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Expert Reviews 1 of 5
By Joe Wiesenfelder
September 30, 2008
The RL is Acura's flagship sedan, but it's not as large as most flagship luxury sedans, such as the Lexus LS 430 or BMW 7 Series. In fact, it's pretty close in size to the Acura TL midsize sedan. The RL isn't priced as high as the other flagships, either, so it's not an issue of paying too much or getting too little, but if you're an Acura fan who wants to upsize from the TL, you only have so much room to grow. For 2009, the TL is equipped with all-wheel drive, which takes away another exclusive the RL had held among Acura's cars. See a side-by-side comparison of the two models.
Along with some styling changes, the RL has gotten a host of performance upgrades for 2009 that make it not just pleasant to drive, but fun to drive. The suspension and steering have been revised, and the engine has grown in size and output. Unfortunately, it comes with a 2 mpg drop in highway mileage at an inopportune time.
The RL doesn't have true trim levels — it comes with or without a Technology Package that adds almost $3,000, and with or without a Collision Mitigation Braking System that adds another $3,800. Exterior & Styling With its redesigned hood, trunklid, nose, tail and rocker panels, the 2009 is recognizable as an RL, but only just. It joins the rest of the Acura lineup with a shieldlike "power plenum" grille that has as many detractors as admirers. I've long criticized fake metal in car interiors, but banishing it to the exterior wasn't what I had in mind. That said, on our gray test car, the grille is an acceptable accent color. Against a darker or more lively color, it would be more of a challenge.
Flanking the grille are more sharply defined headlight clusters than the 2008 had, incorporating standard xenon active headlights, which in the RL with Technology Package swivel in the direction of a turn. Look closely below the Acura logo on the grille and you'll see a window that marks the presence of a radar sensor that comes with the CMBS package and its adaptive cruise control.
One notable change in the rear is the incorporation of hexagonal chrome tailpipes under matching cutouts in the bumper — a look I always liked on the TL.
Because there are no trim levels, there's basically one exterior look and no factory options beyond the Tech and CMBS packages. There are some dealer-installable options, though, including a rear spoiler, bumper appliqué, splash guards and door-edge protection film. Going & Stopping Honda doesn't make a V-8 engine, so the 3.7-liter V-6 is the Honda and Acura brands' big Bertha. With a 10-horsepower increase over last year's 3.5-liter, its 300 horsepower is a healthy amount for a car this size, and the torque increase from 256 to 271 pounds-feet is even more significant, and clearly felt. The RL has more off-the-line gusto than I expected. To return to the TL comparison, the new SH-AWD version has the RL's larger engine, rated at 305 hp and 273 pounds-feet of torque. This incrementally higher output in a car weighing about 100 pounds less seems to give the TL an advantage.
Having a five-speed transmission rather than a six doesn't seem to hurt the RL's driving experience, but it can't be helping the mileage. Its EPA rating of 16/22 mpg city/highway is lower than that of the Lexus ES 350 (19/27 mpg), the base Mercedes-Benz E-Class (17/24 mpg) and the TL (18/26 mpg). Considering the RL's standard all-wheel drive, the gap narrows when you compare it to the TL with optional AWD (17/25 mpg). The Mercedes E350 4Matic gets 16/22 mpg, and if you jump up to the 382-hp V-8 in an E550 4Matic, the rating drops to 13/19 mpg. Perhaps the closest competitor in size and equipment, though more expensive, is the BMW 535xi, which matches the RL's all-wheel drive and 300 hp with a rating of 17/25 mpg.
The transmission operates in automatic Drive and Sport modes, the latter improving responsiveness and raising the rpm at which the gears shift. There are also shift paddles on the steering wheel for clutchless-manual operation. This feature works well enough, but I was pretty satisfied with the automatic mode. I also had no trouble with the antilock brakes, which include brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution.
Also standard are an electronic stability system and thus traction control, but the weather was pleasant when I had the RL, so I have no experience with it on snow- or rain-slicked roads. That's not to say the all-wheel drive doesn't make its presence known... Ride & Handling The new RL has an upgraded version of the all-wheel drive system it introduced, called Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive. Now, the name's a little silly, but it's also simple and descriptive. Other such features are known as xDrive, Quattro, 4Matic, 4Motion, Symmetrical and even ATTESA (?). Acura just has Super-Handling. Who wouldn't want super handling? In some ways the system is super, in that it transforms what is fundamentally a front-wheel-drive car with lopsided weight distribution into one that feels nicely balanced. It does so, in part, through its ability to drive the outside rear wheel faster than the inside one. Though other automakers have begun to experiment with this capability, Acura was the first I'm aware of to do so, and the result is a remarkably well-mannered rear end in aggressive cornering. Apply the accelerator evenly through a turn, and you'll experience neither understeer nor oversteer. Though the system is fundamentally the same, Acura says its logic is improved and its reaction times are faster.
