Acura's luxury flotilla leader, the RL, received a surprisingly comprehensive mid-cycle makeover for the 2009 model year. Perhaps it was to give the sedan some additional showroom staying power while we wait to see whether the rumour mill is correct - that a possibly larger, even more upmarket V-8-powered 2011 model will appear mid-next year.
"It's an interesting rumour," is as far as a Honda Canada spokesperson would go, but auto website Edmunds.com says the company is finally bowing to luxury ranks peer pressure and developing an all-new approach to the RL with a rear-drive-biased, but still all-wheel-drive-equipped, platform that will be powered by a 420-horsepower, 4.8-litre V-8.
The product cycle timing is about right for a new RL to appear for 2011, as the current second-generation RL hit the streets as a 2005. I'll bet, though, that Acura still won't be bringing to market a rival for the heavyweight premium-class Audi A8, BMW 7-Series, Jaguar XJ Mercedes-Benz S-Class or Lexus LS 460. Rather, in keeping with its all-the-luxury-you-really-need philosophy, it will be a variation on the mid-level theme it currently hums along to, accompanied by rivals such as the Audi A6, BMW 5-Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Jaguar XF, Cadillac STS, Lincoln MKS and Lexus GS. Not regal, in other words, but real-world.
In the meantime, the changes to the current RL improve what was already a very pleasant and technologically up-to-the-minute vehicle, adding a little presence with revised styling and 56 millimetres of length, along with some additional power, extra rear-seat legroom, new equipment, more high-tech electronic gadgetry and improvements to the AWD system, steering, suspension and wheels.
A base, and already comprehensively equipped, RL goes for $63,900, but our tester came with the Elite package that adds a collision-mitigation braking system (that measures the closing rate with a vehicle ahead and slows or brakes to avoid running into it), adaptive cruise control (which can maintain distance to the car ahead), an active (swivelling) front lighting system, heated and cooled front seats, and real curly-maple-wood trim - which ups the ante to $69,500.
The new front-end treatment adds a sportier touch to this luxury/performance sedan with its revised air intakes, and arguably some additional elegance with the new grille and headlamps.
The rear lights and bumper were also altered. The added length brings it within a hand's breadth of some of those premium-class cars mentioned, but it still maintains a more svelte look and carries considerably less weight.
Changes to the interior include the seats, which are covered in soft leather and hold you in place comfortably (the passenger seat is now 10-way power-assisted), a new straight-gate shifter, a wood-trimmed steering wheel and heated rear seats. The Acura/Bose sound system now includes Bluetooth audio, and there's upgraded XM satellite radio and a USB port. Plus, sound insulation has been increased, the hands-free phone system is able to listen to you better and the Smart Key allows push-button starts.
This is a very pleasant interior, light and airy, fairly roomy, quiet at cruising speeds and, despite handling upgrades, offers a ride that's firmly supple. Trunk space at 371 litres is considerably less than some in the class offer.
The RL features a broad array of safety equipment to help you avoid accidents, such as electronic stability control, ABS brakes, swivelling adaptive headlights, a collision-mitigation braking system and adaptive cruise control (well, actually this is just annoying), plus the Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) body structure, front, side and side-curtain airbags, and active head restraints.
Mechanical changes centre on the single-overhead cam V-6 engine, which now displaces 3.7 litres (up from 3.5 litres) and is fitted with a variable valve timing system that operates on both the intake and exhaust valves, a higher compression ratio and a new intake system.
Power has been increased by 10 hp to 300 hp at 6,300 rpm, and torque jumps from 256 lb-ft to 271 lb-ft at 5,000 rpm. It still gets to all four wheels - through the very clever and improved Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive system - via a five-speed automatic, however, which seems a little low-tech given the proliferation of six-speed units in this class. This can be shifted with reprogrammed Formula One-style steering-wheel paddles.
Weight doesn't appear to have gone up and Acura claims the restyled RL is more aerodynamic, so it must be the added displacement and power that are to blame for the poorer fuel economy numbers. The 2009 RL is rated at 13.1 L/100 km city and 9.0 highway, while the 2008's ratings are 12.9 city/8.4 highway.
In driving terms, the car feels more than quick and lively enough, as it always has, if possibly a little more responsive owing to the broader spread of torque. An extra gear in the transmission would likely have had the same effect, though, while maintaining or even improving fuel economy.
The up-rated engine likely knocks a few tenths off acceleration times, but improving the car's sporting character even more are higher-rate springs, revised shock absorbers, stiffer rear anti-roll bar, new suspension bushings, larger wheels (now 18-inchers rather than 17s fitted with P245/45 R18 tires) and a power steering system recalibrated to produce a more linear feel, which it does.
On the road, the RL feels light, stiff in its bones and well muscled.
All in all, the RL is a delightful car - quick, agile, safe with its AWD and electronic-handling aids, roomy and comfortable inside, and stylish without being flashy.
***** ***** ***** ***** *****
2009 ACURA RL ELITE
Type: Luxury/performance sedan
Base Price: $63,900; as tested, $69,500
Engine: 3.7-litre, SOHC, V-6
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
Horsepower/torque: 300 hp/ 271 lb-ft
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 13.1 city/9.0 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Audi A6, BMW 5-Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Jaguar XF, Lincoln MKS, Lexus GS, Cadillac STS
- The refreshed styling works
- The handling improvements are worthwhile and the interior has been made a little more user-friendly and comfortable
- A six-speed automatic transmission is overdue
- Worse fuel economy is a far-from-laudable exchange for a marginal gain in performance