at handling it all. Even everyday actions require mastery of AcuraLink and/or the nav system; even menial tasks like changing fan speed are often accessible only through the multimedia screen and interface dial.

One last Honda trait evinces itself in the Acura RL as well–value, as among its lesser stablemates, is a strong point. Well-equipped with AWD, power-everything, high-end electronics, and of course the requisite leather and wood, it offers much more content than most adversaries–especially the mid-size ones–and undercuts many of its full-size competitors by a significant margin.

2 comments

    1. Acura actually plans to remodel the RL for the 2011 model. It should be released just after the fall Acura sale for the 2010 models, so look for it early spring of 2011.

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