First Drive: 2014 Acura RLX

A worthy flagship.

by on Mar.01, 2013

With the 2014 RLX launch Acura finally gets a real flagship sedan.

When it was launched, more than a quarter-century ago, Acura transformed the way Americans thought about Japanese cars, proving that the Asians could challenge the well-established European and domestic luxury brands. But the initial success of the Honda Motor Co. subsidiary proved far too fleeting and in recent years, Acura has lagged in the back of the premium pack.

One can come up with any number of reasons to explain Acura’s malaise: the switch from well-respected model names like Legend to forgettable alphanumeric alternatives; some strange styling decisions, such as the awkward chrome grille critics deride as the “beak”; increased competition, especially from newer Japanese brands – but perhaps the start of the decline was the model that replaced the once-formidable Legend, the Acura RL.

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It wasn’t a bad car.  Well, not all that bad. It just wasn’t the sort of product to provide a halo around your brand – even if you could remember its name. Now, to be honest, there was more than a bit of disappointment when Acura announced it would introduce an all-new flagship model but not bring back the Legend nameplate. The question is whether the all-new 2014 Acura RLX delivers what the Honda luxury brand needs, whatever you call it?

Acura's new P-AWS system give the RLX an unexpectedly solid grip through tight turns.

To find out, we spent several days wandering through the lush hills of Sonoma and Napa Valley, with a detour over to the demanding Sear’s Point Raceway to push the new RLX to the limits without the risk of oncoming traffic – or radar cops.

It was a pleasant venue for our first drive, with great scenery and, more important to the task at hand, some of the more challenging public roads we could find, something that was perfect to exercise Acura’s new P-AWS system, more formally known as Precision All-Wheel Steer, that was designed to enhance the big sedan’s grip as it tracks through tight corners as well as during ordinary maneuvers like sudden highway lane changes.

Acura gave a peek at the new RLX last year, revealing the production version at the L.A. Auto Show. Compared to the old RL it’s a decidedly more handsome vehicle, if not a groundbreaking design. It adopts the more coupe-like roofline we’ve been seeing more and more makers migrate to, and there’s a subtle similarity to the latest Lexus GS which competes in the same segment of the luxury market.

The distinctive LED headlights on the 2014 Acura RLX.

That’s not to dismiss the new RLX. It has its distinctive touches, notably the multi-element LED headlamps which provide both functional and aesthetic value. Since you’re likely to ask, yes, the beak is still there – but in a much subdued form that now almost justifies its existence.

Dimensionally, the new RLX isn’t far off the old RL, a tenth of an inch longer, at 196.1 inches, but with almost two extra inches of wheelbase and 1.8 more inches of width. That largely translates into a more comfortable cabin, as well as a bit better-planted chassis. To offer some perspective, rear-seat passengers get nearly 39 inches of legroom, as much as in some luxury models a class-size up.

The interior is well executed and while not as lush and lavish as, say, an Audi, it is well-appointed and there has been a clear attention to details such as stitching and fit-and-finish that an owner would appreciate.

The surprisingly quiet cabin – which now rivals Lexus in terms of hushing up wind and road noise – is anchored by a pair of video screens, one atop, the other in the middle of the center stack.  The 8-inch, uppermost LCD display handles optional navigation duties as well as displaying images from the standard-equipment backup camera. The lower touchscreen handles most of the rest of the key duties, including the audio system and climate control.

The system also can be operated with a rotary knob below, or by using voice commands.  We found the system to deliver some innovative features.  You can store a number of common destinations, just like radio presets, for example. On the downside, it took a lot longer than we expected to figure out how to enter navi instructions, in particular, and we consider ourselves “infotainment-savvy.” Less tech-conscious buyers could get pretty frustrated during the early stages of the learning curve.

The controversial Acura beak remains, albeit substantially toned down on the new RLX.

The interior also features plenty of storage and kudos to the well-appointed and deeply bolstered new 12-way power seats. They come heated, with a ventilated option.  Our test model also featured a high-end Krell audio system that should appeal whether you’re tastes are thumping-bass hip-hop or soaring violin concertos.

Acura has always delivered a good drivetrain – in fact, that was one of the strong selling points for the original Legend line. The new RLX doesn’t disappoint. For now, the sole engine choice is a 3.5-liter SOHC V-6 making 310 horsepower and 272 pound-feet of torque.  It’s part of Honda’s new corporate Earth Dreams technology, which is meant to deliver lots of power while sipping a minimal amount of fuel.

Power is sent to the front wheels through a 6-speed automatic with quick-response paddle-shifters. Here’s one place where Acura has lagged behind. Yes, the gearbox is silky smooth, and in Sport Mode it’s particularly good at holding gears as you squeal through tight corners. But Acura is just getting to the point where it is offering 6-speeds across the board even as its competition is migrating from 6- to 7-, 8- and even 9-speed transmissions.  More gears are not automatically better but there are advantages when executed right.  We can only wonder what Acura’s plans are, long-term.

There's only one powertrain option -- for now, with a slick, three-motor hybrid to come next year.

Fuel economy is one area where those added gears might pay off, though the 3997-pound 2014 Acura RLX delivers reasonable mileage, 20 mpg in the city, according to EPA ratings, 31 on the highway.

The fact that the gearbox behaves so seamlessly through corners made it easier for us to take measure of the new P-AWS system. If you’re confusing it with the earlier all-wheel-steer technology Honda and other makers offered, start again. The new system electronically shifts toe-in several degrees, but what’s particularly significant is that each of the rear wheels can be adjusted independently.

On a high-speed corner, the rear wheels will turn in the direction you’re traveling. Under aggressive braking, both will point inward –somewhat like a skier, an Acura engineer explained.

The result is an almost uncanny sense of control during aggressive maneuvers – something Acura further underscored by letting us take a few competing products, including the rear-drive BMW 535i, out on a slalom course at Sear’s Point. Will a diehard BMW fan make the jump? Probably not, but the Acura RLX makes a credible case that front-drive can deliver compelling handling.

The Acura RLX during its LA Auto Show preview.

And Acura has further enhanced that feeling with the use of the same dual-valve damping shock absorbers first introduced on the new MDX crossover last year. The system uses an innovative mechanical design to stiffen up when driven hard, then provide more compliance – read that as pothole-absorbing “comfort” under more routine driving conditions.

Acura has some big plans for the RLX and will introduce a second powertrain next year. It introduces a new three-motor hybrid system that advances the current Acura Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive technology. The potential torque vectoring capabilities could take the P-AWS system to even more competitive levels.

For now, though, we think there’ll be plenty of buyers happy to check out the new 2014 Acura RLX. The old RL deserved to just fade away. It never delivered what Honda’s luxury brand needed or deserved.  Mike Accavitti, Acura’s marketing chief, introduced us to the new RLX by declaring it “the best car Acura has ever produced.” We’re used to hearing lots of hype at these events but this time he may have been on the mark.

The new 2014 Acura RLX carries a base price of $49,345, though the model we tested boasted a $61,345 sticker.

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