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Review and photos by Laurance Yap
As it continues to push upmarket, Acura’s a brand that’s finally starting to find itself. What was once a company that produced what many considered to be nicely warmed-over Hondas now finds itself with a model line-up that – EL aside – is not only unique, but is also starting to gel in terms of exterior styling, driving feel, and brand identity.
At the lower end, the RSX packages sportiness and practicality in a uniquely solid and high-quality package; the TSX and TL have redefined their segments with a combination of sharp styling and interiors and electronics that are simply the best in the business. All of the company’s cars have packaged their enviable reputation for reliability, high-end features, and superb quality with value that’s hard to beat.
With the introduction of the RL, Acura feels like it’s ready for the big time, and it feels, too, that with this graduation it’s ready to charge premium prices for what you’re getting. The new RL – a 300-hp, 3.5-litre, all-wheel-drive, all-singing and all-dancing high-luxury sedan – is priced at $69,500, more expensive than the six-cylinder versions of its major competitors, the Mercedes-Benz E-class, BMW 5-series, and Audi A6. That’s a huge step for a company that has traditionally priced even its typically-loaded efforts thousands of dollars less than the cars it competes against.
Acura thinks the market is ready for this. It sees luxury car buyers (and luxury shoppers in general) fragmenting into two distinct groups: traditionalists who go for solid, old standards of prestige, luxury, leather, wood, and chrome; and people who favour a more modern interpretation of luxury. These buyers are seeking more of an experience than a status symbol; they buy something based on its performance, not its image, and favour new, innovative brands like Acura instead of more obvious choices because the idea is that new brands have to work harder to earn the same amount of prestige, to charge the same kind of prices.
Interestingly, while Acura positions the RL as a very experiential luxury car, it packs many of the trappings of traditional luxury cars as well. The interior is slathered in high-quality leather, which wraps around not only the chairs, the steering wheel, and the shifter, but also all the way around the centre console; the middle of the dashboard is set off by a huge plank of wood that spans from door to door. Set alongside these old-fashioned touches are high-tech elements, like a blue-lit electroluminescent gauge cluster with dials that seem to float in space; a 7-inch screen that provides information for the navigation system, and a matte titanium finish on the door handles and other trim pieces in place of chrome.
Indeed, inside, the design is far more adventurous than you’d find in other luxury sedans. While the materials are of exceptional quality and the finish is second-to-none, you will find shapes in the RL’s interior, from the door handles through to the huge twist-and wobble knob that controls many of the car’s electronic features, that you’ve never seen before, or that at least look alien to automobiles. The high-tech Sony Vaio mood is all part of the experience, and all combines to give the RL a cabin ambiance (enhanced by electric blue mood lighting at night) that’s unlike any other car. In addition to all of the requisite features you would expect of a luxury car, the RL also has a fabulous 10-speaker DVD-audio Bose sound system, Bluetooth integration for your phone and organizer, DVD-based navigation with voice commands, and heated and cooled leather seats, which are, interestingly enough, a feature exclusive to Canadian versions of the car.
Rest assured that the new RL does pack all the punch in terms of performance and technology that you would expect for such an expensive automobile, but what’s unique about Acura’s approach is how it’s gone about achieving its goals in a very un-traditional sort of way. Its engine, for instance, out-does almost all of the big hitters in its class with 300 horsepower, but those horses are produced by an economical, high-revving V6 instead of a rumbling, gas-guzzling V8. It handles like a dream not thanks to huge sticky tires and rear-wheel-drive, but through a clever combination of (relatively) small 17-inch wheels, intelligent vehicle dynamics control, and an amazing new all-wheel-drive system that not only can distribute the engine’s torque front-to-rear, but also side-to-side. What does this mean? That you can drive the new RL with utter confidence, and should you wish, like a sports car too, using the throttle to steer the car instead of the steering wheel.
All is not perfect, however. On rutted Ontario roads, the ride can feel somewhat disjointed, and while the car’s structure is admirably stiff, the sheer number of bits used to build it mean that inevitably rough roads elicit some unseemly squeaks and rattles. The brakes, despite having four-piston calipers up front in addition to ABS and brake assist, can sometimes feel soft. And while the engine is as powerful as any in the class, it develops its power up high in the rev range, without the initial surge of off-the-line acceleration V8 buyers may be used to.
While the RL’s shape isn’t exactly distinctive – the short nose and stance remind of the VW Phaeton while the back end has some recent-BMW to it – it does have serious road presence, thanks to a well-sorted stance, a low ride height, and aggressively pointed nose. It’s also a delight to see so many neat details. The door handles in particular are a work of art: the lock buttons are blended in seamlessly (a keyless go system means you never need to remove the fob from your pocket), and when you unlock the car remotely the grab handles light up in blue. There are also beautifully jewelled LED lights, big, oval exhausts and perfectly flush side glass that’s the result of a new production process.
Like its styling, which may not be exciting, you keep finding bits on this Acura that surprise and delight, which bodes well for its longevity. It’s a great car now, and one which continues over time to reveal facets of its personality that make it that much more interesting. This is clearly a car that’s ready for its turn under the spotlight; is Acura ready for its own?