Last year when Acura unveiled the 3.5RL at the Chicago auto show, its goal was clear: Build a refined sedan that embodies luxury and performance attributes at a price substantially less than its rivals from Lexus and Infiniti.Almost a year has passed since I first saw the 3.5RL, which took the place of the Legend atop Acura's lineup. Whereas the Lexus LS 400 and Infiniti Q45 use V8 engines, the Acura has a 3.5-liter V6 designed to have the mid-range performance of a V8 and the economy of a V6. It is rated at 19 mpg city and 25 hwy. The first tuneup is scheduled for 100,000 miles. The RL is bigger than it looks. The 114.6-inch wheelbase is longer than a Buick Park Avenue and Mercedes-Benz E320. Overall length is about the same as the Mercedes and about 20 inches less than the Buick. The Standard model starts at $41,000, and the Premium at $44,000. The Premium model adds standard heated front seats, heated mirrors, walnut trim and a trunk-mounted 6-disc CD player. If I were choosing I would pick the Premium because the heated seats and heated outside mirrors where a godsend in the recent cold weather, while the walnut trim and CD player were nice but not as necessary. Sticking with a V6 makes sense because its performance is more than adequate. Tuned to produce its maximum torque, or pulling power, at 2,800 rpm, this all-aluminum, single-overhead-camshaft (SOHC) powerplant is loosely based on the 3.2-liter engine from the Legend. By designing it to respond strongly at low speeds, Acura engineers have put its power where it is used most, because most folks don't continually wring out their engines. This unit is mounted longitudinally, not crosswise, in order to improve weight distribution. It drives the front wheels through a 4-speed automatic transmission that shifts with the utmost in smoothness. This transmission software keeps it from shifting up when coasting down hills, and stays in lower gears when climbing up hills. Its ability to react to road conditions makes it pleasant. The gear lever shifts through a gated pattern to enable shifting without taking your eyes from the road. Standard safety features include dual airbags, traction control, seatbelt tensioners and anti-lock brakes. The engine pumps out 210 horsepower. Four valves per cylinder and a variable intake system extend its performance over a wide rpm range so that it feels just as comfortable at a crawl as it does at full throttle. Acceleration is brisk but not neck snapping, and wheeling down the interstate is as peaceful as a park covered in new snow. Lack of noise is a requisite for luxury cars these days, and the RL excels in this regard. Subjectively, it doesn't seem to be quite as quiet as the Lexus LS 400, yet even at that wind and road noise are hardly noticeable. The quiet lends an air of civility and leaves the driver and passengers to enjoy the excellent Acura/Bose stereo system. Inside our test c ar, the feeling of understated luxury was ever present. The leather upholstery was glove soft, and the seats provided adequate support without being restrictive. Acura says that its leather is tanned with a process that keeps the leather supple longer and reduces the evaporation of oil from the hide. Painted surfaces of the interior are coated with a "leather-like" matte finish. Controls for radio and automatic climate control are located high in the center of the dash within easy reach. The knobs are large enough to grasp with gloves, and they work smoothly. As seems to be the trend with many Japanese luxury car these days, the exterior styling of the 3.5RL is understated, with little to catch your attention or differentiate it from its competitors. Although its handling is not as tight as the older model, you have to drive it pretty hard in order to ruffle its feathers. It may not dive through turns quite as aggressively as the Legend, but it handles high-speed uising with ease. With the 3.5RL, Acura has demonstrated that it can build a sedan to compete with its pals from Lexus and Infiniti while still taking a divergent path. Price: Our test car's base price was $44,000, and its sticker price was $44,435 including freight. Warranty: The basic warranty is for four years or 50,000 miles. Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers. Point: Acura's 3.5RL uses a fuel-efficient V6 yet has throttle response almost like a V8. It is quiet, smooth and filled with luxury touches. Counterpoint: Its only drawback is that its goodness is hidden under conservative sheet metal. SPECIFICATIONS: ENGINE: 3.5-liter, V6 TRANSMISSION: Automatic WHEELBASE: 114.6 inches CURB WEIGHT: 3,693 lbs. BASE PRICE: $44,000 PRICE AS DRIVEN: $44,435 MPG RATING: 19 city, 25 hwy.
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