Changes to the springs and shock absorbers for 2009, plus a larger rear stabilizer bar and 18- rather than 17-inch wheels, result in a sporty ride that lets you know when you're on broken pavement, but does an admirable job of damping out the harshest undulations. I found the compromise to be quite good. Though I can't pinpoint the change, I like the revised steering, and I especially appreciate the smaller turning circle, now 36.1 feet, down from 39.6 feet. The Inside The 2009 model brings extensive interior changes, though not all shortcomings have been addressed. The comfortable front seats now have eight-way power adjustment plus lumbar, where they formerly had four-way. Active head restraints are standard up front, and a center head restraint has been added to the backseat. Heated front seats are standard, and the Tech Package adds a ventilation function not previously offered.
Though Acura claims the center control panel is more intuitive than in previous years, I consider it a low point. Some automakers have rationalized combining features into complex menu-driven, controller-knob-operated atrocities in the name of eradicating button overload — a condition I either haven't experienced or haven't feared. I must say, though, either the layout or the number of buttons or the small space into which the RL crams them is enough to change my mind. It's further frustrated by the presence of a multifunction controller knob that clearly isn't improving matters. Though I prefer a touch-screen, I recognize the desire to put the display up high, close to the driver's line of sight where it's likely to be out of reach. But if you're going to go the controller route, it should be closer to the driver than the RL's is.
Then there's the steering wheel, which has more buttons and switches than any I can remember. I count 14 and a blank, excluding the shift paddles and stalks. I can't say it caused a problem, but ... man, that's a lot of controls. The gear selector did cause a problem. Acura replaced the previous generation's serpentine shift gate (which I've always considered pointless) with a more conventional straight-line type. That's good, but the button atop the knob isn't very ergonomic. You have to push it down pretty far, and it just feels wrong. That was a minor annoyance, but one time I found myself still in gear when I thought I'd gone into Park. It could be a coincidence, but it happened with a control that had already stood out as odd.
Some flagship-luxury-sedan features help distinguish the RL from the TL, such as a powered rear window shade and manual side shades for the back doors, plus remote-collapsible rear head restraints that maximize the rear view when there's no one seated back there. The Tech package's navigation system includes a backup camera, which is always helpful, but it's not state-of-the-art. There are no lines on the image to show where your fenders will go as you back up — a relatively common feature that in the best systems also swing left and right as you turn the steering wheel. What is state-of-the-art about the system is the availability of AcuraLink onscreen weather information and the capacity to automatically reroute you if congestion occurs on a navigation route you've set up. Some systems just show traffic flow on a map.
Returning to the initial shortfall, the RL isn't significantly larger than the TL inside, either, with an interior volume of 99.1 cubic feet, versus the TL's 98.2 cu. ft. The RL is fractions of an inch roomier in dimensions like rear legroom, front and rear headroom, and rear shoulder room, but the TL has slightly more front legroom, front and rear hip room, and rear shoulder room. Overall, it's a wash. Neither car is particularly "cozy," to use the real-estate euphemism for "too small," but, again, we're far from full-size flagship accommodations. Cargo Likewise, the trunk is relatively small at 13.1 cubic feet, the same as the TL. The E-Class has 15.9, the ES 350 has 14.7 and the 5 Series has 14.0 cu. ft. The full-size luxury flagships, with closer to 20 cu. ft. in their short-wheelbase versions, are in a league Acura can't match, unless you're willing to consider an SUV.
Also, the backseat doesn't fold forward; there's only a pass-thru behind the backseat's center armrest. The same is true in the TL. Though a folding backseat is less common in full-size cars, there are models out there that offer it, as midsize cars often do, mitigating their smaller trunk sizes. Safety The RL is rated a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for its top scores in frontal-, side- and rear-impact crash tests. The new active head restraints have upped the rear-impact score two notches, from Marginal to Good (the highest rating).
The airbag complement includes dual-stage, dual-threshold frontal airbags, side-impact torso bags for the front seats and curtain airbags that deploy downward to cover the side windows, front and rear. Still a rare feature, an out-of-position sensor disables the side-impact torso bag if the front passenger is resting too close to the side, which is a potential hazard.
The most compelling safety feature you can get on the RL is the Collision Mitigation Braking System, which isn't the first feature to warn of an impending crash, but when it made its debut on the previous RL, it was the first to actually intervene and activate panic braking for you. CMBS does include a first-tier response that alerts the driver if the radar senses that the RL is closing too fast on another car or object, and you can even select the distance at which it warns you with an audible tone. Tier two is when it senses an imminent crash and triggers brake assist on its own. I did a live demo once in which I barreled into a moving obstacle as fast as I could. (Professional demonstration, closed course, etc.) The nose tapped the target, but CMBS slowed me down enough to where there would have been little or no impact. Every little bit helps in this situation, even if there's still contact. RL in the Market The Acura RL is simply an odd bird. Perhaps it would be as right as rain if there were no Acura TL — then Acura would just be a brand with no full-size car. Instead it's a brand with two cars of roughly the same size, one priced and equipped a bit higher. There's plenty to desire about the RL, not the least of which is the driving experience, but in these times of high fuel prices and an uncertain economy (to understate it), its higher price is tougher to justify over that of the comparably powered yet more efficient TL.
Until Acura comes out with a full-size flagship luxury cruiser like the LS 460, people will probably continue to consider it a near-luxury brand rather than a full-luxury one.