By CL member-request, a Review of the 2014 Acura RLX
IN A NUTSHELL: After two unsuccessful generations, the RL gets a new name/redesign and tries again.
CLOSEST AMERICAN-MARKET COMPETITORS: Cadillac XTS, Lincoln MKS, Infiniti Q70, Lexus GS, Audi A6, BMW 5-series, Mercedes E-Class. (though some of these competitors are standard RWD).
(Hybrid Sport control panel)
The Acura RL series was introduced in 1996 to replace the then-highly-regarded Legend series of the previous ten years. It had some good shoes to fill, for the Legend, of course, was the first true upmarket Japanese semi-luxury-class car to be marketed in the U.S.(1986). Previous upmarket Japanese-badged cars like the Toyota Cressida and Nissan Maxima/Datsun 810 just weren't quite in the same league. The Legend even offered a conventional 5-speed manual transmission, though there were few takers in the U.S., and the clutch itself, unlike most Honda/Acura hardware, turned out to be unreliable.
The first-generation RL, which replaced the original Legend, was a car I generally thought highly of. it lacked a V8, and had FWD, but got the nickname "Japanese Buick"....which was fine with me, as I generally like that type of driving manners (smooth ride, now noise level, comfy seats, good refinement). And the RL, IMO, was especially nice in that regard, because the REAL Buicks of that time, coming from GM, like most of the rest of the GM lineup, were poorly-built, used cheap materials, and were generally unimpressive. The RL, in contrast, offered good materials, careful workmanship/assembly, and reliability....except for the manual clutch. The first-generation RL was not a huge sales success, but turned out to be more so than the superb but ill-fated second-generation model.
The second-generation RL, design-wise, was a complete turn-around from the first in many ways. Gone was the geriatric Buick image and road-manners. In place of FWD came the standard, side-to-side torque-vectoring SH-AWD..........considered, at the time, one of the world's state-of-the art AWD systems. The former somewhat conservative interior was replaced by a combination of real wood paneling, new electronic features, and console-**** control. The former high-quality construction was upgraded even more to tank-like body construction/sheet metal, doors that (by the standards of the time), closed like bank vaults, and interior hardware that felt like you could use it a hundred years and it wouldn't break. Outside, of course, it retained the usual first-class Acura paint job. The first time I sat in this car, at the D.C. Auto Show, and closely examined it, I was impressed with a level of respect that I hadn't felt in years. No other regular passenger car at the show, IMO, could equal its vault-like feel...by that time, most Mercedes-Benz products, which were also formerly built like tanks, were in a noticeable decline. My initial respect for it at the show was later confirmed when I did a full-review (I actually did two review on it...a couple of years apart). I considered it, at the time, probably one of the ten best-built cars I had ever driven. So did Car and Driver magazine, which gave it a Ten-Best award, and Consumer Reports, which, at the time considered it their most reliable sedan.
Alas, this superbly-built car was destined not to sell in anywhere near the numbers needed to keep it (and the company) afloat....and return the company's investment in it. A lot of controversy has surrounded its low sales. Reason after reason (and excuse after excuse) was shot back and forth across the Internet and in the auto press as to why it didn't sell well.....from its exterior size, to the lack of a V8/RWD (though the 3.5L V6 was actually pretty spunky for the period, even with AWD), to its conservative Accord-like body styling, to the $48,000+ base price which some thought too high for a V6 car of this size, to even the awkward-looking parrot-beak grille of the later years. One has to consider, though, that the $48,000 bought a car with superb materials, though many RLs, because of low demand, typically went out the door with steep discounts (41-42K).
So, Acura decided to try again with an all-new third-generation model last year....and a marketing name-change from RL to RLX. The last version was built so well that I was concerned about the new one using lighter, less-solid materials....which does seem to be the case. Gone is the standard SH-AWD, replaced by conventional FWD....though the base FWD version does include electronic all-wheel-steering.
