Acura RL Review

Acura RL Review

Don't look now, but Honda's premium marque just got its second car. Sure, the RSX, TSX, TL, and RL have been around for a while. But aside from the exotic NSX, all Acuras over the company's 19-year history have shared the humbling commonality of being heavily derivative of existing Honda designs like the Accord and Civic. Among those who know their cars, the absence of distinction served as a penalty on all Acuras - the supposedly special RL most of all. Dropping a low-output V6 into a front-wheel-drive sedan works better in some leagues than others.

For 2005, the car that most nations still know as the Legend gets a more ambitious set of blueprints. The rear wheels were hired to join the fronts in full-time propulsion duty. 75 more horses were crammed into the same 3.5-liter stable. Anyone else would have enlarged the engine or added more cylinders, but it's the Honda-Acura way to do more with less, and with 300 horsepower, what's there to complain about? Even the Active Torque Transfer System from the 1997 Prelude SH was put to use, and of course VTEC is here. About the only Honda innovation that didn't make its way to the RL is 4-wheel steering. This time, Acura pulled no punches when it came to engineering.

Road Test
Within the first few minutes of driving the RL, the first impression that set in was one of familiarity. Being a partial owner of a late-model Honda Accord (a description that befits 400,000 new people every year), I quickly connected with the feel of the RL's steering and brakes, the low "creep" speed (how fast the car goes at idle), the slightly aggressive throttle pedal calibration, and the transmission's eagerness to downshift. The similar suspension setup and Accord-like dimensions added to the impression. When venturing into the brave new world of $50,000 transportation, familiarity can be a comforting trait.

The feeling continues. One drive over a dilapidated L.A. freeway demonstrates that Acura's flagship does only a marginally better job of smothering bumps or road noise than a Honda Accord. You feel just as many chops through the seat and the hum of the tires is a constant companion, despite the much-advertised noise-canceling soundwaves emanating from the BOSE sound system.

No one else's V6 comes close to matching the RL's smooth, thrilling 300 horsepower. The RL's V6 even matches Lexus' V8 horse for horse and stomps Jaguar's competely. But with a just-okay 260 pounds-feet of torque on tap and the weight of AWD hardware working to its disadvantage, there's no immediate thrust to shove you ahead instantly. No one could rightfully call the RL slow, but even Acura's downmarket TL outruns it. The RL's 6.7-second 0-60 run is more on level with, well, an Accord. There we go again.

Feeling so much like an Accord is a blessing because that car does almost everything pretty well, and a curse because it means Honda couldn't do much more with 50 grand than they could with 25. After enough seat time, all that familiarity can turn from "I remember this!" to "been there, done that." I realize that not every target customer will be stepping out of another Honda, and those who aren't will probably sense nothing but competence and solid engineering. But those who have stayed within the family might not sense enough difference to avoid asking questions like "what, exactly, is all this extra money supposed to buy?"

To its credit, Acura has one of the smartest manual-shift automatics out there. It's the smartest mainly because, unlike everyone else's, it doesn't assume you're dumb. Its only operating rule is "don't let the driver blow up the engine" (i.e. no shifting to first gear at 120 MPH) and lets you do whatever you want besides. You can rev it to redline and it will happily bounce on the border, and you can floor it in any gear without the transmission kicking down. And, choice of choices, Acura lets you have your shifting two ways - via the lever on the floor or two paddles on the steering wheel (right hand upshift, left hand downshift) - useful for changing gears while turning.

Having four driven wheels - supposedly the most drastic change of the year - sets the RL apart from every other car in the Honda/Acura universe, spells instant legitimacy in the luxury class, and qualifies the RL as another great foul-weather alternative to the Audi A6 Quattro and Mercedes E500 4Matic. Mother Nature turned off the rain during our week with the RL, but I have no reason to question its effectiveness. As for dry roads, the system's front-biased nature accounts for much of the car's typical behavior. While it can send up to 70% of the power to the back, it's programmed to usually send that much the other way, which watered down my hopes of the RL being a super-handling all-wheel-drive car.

But that's exactly what it is. I know this because it says so on the trunk: "SH-AWD." Those who remember the 1997 Honda Prelude SH have seen this system before. Then called ATTS (Active Torque Transfer System), this handling tool spun the Prelude's outside front wheel at a faster rate than the inside wheel during hard cornering. Its understeer-fighting abilities worked well enough for one car magazine to crown it the "Best-Handling Car Under $30,000." Aside from working on the rear wheels instead of the fronts, the RL's system works the same way. Could Honda's handling magic do for the RL what it did for the Prelude?

Whether due to the AWD factor, the SH factor, or both, I can attest that the RL corners in a fairly neutral manner. It feels safe taking higher entry speeds into corners (ever try a 35 MPH right-turn?) and attacking them results in less skidding and plowing going on underfoot. But at 4,000 pounds, the RL isn't going to be the Best-Handling Anything - certainly not at $50,000 - no matter how many computer-controlled gizmos are called upon to redirect engine power to this wheel or that one, and no matter how low the tires go (which are already at 245/50R17). The RL simply isn't very eager. Acura would get more mileage out of sticking the SH system on the TSX or RSX.

Inside and Out
VTEC, ATTS, and AWD are nice, but all have been seen by the world before. It's hard to sell a car on performance alone these days, so Honda made sure to take the innovation lead in creature comforts.

