Acura RL – A fantastic blend of automotive pleasure

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

It seems massive horsepower and prodigious torque has become addictive to most of the American auto-buying public.

Smoke a little performance and you’ve got to have more. If your last car had 150 horsepower, chances are you won’t settle for less at trade-in time. And we would bet your next vehicle will be endowed with more ponies and more pound-feet than the last.

Americans are cheering with their pocketbooks as the horsepower wars are being waged by manufacturers as furiously as at any point in our long automotive history, and in every segment of the industry from the tiny subcompact to the massive sport utility vehicle.

In many segments 4-cylinder engines are being replaced with V-6 powerplants and the 6-cylinder models are yielding to V-8 power. Twelve cylinder vehicles are also becoming commonplace. Can a 1000-horsepoweer be far behind?

This came to mind during the week we drove the all-new and impeccably engineered Acura RL.

The last RL was, by current standards, underpowered for the segment and yes, the new RL is endowed with more of the “good stuff.” It has gained 75 horsepower and 29 pound-feet of torque over the previous edition. But a 3.5-liter V-6 remains under the hood.

Critics have questioned Acura’s decision not to put a V-8 in its flagship, which has been in competition for nearly two decades with the V-8-powered Infiniti Q45 and the Lexus LS430. Eight cylinders, after all, is the standard for luxury sedans, whether German, American or Japanese.

We will concede that some buyers will mistakenly overlook the new RL simply because of its 6-cylinder engine, but they will be missing one of the most technologically advanced, well-engineered and best-driving sedans on planet Earth.

The RL is simply a fantastic blend of automotive pleasure, and whatever is under the hood, we think, is just a well-thought-out part of this flawless package. And it all comes for under 50-grand. The base price is $49,470 including destination charge. There are no factory options.

You know immediately there’s something different about this car when the instrument panel is nicer to you than your boss as it greets you with a printed “Welcome” when you enter. It also tells you “Goodbye” when you depart.

This is one of those cars where it’s necessary to curl up with the owner’s manual for a few nights to fully appreciate everything that it can do. But the RL, unlike a couple of overly complicated German products, is still relatively Honda simple in that you can operate the car including the stereo and climate controls without turning a page.
Intuitive center console buttons and toggle switches without the use of the navigation screen can work both the climate and stereo systems. In fact, if you want to avoid the screen altogether, you’re not required to accept the annoying lawyer’s message. The screen will simply go black in less than a minute.

In several luxury vehicles, you can’t even access the stereo without acknowledging the disclaimer by hitting “OK.”

The Acura is endowed with so many gee-whiz features it could be a highlight reel for the auto industry’s advancements at mid-decade.

A few examples: The RL comes with a keyless access system similar to those found in several other cars including Cadillac and Mercedes. It allows owners to lock and unlock the doors, open the trunk and start the car without a key. The engine is turned on and off by a switch on the steering column. All that’s needed is the keyfob in your possession. And it’s a smart fob. For instance, if you inadvertently leave it on the trunk floor after loading the groceries and slam the lid, the fob starts to beep and trunk lid pops open; The RL has a technology called Active Noise Cancellation. The system operates while the car is running regardless of whether the audio system is turned on. It is designed to reduce low frequency sound in the cabin.

The RL also comes standard with a 10-speaker Bose surround sound system with DVD audio and XM Satellite radio. It features a six-disc changer that can play MP3 discs. DVD audio, by the way, will be the wave of the future with the ability to produce 500 times higher resolution than CD audio.

Acura calls it the Active Front Lighting System where the low beams individually can swivel outward left or right up to 20 degrees to improve illumination while cornering; If you live in one the nation’s 20 largest metropolitan areas you can get real-time traffic information through the satellite navigation system. Construction and accident information is updated every few minutes. And the system can even display the speed of traffic ahead. This information is supplied by NAVTEQ, a digital mapping service, from multiple sources including police and highway patrol accident reports. Acura uses XM radio satellites to display the exact location of trouble. The program is available in such cities as Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Chicago, Dallas and Washington, D.C.

The standard automatic climate control system uses satellite data to help determine the time of day and direction of the sun against the car to adjust interior temperature levels. If the sun is beating down on your side of the car, expect the temperature to be adjusted accordingly.

All in all the RL is quite a technological tour de force.

The heart of the new RL is the aforementioned, revised 3.5-liter V-6 generating 300 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque mated to a 5-speed sport shift automatic transmission. When the transmission is moved into manual mode, it can be shifted with paddles mounted on the steering wheel.

The engine, which uses the latest version of Honda’s variable valve timing system, achieves the horsepower numbers through a higher compression ratio, a variable flow exhaust system and a new intake system.

We found the performance satisfying, but realistically not overwhelming. It did however handle all our chores in acceptable fashion. For comparison purposes, the RL has been clocked at 6.7 seconds from 0 to 60. Certainly quick enough if not buff book exciting, but remember this is a V-6 we’re talking about.

The power is directed through a new all-wheel drive system Acura calls SH-AWD (Super Handling All-Wheel Drive). This system not only splits torque front to back, but from side to side, as well.

Under normal conditions, 70 percent of the torque is directed at the front wheels. Torque steer, a problem with the new front-drive Acura TL, is never present because under a heavy foot, SH-AWD will shove as much as 70 percent of the power to the rear.

We found the system worked wonders displaying a wonderful balance on the curves.
Making the driving experience even more rewarding is precise steering. In addition to the advanced all-wheel drive system other standard safety features include four-wheel antilock disc brakes, stability control and full-length side curtain airbags.

A new body structure is designed to absorb and disperse energy away from the passenger cabin by collapsing along the outer frame rails, Acura says.

And we agree with Acura in describing the new styling as more athletic, with its wedge shape and a bulked up short rear deck. But as with most Honda and Acura products we can sum up the new look as conservatively handsome, certainly not cutting edge.

Inside, you discover a gracious living area adorned with real wood and outfitted with supple leather. The seating positions up front are first class.
Where the Acura slips somewhat is in interior volume. While the RL is three inches shorter at 193.6 inches with a wheelbase cut back four inches to 110.2 from the previous model, Acura officials say passenger space was not sacrificed.

The problem is that passenger space in the previous RL was just adequate. We had hoped for a little more stretch-out room in back. Trunk space is also slightly on the wrong side of adequate for a luxury sedan at 13 cubic feet.

Additionally our test car suffered a couple of glitches including a quixotic right hand mirror that seemed to have a mind of its own. In reverse the mirror is supposed to turn down – helpful in parallel parking. Our mirror occasionally liked the turned down position so much it refused to readjust upward, something that was easily corrected by using the power mirror switch. Periodically it turned lazy and refused to turn downward when in reverse. All of this reminded, at least one of us, of our grandchildren.

The other slight distraction from an otherwise terrific experience with the RL was during a downpour (of course) when we discovered that the keyfob in the pocket had to be closer to the door handle in order for the automatic unlocking function to work. The extra three or four seconds in a downpour does matter. The learning curve is a quick cure.
In the RL, Acura has developed perhaps the most complete package of luxury and technology yet on the market. And when you factor in the asking price, there’s nothing in the world that can touch it.

Our advice to a new owner is first, spend some time with the salesperson as they go over various features, and then set aside time to read the owner’s manual.
You can drive the RL without ever reading a word. But you may miss out on many of the car’s wonderful features. And that would be a shame.