For 2014, the RLX line comes in two trim versions....part of which I just explained above. The base version, starting at $48,450 (about where the last version did) comes with a 3.5L V6 of 310 HP and 272 ft-lbs. of torque, a 6-speed Sport-shift automatic, and four-wheel steering. The upcoming Sport-Hybrid version, though lacking the four-wheel steering, has a state-of-the art hybrid system, similar to those on some Lexus vehicles, with the same 3.5L V6 and three electric motors, one with the main V6 engine up front and one motor on each rear wheel. The rear motors function like the former SH-AWD's torque-vectoring, but accomplish it by differential torque on each motor/wheel instead of an electro-mechanical rear-differential. As I write this, official pricing for the hybrid has not been announced yet on Acura's website, but is expected soon.....estimates start around 60K.
As write this (July 2014), conventional gas-powered RLX models are listed as in stock on the websites of local D.C.-area Acura dealerships, but, for some reason, often don't actually seem to be sitting on the lot. I'm pretty certain it is not because of brisk sales, as this third generation model, so far, doesn't seem to be flying out the door any faster than its predecessors. True, dealerships are trying to clear out 2014 inventory so there is room for arriving 2015s (and, of course, the upcoming RLX Hybrid models). Anyhow, a local dealership (the same adjacent Acura/Lexus complex where I had bought my Lexus IS300 some years ago) did have a 2014 RLX in stock with the Tech Package for around 55K. So, I went ahead and reviewed that one while I had the chance, even though I had originally planned to check out the 48-50K base version, because that is the one priced closest to the last-generation model.
MODEL REVIEWED: 2014 Acura RLX Tech
BASE PRICE: $54,450
DESTINATION/FREIGHT: $895 (reasonable for a car this size....many manufacturers are charging more freight for smaller cars)
LIST PRICE AS REVIEWED: $55,345
DRIVETRAIN: FWD, Transversely-mounted 3.5L V6, 310 HP @ 6500 RPM, Torque 272 Ft-lbs. @ 4500 RPM, 6-speed automatic transmission with paddle Sport-Shift and Grade-Logic.
EPA MILEAGE RATING: 20 City, 31 Highway, 24 Combined (not bad for a relatively large heavy car with a V6)
EXTERIOR COLOR: Forged Silver Metallic
INTERIOR: Ebony (Black) Leather
Smooth, refined engine and powertrain.
Decent power from the V6 despite the car's size.
Good ride comfort.
Good wind-noise and road-noise control.
Relatively flat cornering for this type of car, with little body lean.
Excellent underhood layout for a luxury/premium sedan.
Excellent, well-done paint job in the Acura tradition.
Meticulously careful vehicle assembly, again in the Acura tradition.
Very comfortable front seats for large persons like me.
Nice-feeling seat leather.
Unusual finger-hold brake-tab.
High quality, plush interior trim materials.
Decent rear legroom even for some larger adults.
Well-trimmed cargo area.
Relatively low sales figures could mean deals and discounts.
6/70 drivetrain warranty matches Lexus, Infiniti, Lincoln, Buick, and Cadillac.
Extremely well-informative RLX web site with graphic displays/videos for many features.
Significant price rise for 2015 on base models.
Body sheet metal and doors substantially less solid-feeling than the previous tank-like version.
Sport Mode in the drivetrain programming means a jumpy throttle.
Steering response OK for a car of this class, but not particularly agile.
Only 7 dull (IMO) exterior paint colors inadequate for a car in this class.
Marginal rear headroom for tall adults.
No body-side moldings for parking-lot protection.
Brake pedal location not ideal for large feet.
Smooth-operating but insultingly small glove box.
Smallish trunk lid for the size of the large cargo area.
No spare tire at all...uses a tire-inflation kit.
Still has the controversial aluminum-finish Parrot-Beak grille.
May (?) be hard to find in stock, especially base models.
Low sales figures found (?) mean relatively high depreciation and lease-rates.
The 3rd-generation RLX, of course, is a complete restyling over the former RL, but the new body styling is not that radically different, and the RLX can still be easily be recognized as a member of the Acura sedan family. The general body lines of the RL are still there, though slightly streamlined a little and less Accord-like (which was a major complaint of the old styling). The front end still has the classic Acura parrot-beak upper-grille and lower bars, this time done in a smooth but only lightly-polished aluminum trim (not highly-polished like chrome). Acura dealerships once used to paint the parrot-beaks body color, at customer request, before new cars were delivered (to make the beak less-noticeable), but this particular dealership stopped doing that because the paint did not age well, and was sometimes peeling after just two years or so. There is a row of five standard jewel-eye LED headlamps on either side of the grille. Unlike the former RL, which had nicely-located side-body moldings for parking lot protection, those were left off of the RLX. Seven exterior paint colors (mostly fit, IMO, for funeral-homes) were offered, which (again, IMO) is inadequate for a flagship car of this class. The more expensive Hyundai Equus, though, is even worse...only black, white, gray, and silver are offered. The RLX interiors, though come in all-black or two other shades of two-tone (Light gray/ILight Beige).
