By Drew Johnson
Friday, Feb 15th, 2013 @ 11:45 am
 
The Acura RL was dealt a difficult hand in life. Although positioned as Acura's flagship vehicle, the RL was more of a "tweener," straddling the line between mid-size and full-size luxury.

Making things more difficult for the RL was competition from within Acura's own lineup. It may have been positioned as the brand's flagship sedan, but the RL was actually the same size and less powerful than the cheaper TL.

And sales figures clearly reflect the RL was getting lost in the mix - just 1,096 units found new homes in 2012.

But Acura is starting fresh for the 2014 model year with the RL-replacing RLX. Although still not quite laser-focused on a single segment - Acura says the sedan has the interior space to compete with vehicles like the Audi A8 - Honda's luxury brand is now aiming the RLX in the general direction of the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class.

RLX-factor
Acura typically isn't shy about pushing the styling envelope, but you'd never know that by looking at the RLX. Rather than emulating some of the more daring design cues from the ZDX crossover or NSX concept, Acura took a decidedly safe approach when penning the new RLX.

Although the RLX's styling won't catch the world on fire, we'd still classify it as a handsome sedan. The RLX's nose wears arguably the most attractive version of Acura's 'shield' grille design, with that wedge shaping carrying over nicely to the car's lower bumper.

The RLX arrives with new-look LED headlights that are technically better than HID units, but stylistically much worse. SEMA called. They want their headlights back.

Down the sides of the RLX you'll notice what appear to be character lines, but there are more to those creases than just looks. The curved portion of the line in the front fender and door actually help to divert wind from the RLX's A-pillar, resulting in a reduction of in-cabin wind noise.

The rear of the RLX is somewhat derivative - we personally see a little last-gen Toyota Avalon in there - but there are enough lines and bulges to keep the design interesting.

Step inside the RLX, though, and you'll be pleasantly surprised. The RLX boasts an upscale interior design with some of the nicest materials we've seen, regardless of vehicle class. All plastics are top-notch and the RLX's leather wouldn't feel out of place in an Italian exotic.

Although not everyone will be a fan of the RLX's protruding center stack, we generally like the added dimension it brings to the cabin. And, if nothing else, it puts controls within an easy reach of the driver.

Those controls are easier to operate, too, as Acura has (thankfully) replaced the RL's keyboard-like center stack with a touch screen and few physical buttons. We're also fans of the RLX's dual-screen setup, which separates radio and HVAC displays from the car's navigation system.

Unfortunately, Acura's navigation system remains one for the more finicky on the market. The controls for the system aren't as intuitive as they should be, but at least Acura ditched the RL's 1990s-era screen with a unit that could pass for high-definition.

We found the RLX's front buckets to be plenty comfy during our day-long journey, and the rear seats proved to be spacious enough for passengers well above the six-foot mark. That should come as no surprise as the RLX boasts best in-class rear-seat leg and shoulder room.

P-AWS helps the cause
Although a hybrid version of the RLX with all-wheel drive will launch later this year, the only model currently on sale is the front-wheel drive version with Acura's Precision All-Wheel Steel, or P-AWS for short.

But let's start with the basics. The RLX is powered by Acura's first-ever direct-injected engine, which takes the form of a 3.5-liter V6. Although slightly smaller than the RL's outgoing 3.7-liter V6, the all-new 3.5-liter generates 10 more ponies, good for a total output of 310 horsepower. The new V6 is also more efficient, returning 20 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway, netting a combined rating of 24 mpg.

Power is sent the RLX's front wheels via a heavily revised six-speed automatic transmission. The new gearbox features more aggressive gear ratios (afforded by the more efficient D-I engine) resulting in better acceleration.

On the open road the RLX never left us wanting for power, but there are a speedier options in the segment (the BMW 535i comes to mind).

However, the RLX's party piece isn't its new engine but rather its trick all-wheel steering system. The P-AWS system - which can individually change the toe-in and toe-out of each rear wheel - functions largely under the radar during typical driving, but really comes to life when you start throwing the RLX into the corners.

We were able to test the system on a closed track and came away quite impressed. Although the RLX still exhibits some understeer at the limit, the P-AWS system does an extremely good job of emulating rear-wheel drive by rotating the back of the car, particularly in tight corners. If you need the sure-footedness of front-wheel drive but want the driving dynamics of rear-wheel drive, the RLX could be the car for you.

But we doubt many RLX owners will be tracking their car, and Acura has planned accordingly. The RLX's suspension has been fitted with a sort of Jekyll and Hyde damper system, providing both sporty handling and a smooth, luxurious ride. That comfortable ride is amplified by the RLX's whisper-quiet cabin, made possible by touches like noise-reducing wheels and active engine mounts that help keep engine vibrations at bay.

And, just in case that quiet interior puts you to sleep, the RLX is equipped with a host of new safety systems. The RLX comes standard with a knee airbag system, Forward Collision Warning and Lane Departure Warning. Uplevel models can be fitted with Adaptive Cruise Control with Low-Speed Follow and Acura's Lane Keeping Assist System, which can help steer the car to keep it in the proper lane.

Thankfully, all of the RLX's electronic nannies can be switched off.

Leftlane's bottom line
The RLX is a very good car that might be let down by its badge. Acura simply doesn't have the cachet of brands like BMW and Mercedes, and that could hurt the RLX's sales, no matter how comfortable, quite and competent it might be.

But if you're willing to forgo the status associated with the blue-and-white roundel or the three-pointed star, the RLX is a pleasant surprise just waiting to be discovered.

2014 Acura RLX base price range, $48,450-$60,450.

Words and photos by Drew Johnson.