Acura’s aging 3.5 RL still has the looks 

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

In car years, the Acura 3.5 RL is pretty long in the tooth. But the flagship of the Acura lineup has aged gracefully and it is still a premium sedan worth considering when shopping for a luxury four door especially if you’re not hip to changes in technology or you really don’t care.

The RL hasn’t had a major redesign since 1996, but it has been the beneficiary of numerous upgrades through the years, and its conservative styling remains attractive even if dated.

For 2004, Acura has sweetened the pot offering just one fully loaded model that includes navigation with voice recognition and satellite radio as standard equipment, for a very engaging price.

The RL package comes with a suggested retail price of $46,100 including destination charge. According to, an automobile research firm on the Web, the new RL is being sold for an average price of $42,120.

Such competitors as the Lexus LS430, Infiniti Q45 and Mercedes-Benz E320 sell well equipped for $55,790, $63,875 and $51,000 respectively. That makes the 2004 RL look like the buy of the decade.

Granted, the RL lags behind in performance – it has a rather modest-output V6 while most of its direct competition feature V8 engines and it doesn’t offer some of the new cutting-edge equipment found on the competition such as adaptive cruise control, heated and cooled seats and DVD entertainment systems.
But the 3.5 RL has impeccable build quality, wonderful fit and finish, high-grade materials and an outstanding reliability rating.

The driver is swaddled in a luxurious leather and wood-adorned interior. The backlit blue and white gauges on a black background are attractive and the switchgear is the personification of simplicity, a wonderful trait that is fast disappearing in luxury transportation.

Stereo controls feature dials and push buttons. There’s no need to have a bachelor’s degree in computer science to successfully program a favorite radio station in the RL.

The cabin is hushed, a peaceful place to reside if you can find the wherewithal to turn off the 100-channel XM satellite radio with its digital-quality sound. We particularly enjoyed the addition of XM in the Acura, although the aging, standard radio tuner is not up to the task of clearly dispensing all the information available from XM including song title and artist.

The Acura comes with such amenities as power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, heated memory seats, six-CD changer and power down and up driver’s window, power sunroof and high-intensity discharge headlamps.

The RL also features cruise control and stereo controls on the steering wheel. Unfortunately, they are not lighted at night and some fumbling was necessary to find the correct button. The gauges are large and easy to read even with our old eyes.

The Acura navigation system is one of the easiest to use in the business and its DVD software can locate the most obscure address anywhere in the United States.

The automatic climate control worked to perfection during our test week, emitting warmed-up air on the feet on a cool early-fall morning and blowing much-needed cool air toward the face on a warm afternoon.

One of the few aggravating features we found was the handful of air conditioning controls, such as fan speed, embedded in the navigation screen.

The front seats are wide and inviting. They seem to offer the right amount of support in the right places. Rear seats are also comfortable and legroom is more than adequate.

If performance is everything in your life, then you will politely dismiss the RL. The Acura carries on with a 225-horsepower V6 mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission. While we found the combination satisfying if not stimulating, new products have zipped passed this performance package in the luxury class.

The LS430 has 290 horsepower and the Q45 features 340 horsepower, both from V8 engines. Even many of the mid-sized family cars selling for under 30-grand now offer more horsepower from more sophisticated V6 engines. Honda’s own Accord, for instance, has 240 horsepower. The Nissan Altima features 245 horses. All have 5-speed automatic transmissions.

A revised transmission shift pattern and some tweaks to the RL engine result in smooth, seamless acceleration through the front wheels and measured a modest 8.3 seconds from 0 to 60. From behind the wheel, if your expectations are not great, it feels strong enough for all occasions.

The RL is a solid road car. Acura has firmed up the spring rates and installed larger anti-roll bars for better handling without sacrificing the smooth, comfortable, if somewhat soft ride provided by the double-wishbone suspension.

The front-wheel drive setup, together with Acura’s Vehicle Stability Assist system also makes RL a good all-weather vehicle.

Other safety features include front and side airbags, anti-lock brakes, and the OnStar communication system.

The RL is obviously due for a complete redesign. A comparison of 2002 and 2003 sales figures through the first eight months of this year seems to point this out. Sales have slipped from a 2002 total of 6,788 to a 2003 total of 4,867.

But factoring in price and Acura’s impeccably refined luxury, the 2004 edition of the 3.5 RL may turn out to be the best luxury sedan buys of the year. And even if the RL is aging it’s not to be ignored. There are great rewards to be found in owning a 2004 version.