Besides the lack of standard SH-AWD on the RLX, though, the biggest single difference between the old RL and the new RLX, (as with many other new cars today) is the noticeably lighter sheet metal/doors used on the RLX. (I strongly suspected this would happen). The old one was built like a tank...when you shut the heavy doors, they responded with a thunk that was unequalled by just about anything this side of a Mercedes Gelandewagen (G-Wagen), which was originally developed as a Austrian military vehicle. Definitely less so on the new one. Not there is necessarily anything wrong per se with the way the new one is built (like most Honda/Acura products, it comes off the assembly line like a precision Swiss Watch)....but the solidness in the body and panels is noticeably thinner. But everything else outside, especially the chrome trim, side-mirrors, and hardware, is done and attached almost to perfection.
Open the rather light but extremely precise-fitting hood (like the doors, it closes/latches like a Swiss Watch) and two nice gas struts hold it up for you (Acura had BETTER use struts on their flagship). A nice hood-insulation pad does a pretty good job...more on that later. Underneath, the general layout was a nice surprise compared to the usual tendency of luxury/upmarket cars to hide everything under covers. The rather large, transversely-monted 3.5L V6 fits in quite well in the large engine compartment. A large plastic engine cover, as with most luxury cars, does block access to some of top-engine parts, but there is room to spare around the edges of the block to reach things not covered up on top. The battery and its terminals, to the near-right, is, happily, easily-reachable with no cover at all. The filler-caps, fluid-reservoirs, and dipsticks are, as in most cars, easily reached.
Inside, the RLX also shows some differences from the older RL. The overall styling theme appears to be more conventional than the RL, and more in line with other Acura sedans. Overhead, the sun visors and headliner are well-covered in a very plush felt material. The sunroof housing does impact on headroom a little, though.....more so in the rear than in front, where, in back, I could just get in (6' 2" and cap) with my cap just brushing the roof. The front seats were extremely comfortable for a guy my size (like with Buicks, you could tell they were designed for large Americans), and the real Milano leather (part of the Tech Package) felt quite nice. An Advance Package (which my car didn't have) includes three seat-heating and three cooling levels. Legroom in back, with the front seat adjusted for me, was decent enough for most adults outside of the NBA. Virtually all of the interior trim materials (including wood/aluminum/chrome) are first-class, and most were nicely-padded. The hardware was mostly solid and well-attached, though not quite as solid as in the former RL's interior. The two primary gauges were both clear and easy to read, and the secondary gauges were mounted in chrome, jewel-like trim-casings. The steering wheel was generally well-designed and comfortable to hold. Virtually all of the controls/*****/buttons operated with slick-precision.
Outside of the marginal headroom, there really wasn't a whole lot to complain about inside, but I will mention a few things. The slick-operating push-button-operated glovebox was insultingly small...even with split-levels, not much more than the Owners' Manual could fit. The stereo sound quality, though acceptable, could not, IMO, match that of some competitors. And the video-screen system was rather complex, though the controls that operated it were generally clear and well-labelled.
The fastback roofline, as with many other sedans today (manufacturers keep trying to make sedans look like coupes) does impact the size of the trunk lid, which, though not really that small, is smaller than one could expect for a roomy trunk this large. Still, reasonably large-size pieces of luggage/cargo could be loaded through it. Inside, as stated, the cargo area is quite roomy, which one would expect for a car this size. It is also quite well-trimmed, with a somewhat thin but nice-feeling grade of plush-feeling black carpet on both the floor and walls. On the floor are what appear to be real solid-metal chrome-polished cargo rings....not simply coated plastic ones. The rear seats don't appear to fold down for extra space (the cargo area is roomy enough that the extra space would usually not be needed anyway), but does include a center pass-through for long narrow items like skis, fishing poles, etc..... Under the carpeted floor is a big multi-compartment black styrofoam tray with several molded compartments and little else in it but a tire-inflation kit (there is no spare tire at all, even a temporary one).
