Acura's RL a luxe, sporty ride


by By TOM VOELK / Special to

Posted on June 11, 2009 at 10:32 AM

Updated Friday, Oct 23 at 3:06 PM

Video: Driving Northwest: The luxe, sporty Acura RL

There are loads of luxury car choices these days.  It must make the wealthy lose sleep.  How does one choose between Mercedes E Class, Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, Lexus GS and Infiniti M?  Makes a guy glad to be working class.  Sort of … 

I have intentionally left one car off the above list but you know that because it's today's subject - Acura's RL.  It has sophisticated all-wheel drive, an entire Best Buy store full of technology and luxury touches like a power rear sunshade, wood so perfect it almost looks fake, and seats that are heated AND cooled.  Now who wants to be working class?

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RL is Acura's flagship and for model year 2009 there are upgrades.  Most visible is the family's new angular and polarizing face.  Listening to a guy in the Safeway parking lot rant on about I've come to a conclusion: Like it?  Great.  Don't?  Then do not buy one.  It's just that simple. Honda's premium brand is on to something with their plow shaped grille, because love it or hate it, it's clear you're looking at an Acura from 50 yards away.  Nothing generic about it.

Priced to move, engineered to move faster

A fully optioned car like the tester I've been given goes for $54,910 though it starts closer to $47,500.  Quite competitive to those others.  The engine is a terrific 3.7-liter VTEC V6 that makes 300 horsepower.  It's hooked up to a 5-speed automatic with manual mode using steering wheel paddle shifters.  Very sporty.  Those keeping score will notice the tranny has one or two gears less than the competition. 

Quick 0-60 runs take seven seconds and a throaty growl comes along for the ride.  It's just right for Acura's mission that leans toward BMW's theory of luxury.  RL is comfortable but not overly cushy.  It's quiet but let's enough of the outside world in to stay in touch with the car.   I'm seeing 17 miles per gallon on premium fuel.  EPA rating is 16 city/ 22 highway.

All-wheel drive and a second set of eyes

Acura's all-wheel drive system is called SH-AWD and if you're not familiar with it let me give you a simplified explanation.  During cornering the outside wheels, which travel a farther distance according to basic high school math, turn faster using a torque vectoring component to make up the difference.  This allows the RL to arc around a corner in a more natural way.   In my week with the RL I never drove it hard enough to notice a clear advantage but I certainly appreciate the engineering.

Among its many features, this RL comes with radar adaptive cruise control that automatically keeps a set difference between the car in front.  That system is part of another called CMBS or Collision Mitigation Braking System.  If a driver loses focus and gets too close to a car ahead, a warning tone beeps and a big red "BRAKE" alert flashes in the gauge cluster. If you don't react CMBS will tug at the driver's seatbelt and start braking. If it senses a collision is inevitable, the front seatbelts tighten up and heavy brake force is applied.  This reduces chance of injury to you and presumable HAL 9000 that's riding shotgun. 

CMBS will not completely stop the car like Volvo's City Safety does at low speeds.  Click the streaming video to view my misguided (but hopefully mildly entertaining) attempt to demonstrate the system.  CMBS works by detecting metallic objects so fiberglass insulation, Styrofoam, and presumably pedestrians will not trigger it.  Sorry, I don't have the financial means to ram a perfectly good RL into another car for your viewing pleasure.  A funny side note - a passerby took the roll of insulation I used to prop up the Styrofoam while I was consulting the manual to find out why CMBS didn't trigger.  Just threw it in his truck and sped off. 

That said I actually experienced some of the CMBS system in action.  With my eyes off the highway for a second, another car cut in front of the RL and braked.   The warning tone and flashing light did its job as advertised.  Quick action on my part avoided any trouble but not before the seatbelts quivered to assure my attention.  Aggressive drivers and serial tailgaters may tire of the warnings.   For them, may I suggest the off button?

A nice place to spend time

As expected, RL's cabin is a very nice space using excellent wood, metal and leather to fill your field of vision.  Acura's DVD audio surround sound audio system is terrific but tough to demonstrate on the internet.  Take my word, it rocks.  So does iPod integration.  RL is keyless so there's no fumbling to find the fob.  One gripe?  My standards feel door pulls should be rich-to-the-touch metal, not plastic. 

A bright LCD screen displays everything you may ever need to know- live traffic updates, Zagat rated restaurants, weather forecasts, a calculator, service messages and a backup cam.  It's been established that I prefer touch screens to Acura's knob and dial interface but the one here is fine.  Voice recognition helps speed things along though it helps to memorize key phrases.  Just so you know. 

If you find aftermarket sun shades for the side rear windows unsightly, RL could be your car.  Here they're elegantly designed into the door.  No "Baby on Board" graphic to warn others you might be driving erratically either.  That alone could be worth $10,000.

Moving to the back …

This is Acura's top 'o the line ride so while space in the rear seat is OK for an average sized guy I'd like to see more room so people can really stretch out.   A center passenger has a drive shaft tunnel and raised seating position to deal with.  Necks will be sore and hairstyles will suffer from lack of headroom here.  Keep it to kids in the middle. 

With lots of undulations and hinge arms that intrude, the nicely trimmed trunk is on the smaller side.  It holds 6 packs of Kirkland brand bath tissue (the gold standard when measuring car trunks).  This is two shy of many competitors.  Also, the seat back does not split and fold to expand cargo, a ski pass through is all you get.

With siblings like this who needs other brands?

In the end RL's biggest foe might be found in Acura's own showroom.  For around 10 grand less the more athletic TL offers many of RL's features like SH-AWD, and killer sound system.  The sassy upstart offers sharper handling but a less comfortable ride quality.  Surprisingly I prefer the TL's slightly different tech interface to RL's but would miss big brother's richer and warmer wood trimmed interior (TL's sporty trim is aluminum).  TL also gives up those chilled front seats.  Just another dilemma for the wealthy to fret about I suppose.  Like a top executive that competes in sprint triathlons, Acura's RL is a blend of privilege and athlete.