On the Road Review: Acura RLX

{youtube}tjnsGCAYGOQ&feature{/youtube} Honda Motor Co. USA created its Acura Luxury Car Division back in the 1980s with the first models going on sale in the States in 1986 — three years before Lexus or Infiniti debuted. Key to that early Acura success was the top, premium model — the midsized near-luxury sedan named the Legend.

{gallery}rlx{/gallery} Essentially a slightly larger Accord, the Legend represented a new attitude and direction for Honda, allowing the brand to expand beyond its typical and customary middle-class roots and attract a wider, more lucrative audience. A volume based Civic-derived Integra model also appeared, plus Acura created the vaunted NSX sports car — an Asian Ferrari, if you like. This exotic car for the masses allowed Acura to command the highest prices for any Asian car sold here back then — and now. Out of production for several years, Acura is toying with reintroducing a super-performance hybrid NSX.

In the early 1990s, Acura added another sedan to its lineup, the oddly named Vigor. Again, loosely based on the Accord platform, the five-cylinder-powered Vigor only marginalized the Legend’s volume instead of significantly expanding overall sales. Despite the Legend’s ease of competing with the larger, more expensive Lexus LS series sedan, this BMW-fighter sedan was not growing sales each year. By 1996, Acura had, incredibly, dropped both the Vigor and the Legend and created a new large sedan, the RL. A midsize TL series quickly followed. The Legend, one of the best car names ever, had been abandoned for an alphabet-soup designation that marketers liked better.

Today, the two best-selling Acura nameplates are the midsize MDX crossover and the compact class RDX. The best-selling Acura car is the midsize TL, while the ILX is the Integra replacement model — which is still based on the present Civic. Do any of these generic labels instill passion in the buying public?

The RLX sedan seen here is the all-new replacement for the large sedan RL. Still a front-wheel-drive design, the new Acura flagship skirts the dimensions of the midsize/full-size segments — too big for the former, too small for the latter. However, the latest RLX also will be available with a high-performance hybrid powertrain, 370-combined horsepower output with gas and electric motors that uses Acura’s first car-only AWD system.

The standard RLX, starting at $48,450, is a close competitor to the Lexus ES models. Stretching to 196 inches long on a 112-inch wheelbase (2 inches and 3 inches longer, respectively, to the midsize TL sedan) the new RLX weighs in at two tons. The tried-and-true Honda 3.5-liter SOHC V-6 engine with variable cylinder management and VTEC programming helps to produce 310 peak horsepower. Mated to a smooth six-speed automatic transmission — with steering wheel paddle shifters — the RLX realizes an EPA fuel economy rating of 20/31-mpg with a combined rating of 24 mpg. During our time together, over 800 miles, the RLX returned a consistent 26 mpg. Power delivery is very lineal and throttle response to energetic driver requests is generally very satisfying.

The RLX competes in a very well-endowed segment. The aforementioned Lexus models are big sellers, while the class benchmarks remain the Audi A6/A7, BMW 5-series and 6-series cars, plus the Mercedes E-class. Lincoln’s new MKZ plus Cadillac’s CTS also are rivals. Have you got all of these alpha-numeric names mentally organized yet? Would the ‘Legend’ name perhaps stand out in this segment? Just a thought.

Acura is marketing the numerous electronic systems available in the latest RLX as the differentiator. And this latest Acura is well-stocked with ‘goodies.’

There are essentially four total trim levels defined by the RLX’s optional packages. The Technology Package ($54,450), the KRELL Audio Package ($56,950) and the Advanced Package ($60,450, shown) round out the lineup. The hybrid model will arrive later this year.

Standard pieces include Jewel-eye LED headlamps, LED-illuminated door handles, 12-way power leather seats, On-Demand touch-screen interaction, Triple-zone climate controls, 404-watt 10-speaker audio system, keyless start, multi-view rear camera, forward collision warning system, and lane departure warning system. Navigation can be added to the standard car for $1,500.

Our top Advance model included Graphite-luster paint, 19-inch alloy wheels, rain-sensing wipers, heated and cooled leather seating with memory, power folding side mirrors, heated rear seats, front and rear parking sensors, Pandora Internet radio, power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, power rear sunshade with manual side window shades, lane-keeping assist system, adaptive cruise control with automatic low-speed following programming, plus Acura’s new collision mitigation braking system.

First off, the RLX’s interior works well. It is nicely detailed, handsome to look at and comfortable to enjoy. The touch-screen symbols produce a vibrating signal when activated, confirming your interaction, while the symbols, controls, and switches are intuitive and relatively easy to use while driving. The thumbwheels on the steering wheel for audio and information-panel interaction earn particular praise for their ease of use as well as overall tactile feel. The soft-touch leather steering wheel and a full array of pleasant fabrics and materials complement the RLX’s design. A solid ‘A’ here.

Access is good, but taller rear seat occupants commented about the lack of thigh support despite a large bench perch that provides ample head and leg room. The seat back does not fold to expand the 15-cubic-foot trunk.

Systems: there are a lot and they are mostly quite impressive.

Dynamic cruise continues to be an impressive display of what the engineers are able to accomplish with today’s modern electronics and computer programs. The Acura’s was sometimes inconsistent with spacing intervals, yet you can follow a forward car right through the toll booth, dropping from 70 mph to 20 mph, without touching a single pedal.

Building from that engineering, the Acura uses a forward collision system that should improve a driver’s chances when they mindlessly let distractions replace good driving. Ignore your closing speed on vehicles in front of you and there is a flash warning on the dash. Fail to react and a loud beep sounds plus a brighter light flashes BRAKE! Continue to doze and the collision mitigation braking intervenes and the seat belt automatically tightens as the car expects an imminent crash. I did not allow that to happen, despite the annoying stop-n-go traffic of Boston’s infamous Route 128.

From the helm, the RLX drives nicely too. This is a car that grows on you, a boulevard cruiser that doesn’t wow you with any particular superlatives, but a sedan that whisks you to your destination in quiet comfort. Throttle response is good, braking feel is strong, and the car feels lighter than its poundage. It rolls along well.

The RLX’s handling and ride, however, are not up to the par established by the Germans. Certain surfaces initiate excessive chassis rebound, while the wheels clomp over some terrain that does not ruffle other big cars. Despite the innovative P-AWS rear-wheel steering, the Acura doesn’t appear to deliver any handling edge over its rivals. At best, the RLX chassis is average in a class that usually delivers more compliance and composure.

Previous RL sedan sales were a fraction of what the former Legend model achieved. If this new RLX model doesn’t move the needle higher, Acura will have to reset its lineup to find cars that sell as well as its crossovers.

RLX pros: roomy and upscale cabin, great features list, more attractive styling, good track record on reliability.

RLX cons: clumsy rough road ride, heavy price for the AWD option, no heated steering wheel?

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Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.