Let's start with something everyone can enjoy: audio. The standards of sound have been rising just as fast as the standards of speed, but Acura stands out front for the moment. It's hard to ask for more watts than 260, more speakers than ten, more discs than six, or more formats than AM, FM, XM, CD, MP3, and DVD-A. That last one is exclusive to Acura, who has been among the first to bet on DVD Audio as the next universal format to supplant the aging compact disc. And unless you completely ignore the world of electronics, you have no doubt heard the number 5.1 tossed around a few times. That refers to the number of channels through which audio passes, and it has been the standard of home theater for years. The RL brings this standard to cars, which are hopelessly stuck in a two-channel stereo world.

Unfortunately, the sampler discs provided by Acura were aimed at a generation of journalists a tad past their prime. (Grover Washington? Steely Dan??) Given no familiar material to work with, all my judgment could tell me was that DVD Audio sounds great. How great compared to CD, I can't say, but I am pleased with the life this system brought to my MP3s. I also came to appreciate XM radio more than I expected. It was refreshing to hear a station play more than the same six songs in rotation, and to hear tunes that have been off the air for years, thanks to FM radio's policy of banishing any song to the trash heap after three months.

Another nice touch is the key, which you'll never have to touch again. Most people past adolescence might recall the days when the act of unlocking a car required the Herculean effort of removing a key from your pocket, inserting it in a keyhole, and turning it. At some point in the ‘90s, we cut that down from three steps to two: removing a remote from your pocket, then pressing a button. Acura cut it down to zero: as long as the remote's in your pocket, you can open the door. You can also start the engine. In fact, if the remote is within two feet of the car, you can do pretty much anything. This might not be the same as finding a cure for cancer, but it's close.

Thanks to BMW, today's standards dictate that the RL wouldn't be a luxury car if it didn't have a tyrannical computer screen in the middle of the dash that served as the gatekeeper for every possible function of the car: navigation system, audio, climate control, trip computer, Bluetooth cell phone hookups, etc. Well, it does, so it is. And yes, there's a big central knob that you will be pushing and rotating a lot, but at least the majority of climate and radio controls have their own buttons. Here's my take on the matter: three minutes leads to frustration; three days and almost everything becomes second-nature. It takes memorization and getting used to, but then you get used to it, and it makes sense. This contrasts sharply with all the hearsay on BMW's iDrive, which frustrates everyone to no end. Still, that doesn't mean Acura's system isn't distracting, free of redundancies, or wouldn't be better off with normal controls. And the system's failure to understand simple voice commands makes this Acura a foreigner in need of deportation. When a car comes with an hour-long tutorial DVD, you just know there's bad news ahead.

Acura's navigation system, already praised for its easy operation, stands as far above the competition as does its audio system. No surprise, then, that they're connected. Unlike your unreliable AM radio station, which probably sends updates every ten minutes (if you're lucky) on whatever areas they feel like reporting on, the RL sends real-time traffic updates every minute for every major metro area in the continental U.S. through the XM band. The next time you're stuck in a freeway traffic jam, don't look for any Acura RLs. Their drivers will have already known something you discovered the hard way. Two personal complaints of the nav system: a non-constant scrolling rate, and breaks in the display when doing so.

The rest of the interior is first-class. Very soft (and perforated) leather, smart cupholders, driver's seat memory, sun-sensing dual-zone climate control, auto-dimming rearview mirror, rear air vents, rear sunshades, xenon headlights that swivel in turns, and all that other stuff is here. The only gaffe is a center console that, if it were 1 mm wider, could comfortably fit the DVD Audio discs it was probably designed for. Oops.

Luxury has other costs besides money. The power tilt/telescope steering column's need to slowly retract or return when you turn the car on or off feels like a waste of time, especially when you're struggling to turn a moving ignition switch. Also, toeroom under the power front seats is cramped, and the center-rear passenger is perched too high to have any headroom, making the RL an even less viable five-passenger car than the Accord.

Other Thoughts
Acura couldn't have picked a worse time to redesign the RL. This is the car the company needed back in 1996, and at the time, it could have been king. But Mercedes and BMW brought over their new E-class and 5-series not long ago while Cadillac and Audi have their new STS and A6 right now. Each of those redesigns brought an obvious advance in convenience features, powertrains, and in some cases, technology. The list of things the RL can do that the others can't is a short one, especially now that all but the Bimmer offer all-wheel-drive. Many also offer more transmission choices than just one (such as a manual and/or a sequential manual), and all pack optional V8 engines that can outrun the RL.

The biggest threats may come from next door, as hometown rivals Lexus and Infiniti will launch their new GS and M cars as very early 2006 models. Both will offer V8s and AWD as options, as well as interesting styling that leaves the RL as the most plain-looking, even by Japanese sedan standards. And it will hard for Acura to extend its value-leader image to the $49,470 RL when both Lexus and Infiniti plan to open at just over $40,000.

Final Word
No longer playing catch-up, the new RL is as good as it needs to be in every respect. It has the right hardware, sends the right signals to the driver, and has the best V6 in the class. But with little exceptional about the driving experience, Acura will have to rely on the RL's advantages in audio, conveniences, and technology - in other words, luxury - to keep it from getting lost within such excellent company. [source :]


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