ON THE ROAD:
Start up the 3.5L V6 with a standard button (expected in a car of this class), and the engine comes to life with smoothness/quietness and refinement. On the road, power delivery is ample, smooth, and generally quiet except for some mild exhaust noise under moderate or greater acceleration. The smooth engine is helped by the also-smooth/quiet 6-speed Sport-shift transmission. In manual mode, shifting is done by the solid-feeling paddles on the steering column, not with the ever. The lever also has a nice fore-aft motion instead of zig-zags. Though obviously no competition for a Mustang GT or Camaro SS, the V6s 310 HP and 272 ft-lbs. of torque is no slouch. Pressing the "Sport" mode button made for a somewhat jumpy throttle from rest and upshift-delays....they were not noticeable in the normal mode. For most driving needs, it has an adequate (even ample) level of power for a flagship of this size, helped, of course, this year by the standard FWD, which has less weight/drag than the old SH-AWD. Some might disagree with me, but, IMO, this car does not need a V8.
The chassis is generally well-done, though you can tell you are not in a German sport-sedan. The standard suspension, even with recommended 35 PSI in the low-profile 45-series tires and standard 18" wheels, seems more comfort-oriented than performance (which, of course, is the way I usually like it). The ride is generally smooth over most bumps and pavement imperfections. Steering response is adequate but a little slower than that of more performance-based cars, though the cornering is still fairly flat, without a lot of body lean. A lot of attention seems to have been put into noise-control this time (a traditional Honda/Acura weakness)....wind and road-racket are as effectively controlled as....well, a Japanese Buick. The brakes generally are responsive and perform well, though the brake pedal-location, as with many other vehicles I sample, is not ideal for a big men's-size-15 clown-shoe like mine lifting off the gas pedal and catching on the brake-pedal-edge. The electronic parking-brake tab had an unusual feature.....an additional button right under it that one simply pressed to temporarily hold the brake with one's finger......releasing it let the car roll.
I have mixed feelings about this new RLX. On one hand, I understand that, no matter how much I personally liked the old RL and how well I thought it was built, the fact was that it simply did not sell....period. It did little, if anything, for Acura's bottom-line, and the company obviously had to try something else. So, we have an all-new design, with the latest technology (even more technology coming soon with the Hybrid) under a basic wrapper that doesn't look a while lot different from the former model. The same V6 engine is carried over...though I still don't feel that this particular car needs a V8, especially without AWD. The FWD layout usually (but not always) gives better winter traction than RWD usually does under winter conditions, even with electronic traction-aids. And the new RLX retains the same Swiss-Watch assembly quality its two predecessors did.
But, at the same time, Acura did seem to cheap out some areas on the new RLX. The former tank-like body has been replaced with noticeably less-solid sheet metal/doors. The paint offerings, IMO, are inadequate for a car of this class. The new standard FWD lessened the production costs on the base model, though without a corresponding reduction in list price...in fact, the price went up (though most RL's were sold at a dealer-discount anyway). The glove-box design is ridiculous. And the use of a Huff-and-Puff tire-inflator-bottle for flats on a flagship of this class.......give us a break.
Of course, the BIG question, for Acura is....will it sell this time? To be honest, I'm not holding my breath. First of all, to sell, one has to actually HAVE cars in stock, although it is true that more and more people nowadays are ordering cars on-line. Still, when John Q. Public and his family stop at an Acura shop and ask to see their flagship, it's pretty embarrassing not to have a decent number of them in stock (I had to hunt a little for the one I actually reviewed myself). Then, if in stock, the car has to make a favorable impression, which this car, despite its faults, is likely to do IF people actually come out to look at it and drive it. Then, the price has to be right, which I'm not quite sure it is on the base model.
But, overall, this is a generally well-done luxury car that should (IF it sells) stack up well with most Infiniti and some Lexus competitors (though it is not in the same Tier-1 luxury class as a Lexus LS460). The upcoming Hybrid model should increase its appeal some, especially now that it uses a three-electric motor hybrid boost/AWD system like its competitors.
And, as always......Happy car-shopping.