Honda will never be considered a serious global car company until its Acura division is taken seriously as a luxury brand.
And no premium car company will ever be on the short list of rich buyers without presenting a credible challenge to the BMW 5-Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class and Audi A6. The Germans set the standard here. If you want to know what each brand stands for in a complete way, test drive the 5, the E and the A6.
Enter the 2014 Acura RLX, the largish, front-drive sedan that, until the next NSX sports car arrives, is the flagship of a work-in-progress remake of Acura. Did you catch that “front-drive” reference? There is an all-wheel-drive RLX coming, a fancy, technologically advanced hybrid, in fact, but we won’t see that until later this year. So the first challenge Acura faces is front-wheel-drive.
Front-drive is not necessarily a deal-breaker, but the 5 and the E are rear-drive cars (also available with AWD), and the A6 made its mark globally with quattro AWD. Now the big Acura disguises its front-driven-ness well, far better than you’d believe. The car feels as solid as Georges St. Pierre’s biceps and is as nimble on the road as he is in the octagon.
In a nutshell, the RLX is a nice car. Truly. It’s not a German luxury sedan, but then don’t look for it to be priced like one, either. Acura hasn’t yet said what the starting nick will be, but it surely must fall in several thousand below the least-expensive BMW 528i ($54,500, with a $2,500 cash incentive in play right now).
And then Acura can also play some other cards. First, the 528 is powered by a 241-horsepower four-banger (turbocharged), while the only engine for the RLX is a modern, direct-injected V-6 (310 horsepower). A sweet mill, this one is, and it gets decent fuel economy (10.5 litres/100 km city and 6.4 highway/8.6 combined).
Power spools up effortlessly and it all seems to be there from the moment you engage the drive-by-wire throttle. But being front-drive, Acura uses electronic trickery to keep the wheels from lighting up and burning rubber. This is okay. For power overall, advantage Acura.
The rest of the RLX formula boils down to giving you more technology – and goodies in general – for the money. Remember, the German brands are notorious for giving you a base price, then tempting you to tack on thousands more in options.
Acura, on the other hand, just loads things up from the get-go. So-called “signature” technologies include “Precision All-Wheel Steer” (which suggests someone has imprecise all-wheel steering), “Jewel Eye” LED headlights (these are gorgeous) and the “AcuraLink” infotainment system.
I’ll say this: the steering is delightfully sharp, if a bit on the light side. There is nothing floaty or vague about the RLX; it will set a line and hold it beautifully. But the Germans just know how to connect the steering to the driver like no one else.
Ah, but the Acura has the prettiest headlights for this price, and AcuraLink is easy to learn and manage. And the RLX seems big as a ballroom inside. Being a front-driver does deliver a packaging advantage: the back seat is limousine-like in its legroom. Acura wisely claims to have the most spacious five-passenger seating in its class. You and your golfing buddies will appreciate that.
The ride is quiet as an university exam room, too. The usual emphasis on sound-deadening material comes into play, of course, but so does a body structure laced with high-strength steel and aluminum – materials that create a solid, quiet cabin, while also lightening the structural load to improve fuel economy, straight-line performance and handling.
Naturally, Acura has loaded up the car with the latest array of safety nannies. You’ve probably heard of them by now. Stuff like Forward Collision Warning (FCW), Lane Departure Warning (LDW) and Multi-Angle Rearview Camera. There’s also a gadget to warn you when you’re drifting from your lane and another to manage speeds for the cruise control and yet another to alert you to things in your blind spot. Honda has a sterling reputation for building safe and reliable cars; the RLX is exactly what you’d expect here.
Meantime, the cabin looks the part of a high-end bauble. All the controls and instruments are smartly arranged toward the driver. The key to the whole thing is the pairing of a seven-inch colour touchscreen with the eight-inch audio/information screen.
This gets special mention here. Why? The outgoing RL was nightmare of redundant buttons and knobs, but that mess and clutter has been cleaned up. You will find the correct number of traditional controls, and when you use the screens, the menus and such are sensible and usable.
Frankly, I don’t expect Acura to win over buyers of the German cars, but Honda owners now have a place to spend their increased riches.
2014 Acura RLX
Type: Mid-level luxury sedan
Base price: Not available
Engine: 3.5-litre V-6
Horsepower/torque: 310 hp/271 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.5 city/6.4 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: BMW 5-Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Audi A6, Infiniti M, Cadillac XTS, Lexus GS, Hyundai Genesis, Volvo S80