Versus the competiton:
If the words “luxury sedan” conjure up images of a sleek Jaguar or a massive Mercedes-Benz, don’t be too quick to dismiss the Acura 3.5RL, the flagship of Honda Motor Co.’s premium franchise. Notwithstanding its awkward and unfortunate name, the RL has been extensively revamped for 1999, bringing even further refinement to what has been an impressive package.
At $44,464 for the 3.5RL with onboard navigation system, however, Anita wonders if this top-of-the-line Acura shouldn’t remain a well-kept secret.
He: Boy, has Honda come a long way since the days of the original Acura Legend back in 1987. That first Legend wasn’t that far removed from the Accord on which it was based. Certainly not enough to justify the premium price tag. But the 3.5RL is one of the smoothest and most pleasant luxury sedans I’ve driven in a while – easily on a par with the Lincoln Continental and Cadillac Seville, both of which sport much larger V-8 engines. It’s also considerably less expensive than the Infiniti Q45 and the Lexus LS 400, and frankly, I don’t think the RL lacks much that either of those cars have, outside of an extra two cylinders.
She: I still think $44,500 is too much to pay. You can buy a really loaded Accord for around half that price, and get about 90 percent of what the RL offers. Plus, you can buy a Lincoln for well under $40,000.
He: The Accord is a great car, and I’ve given it four stars. But you don’t feel like you’re driving a true luxury car, like you do in the RL. Honda has really paid incredible attention to detail. All the bells and whistles are there, right down to the tasteful application of burled camphor wood on the instrument panel and center console. I’m still not sold on the satellite navigation system, which is the only factory option on the RL.
She: It actually guided me down a dead-end street last week!
He: Hey, even though I’m a guy, I will actually stop and ask directions when I’m really lost.
She: Yeah, the problem is getting you to admit you’re lost. At least you’ll be safe in the RL, which has standard anti-lock brakes and traction control. For 1999, it finally adds side air bags, which most of the competition has had for some time. But Honda has also developed a safer air bag for front passengers. They call it a dual-stage system, which means the bag doesn’t inflate with as much force if you’re in a low-speed fender-bender. And if you have a smaller passenger in the front seat, the sensors in the seat tell the air bag not to fire if that person is in the wrong position or leaning too far forward.
He: If you really like to drive, you’ll appreciate all the nice touches on the RL such as four-wheel disc brakes and four-wheel double-wishbone suspension, plus speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering. I was really surprised by how good the engine is, too.
She: Don’t you get close to 300 horsepower in the big Lexus and 275 in the Seville? Even the Continental and the Q 45 have something like 50 more horsepower than the RL. Explain that away, Mr. Gearhead.
He: All I can tell you is that the 210 horsepower that the 3.5-liter V-6 puts out feels like plenty of power. It also has front-wheel drive, which is great in winter weather and on wet roads.
She: Unless you’re a purist who prefers rear-wheel drive, in which case you’re probably going to want a BMW, a Mercedes or a Jaguar. I still think the RL feels too big. Who needs that much car anyway?
He: Ask the man who owns one – if you can find him.
She: I think I just saw him driving down a dead-end street.
1999 Acura 3.5RL
Anita’s rating: above average
Paul’s rating: world class
Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger luxury sedan
Price: Base, $43,900; as tested, $44,464 (including $455 destination charge)
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6; 210 hp at 5,200 rpm; 224 lb-ft torque at 2,800 rpm
EPA fuel economy: 18 mpg city/24 mpg hi ay
12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan: $1,709 (Estimate. Rates may be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record.)
Where built: Sayama, Japan
What we liked: Handsome, conservative styling; plush, comfortable and tastefully appointed cabin; powerful six-cylinder engine is surprisingly frugal; supple suspension soaks up bumps; responsive steering; great safety features, including front and side air bags, ABS and traction control
What we didn’t like: Can’t easily reach power seat controls; navigation system is still a novelty, and not always accurate; too expensive (Anita)