Acura RLX's 2018 makeover isn't likely to change its fortunes
While it still offers everything you'd want from a $70,000 luxury car, Acura's flagship sedan lacks a compelling reason to choose it over the competition
Rooting for the underdog is one of the nicer Canadian habits. But while that mindset helps fill the seats at Maple Leaf hockey games, it's not an image any manufacturer of a high-end luxury car wants to cultivate. Most people spending large on a prestigious car want to project an aura of success; sometimes, that's the entire point.
Still, it's hard to avoid the u-word when we contemplate Acura's flagship sedan. In a market that increasingly favours SUVs over sedans, the RLX is a tiny fish in a small pond: Canadians bought 59 of the models last year. Compare that with 3,930 sales of the segment-leading Mercedes E-Class.
Transforming the RLX's fortunes will take much more than the minor midlife makeover it has received for 2018. Fronted by a redesigned "diamond pentagon" grille that aligns with the brand's new design direction, the do-over also includes new wheel and taillight treatments, redesigned seats and some fresh materials for the cabin furnishings.
No mechanical alterations are claimed, though we hope that since our first review three years ago there have been running changes to remedy the inconsistent on-the-limit handling we encountered.
The current RLX originally launched in 2014 in two acronym-abundant versions: front-wheel-drive P-AWS (Precision All-Wheel-Steer); and Sport Hybrid SH-AWD (Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive). Both remain on sale in the U.S., where the P-AWS now gets a 10-speed transmission; in Canada, it's SH-AWD only. Two trim grades, Tech and Elite, go for $65,490 and $69,990 respectively.
As before, the Hybrid SH-AWD's complex powertrain encompasses three electric motors: one paired with the 3.5-litre V-6, driving the front wheels through a seven-speed DCT automatic, and two out back, one driving each rear wheel.
Despite the considerable extra mass of the hybrid/AWD componentry, U.S. EPA numbers credit the electrified RLX with a whopping 40-per-cent better city fuel economy than the FWD model; its 8.4 litres/100 km city rating is more typical of a four-cylinder compact.
The rear electric motors not only enhance fuel economy and performance and provide all-wheel-drive, they also can be controlled independently to provide an element of rear-wheel steering. Orchestrated by super-smart software, this can theoretically promote agility or enhance stability as needed. But the software has to be programmed right, and our early experience back in 2014 suggested it wasn't.
This time around, we encountered no sign of the previous tail-happy handling. During a spell of full-on winter, the test car handled securely, with reassuring feedback and no surprises.
But while the SH-AWD may no longer yield any unintended consequences, it doesn't serve up anything special either. Many conventional mid-luxury alternatives are more engaging to drive, without the cost and complexity of the Acura's electrified rear drive.
On the other hand, even in a snowy week with temperatures averaging -8 Celsius, our test car averaged 10.0 L/100 km. That's pretty frugal for a swift and sumptuous midsize sedan.
In short, what we have here is a relaxed, comfortable and spacious luxobarge with a modest carbon footprint and an understated appearance that won't attract unwanted attention. We can't help thinking that next time famously frugal billionaire Warren Buffett is ready to trade in his old Cadillac, this Acura might be right up his alley.
- Price: $65,490 – $69,990
- Engines: 3.5-litre V6/3 electric motors
- Transmission/drive: Seven-speed DCT automatic/AWD
- Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.4 city, 8.2 highway
- Alternatives: BMW 530e xDrive, Cadillac CT6 Plug-in, Lexus GS450h, Volvo S90 PHEV
The new grille is an improvement, the more-sculpted (read: lumpy) hood arguably less so. Either way, to our eyes, the overall look still hews to the understated, got-it-but-don't-flaunt-it school of design.
This may be the RLX's best aspect. The cabin is comfortable and spacious, with a good range of at-the-wheel adjustability and class-leading front shoulder and hip room. It's well finished and stylish, too, though we're ambivalent about the push-button PRND selector on the centre console. And sharing auxiliary-control duties between two screens, a twist/toggle/tap controller and multiple small buttons mandates a steep learning curve.
Nothing much changes here: this midsize luxury sedan can still sprint like it's propelled by a V-8 (0-100 km/h in 5.8 seconds) or sip gas as if there's a four-cylinder under the hood (8.4 L/100 km combined). But the 3.5-L V6 isn't quite as silky as the 3.0 in the MDX Hybrid, so it's more noticeable when it slips in and out of electric-drive mode.
Traffic Jam Assist, a new addition to an already comprehensive suite of driver-assist technologies, adds automatic lane-following to the existing adaptive cruise with low-speed follow. All the above are standard, while the $4,500 Elite package adds, inter alia, a superior Krell audio system, surround-view camera, and ventilated front seats.
Like most hybrid sedans the RLX loses trunk space to the drive batteries, but it loses a little less for 2018. Now 339-L, the cargo volume is still much less than in conventional rivals, but competitive among other hybrids.
It's as true now as it was three years ago: the RLX provides everything you'd expect in a $70,000 luxury car … except for a truly compelling reason to buy it.