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car review

2015 Acura RLX Sport HybridJeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

There are ski hills aplenty near Collingwood, Ont., but no race tracks. And while the local roads do boast a few challenging curves, enjoyment is discouraged by suffocating speed limits. Just as well, then, that the roads here on the southern shore of Georgian Bay do possess a network of roundabouts.

Why does this matter to the evaluation of a new hybrid-powered luxury sedan? Because the electric part of the Acura RLX Sport Hybrid SH-AWD powertrain (don't even ask what the SH stands for: the name is long enough already) is intended to benefit its handling as much as its performance and fuel economy. And in the absence of a track, a few laps of a traffic-free roundabout can reveal much.

Like many of its mild-hybrid luxury counterparts, the Hybrid SH-AWD has an electric motor paired with its gasoline powertrain – in this case, a 3.5-litre, V-6 driving the front wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch automated gearbox. But there is also a pair of electric motors out back, one driving each rear wheel.

Besides making the RLX into an all-wheel-driver, the rear motors can be controlled independently to provide, in effect, an element of rear-wheel steering. Orchestrated by super-smart software, this can be used to promote agility or enhance stability as needed. In turn, that should allow Acura to use a softer suspension than would otherwise be the case.

First-drive impressions at a preview event near Collingwood reveal a gap between the theory and the practice. The ride is distinctly firm, albeit still liveable; and while the RLX feels precise and agile in moderate-to-brisk driving, it hardly seems a quantum leap better than some conventionally engineered rivals. Nor is the steering response especially engaging.

More concerning, our test car's tail got squirrelly while we energetically negotiated one particular back-road curve. Further exploration on a Collingwood roundabout showed it wasn't a one-off aberration. And yes, this was on dry pavement.

Another Sport Hybrid we drove a week later kept its tail in line but surprised us instead with sudden-onset understeer through one fast curve. Of course, the stability-control system quickly reined in any waywardness, but this was hardly the sure-footedness we expect from an all-wheel drive car.

The performance/economy part of the equation is much more convincing. It would take extreme feather-footing to accelerate this two-ton car from rest on electric power alone, but in cruise mode it'll skim silently along on battery power at up to 80 km/h for a few kilometres at a time. Depending on battery state of charge and other factors, the transitions in and out of EV mode are somewhat random – but they are also seamless.

We drove the RLX briskly along rural roads, and after about 50 kilometres the trip computer was showing average fuel consumption of 8.1 L/100 km. Then, finding a level stretch of road, we attached our test gear and did several full-bore 0-100-km/h runs. The results averaged out at 5.8 seconds, which is plenty quick. Resuming normal driving, we completed the 94-km route with the computer still showing 9.1 L/100 km – including the acceleration runs – at the finish.

On a purely objective basis, the RLX Hybrid's package of luxury, technology, space and pace seems enough to justify its $69,990 asking price, with compact-car fuel economy as a feel-good bonus. But to seriously challenge the name-brand luxury heavyweights, Acura also needs to deliver a uniquely compelling driving experience. On paper, the Hybrid SH-AWD technology has the potential to do that. On pavement, we're still waiting to feel the results.

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.

You'll like this car if ... you'd rather take the road less travelled in a car that puts cutting-edge technology and a small carbon footprint before conventional notions of prestige and style.

TECH SPECS

  • Price: $69,990
  • Engines: 3.5-litre, V-6 direct-injection gas engine plus three electric motors
  • Drive: 7-speed dual-clutch automated transmission and AWD
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.0 city, 7.5 highway
  • Alternatives: Audi A6 TDI, BMW ActiveHybrid 5, BMW 535d, Lexus GS450h, Infiniti Q70h, 2014 Mercedes-Benz E400 Hybrid

RATINGS

  • Looks: Despite some novel sculpting along its flanks, the basic shape maintains a long tradition of conservative, anonymous styling for Acura’s largest and most expensive sedan.
  • Interior: Luxuriously appointed, and by the numbers it has the roomiest rear cabin in its class (though real-world sprawl space out back is compromised somewhat by tight foot-room under the front seats).
  • Technology: Apart from the unique Hybrid AWD powertrain, it comes loaded with safety and info-communi-tainment devices including two – count ’em, two – big-screen TVs on the dashboard
  • Performance: We’re unconvinced by the rear electric motors’ contribution to handling, but what’s not to like about a big luxury car that can sprint like a V-8 or scrooge like a four-cylinder?
  • Cargo: The battery pack in the trunk behind the back seat reduces cargo volume from 423 litres on the FWD RLX to 328 litres in the Hybrid – less than in most compact sedans.

The Verdict

7.0

Acura's new flagship sedan delivers everything you'd expect in a $70,000 luxury car … except for a truly compelling reason to buy it.

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