2002 Acura RL
2002 Acura RL. Click image to enlarge

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Test Drive: 2002 Acura 3.5RL

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Acura Canada

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By Grant Yoxon and Chris Chase

Photo Gallery:
Acura 3.5RL, 1996-2004

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The Acura RL debuted as a 1996 model replacing the Legend at the top of the Acura line-up. While the Legend was viewed as a sport sedan, the new RL had no such pretensions – it would compete with the up-market luxury models from Lexus, Infiniti, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

Although well-appointed and comfortable to drive, the 1996 RL had some serious short-comings, most notably a front-drive, V-6 powered drivetrain, while most competitors were rear-wheel-drive and powered by V-8s.

The RL’s 3.5 litre V-6 generated 210 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 224 lb.-ft. of torque at 2,800 rpm. This was raised in 2002 to 225 horsepower and 231 lb.ft. of torque.

Fuel consumption ratings for the 1996 3.5RL were 12.7/8.8 L/100 km (city/highway); by 2001, consumption had crept up to 13.4/9.2 L/100 km. The more powerful 2002-2004 models were rated at 13.2/9.1 L/100 km.

2002 Acura RL
2002 Acura RL. Click image to enlarge

While acceleration was adequate, it could not match that of its V-8 competitors and mediocre power remained a knock against the RL throughout this generation’s nine-year production run.

The big advantage for the RL, however, was price. With a list price in 1996 of $52,300, the RL was a price leader in the import luxury sedan segment, a position it would keep for the next nine years.

Price leader or not, Acura didn’t scrimp on creature comforts in its flagship sedan. Standard equipment included an Acura/Bose stereo with a trunk mounted 6-disc CD changer, supple leather upholstery, burled camphor wood, power heated front seats with two position memory which included the steering wheel and outside mirror positions, power sun roof and automatic climate control with air filtration system. The interior was well-insulated from the outside world.

2002 Acura RL
2002 Acura RL. Click image to enlarge

Although each year brought minor upgrades, the RL remained largely the same from 1996 to 2004.

The first significant revision arrived in 1999 with a restyled grille, hood, bumper, fog lights, high-intensity discharge headlights, new taillights and trunk lid. Technical upgrades included larger disc brakes and new, wider performance tires and alloy wheels.

Another technical upgrade took place in 2002 when the RL received an increase in horsepower and torque, larger tires and wheels, re-tuned power steering and suspension to improve road feel and ride comfort, and even more sound insulation, making the 2002 and later models the quietest RLs of this generation. New taillights, a redesigned grille and new alloy wheels were added in 2003, while 2004 brought power lumbar support, new centre console, instrument panel and gauges, steering wheel, shifter knob and a 6-disc in-dash CD changer.

1996 Acura RL
1996 Acura RL
1996 Acura RL. Click image to enlarge

Here’s an FAQ at Acura-Legend.com that gives a good overview of year-to-year changes to the 1996-2004 3.5RL.

There isn’t much to watch for in terms of common issues in the 3.5RL. Consumer Reports gives the 3.5RL its “much better than average” used vehicle rating, and the RL makes CR’s list of reliable used cars to look for in various price ranges.

In the opinion of some posters in this thread at AcuraWorld.com, the 3.5RL is a very solid car, but warn that routine maintenance and repairs on older examples can be expensive, as with many luxury cars.

From Acura-Legend.com, here’s a list of do-it-yourself repair and maintenance procedures.

Here’s a DIY for replacing the 3.5RL’s cabin air filter. This one is for replacing brake pads, while this one will help you replace springs and shocks/struts.

1999 Acura RL
1999 Acura RL. Click image to enlarge

Safety features included driver and passenger front air bags and seat side airbags, anti-lock brakes and traction control. A three point seatbelt for the centre rear position was added in 1998. Vehicle stability assist came in 2000. Side curtain air bags were not available.

The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the RL four out of five stars for frontal impacts for 1999 – 2004 models. 2004 models received four out of five stars for side impacts for both front and rear passengers. The RL also received a four out of five star roll-over rating in 2003 and 2004.

Used 3.5RL prices, according to Canadian Black Book, range from $6,550 for a 1997 model (the oldest model year CBB has values for) to $21,800 for a 2004 model. For about $17,500, a 2002 model, with its more powerful engine and upgraded steering and suspension, would be a good buy, but note that a 2001 model is worth significantly less, at about $11,500.

Second Opinion

The Acura RL is really an under-appreciated and under-valued used car buy. Its problems began when Acura threw away the magical ‘Legend’ name, and replaced it with two forgettable letters. And then there was the RL’s positioning in the marketplace: not quite a mid-sized luxury car but smaller than the big boys which had V-8s and rear-wheel-drive. Lastly was the RL’s blasé styling which didn’t inspire. For all of these reasons, a used RL is a fantastic buy because it’s a solid, reliable, comfortable car at a decent price. Just check to see that those few recall requirements have been met before you buy – Greg Wilson.

If you think a luxury car like the Acura RL will be out of your price range, check around. Because they started at a price point much lower than their direct competitors, used Acuras, especially the big RLs, can often be found for very attractive prices. The RL’s 3.5-litre V6 may not provide the rumble of a V8, but it’s not a slug, offering brisk acceleration from 0-100km/h in about eight seconds (not bad for a large car like this). Well-equipped and well-built, the RL is not as showy as a BMW, but it’s a quality product. Perhaps the RL lacks personality, but it’s a lot of car for the money – Paul Williams.


Black Book Pricing (avg. retail) September 2009:

Price today
Price new

Online resources
  • Start your search in the first-gen RL section at AcuraWorld.com; the first-gen RL section at Acura-Legend.com is another good spot. The first-generation RL forum at AcuraZine.com is another good resource, if a little quieter than the first two.

  • Transport Canada Recall Number 1999101. Units affected: 10,190.

    1996, 1997, 1998: The front suspension lower ball joints may prematurely wear out due to improper finishing of the surface of the spherical portion of the ball joints between the front lower arm and knuckle. The front suspension lower ball joints will be replaced.

    Transport Canada Recall Number 1999156. Units affected: 5,689.

    1996, 1997, 1998, 1999: The transmission case bolt which allows service access to disconnect the differential from the transmission could loosen and fall out. If the bolt falls out, the extension shaft could disengage from the differential, disconnecting the drive train between the transmission and the differential. This could cause the vehicle to lose power to the drive wheels without warning. Also, shifting to the PARK position would not lock the wheels, and a parked vehicle could move unexpectedly if the parking brake is not set. An updated transmission case bolt (with an o-ring instead of thread lock/sealer) will be installed on affected vehicles.

    Transport Canada Recall Number 2002084. Units affected: 686.

    2001, 2002, 2003: On certain vehicles, during the manufacturing process, oil was applied to the brake pedal assembly to prevent rust. This oil can leak into the brake stop switch and contaminate the electrical contacts. As a result the brake lights may not illuminate when the brakes are applied. Dealers will clean any excess oil from the pedal assembly and replace the stop switch.

    Crash test results
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
  • Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)

    Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

    For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

    For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

    For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

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