Versus the competiton:
The verdict: The handsome 2016 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid lives and dies on its blend of performance and technology. It’s superb when the technology is well-executed, as it is in the drivetrain, but is let down by a lagging, poorly executed multimedia system.
Versus the competition: The RLX Sport Hybrid offers all-wheel drive, while its closest luxury hybrid competitor — the Lexus GS 450h — does not. This gives the Acura an edge when it comes to driving, making its transition from gas-only to gas-and-electric power smoother and more predictable. Acura includes “Sport” in the RLX Sport Hybrid’s name because its fuel economy will never be its calling card.
The Sport Hybrid version of the Acura RLX has returned for 2016 after taking the 2015 model year off. It’s been sold as a non-hybrid model, and you can compare those vehicles here. We tested one equipped with Acura’s Advance Package; it included heated and cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel, a head-up display, heated rear outboard seats and a Krell premium audio system. The Sport Hybrid comes standard with Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD), which can split power between the front and rear wheels as well as from side to side.
The big tipoff distinguishing hybrid from standard Acura RLXs is the “Hybrid” badging on the RLX Sport Hybrid and its smoked grille, as opposed to a brighter finish on conventional RLX models. The smoked grille looked so good to my eyes I think Acura should adopt it for all its models (though that could just be because I’ve never been a fan of Acura’s signature shiny grille).
Overall, the Sport Hybrid version of the Acura RLX is a good-looking, conventional sedan. It’s got chiseled features but doesn’t do anything to break the mold. It’s handsome in a conventional way.
It’s a big car, too. For comparison’s sake, the Acura RLX Sport Hybrid is 5 inches longer and only 1.4 inches narrower than the midsize Toyota Highlander SUV. Compared with a traditional full-size car, like the Chevrolet Impala, the RLX Sport Hybrid is about 5 inches shorter and 1.4 inches wider.
This is the first area in which the RLX Sport Hybrid’s technology really shines, and it does so by not calling attention to itself.
The Sport Hybrid version of the Acura RLX uses a conventional gas engine — a 310-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 — plus three motors (electric), one driving each rear wheel and the third up between the front wheels, in the transmission housing. The setup provides a maximum combined horsepower rating of 377, which is more than the conventional RLX’s 310 horsepower. When accelerating from a stop in the hybrid, the electric motors generally power you until the gas engine is needed.
Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) is designed to help when cornering by applying power or braking at whatever wheel or wheels at which they’re needed. Going around a turn, the inside rear wheel is braked slightly and the outside rear motor speeds up to help the car around. (When the rear wheel is braked, it uses the drag of the electric motor to help charge the hybrid system’s battery.)
The standout aspect of all this is that you don’t notice it on the RLX Sport Hybrid SH-AWD. There’s no sensation that the wheels are being braked, the car just feels planted and turns quickly. You begin driving under electric power, and when the gas engine kicks in it does so quietly, smoothly and unobtrusively. Were it not for a slight noise from the engine, I wouldn’t even be aware it was happening. In my book, that’s a fantastic thing.
The drive system is a big difference between the all-wheel RLX Sport Hybrid and the competing Lexus GS 450h. The Lexus is rear-wheel drive, so its gas engine and electric motors drive only the rear axle. When the gas engine is off but the car needs more power, there’s a weird, inconsistent response in the Lexus that’s common to hybrids; it just doesn’t get up and go the way the RLX Sport Hybrid — with immediately responding electric motors that only drive the rear wheels — does.
On the highway, the RLX Sport Hybrid’s gas engine powers down consistently, allowing the electric motors to propel the car as much as possible. This helps with mileage, but what’s really great is that unless I was looking at the tachometer, I didn’t notice the gas engine had shut down or powered back up. It’s that smooth.
Braking, too, is good … for a hybrid. Which is another way of saying it lacks the consistent, firm feel of traditional brakes, but it’s also not horrible. You can feel through your foot that the car isn’t braking as a “normal” car would, as it’s both harvesting energy for the battery and in some cases also applying traditional brakes. Still, it provided enough consistency to encourage me to drive the car with a bit more aggression than I would other hybrids.
The hybrid aspect of the Sport Hybrid version of the Acura RLX isn’t the car’s primary objective. The electric motors are there to provide boost, not tree-hugging cred. The big hybrid gets an EPA-estimated 28/32/30 mpg city/highway/combined. That compares with 29/34/31 mpg city/highway/combined for the 2016 Lexus GS 450h, so Lexus can claim greater efficiency. Both models require premium gasoline.
Interestingly, while the Sport Hybrid version of the Acura RLX doesn’t wow with its mileage — especially compared with the best hybrids on the market, like the Toyota Prius — you do see a significant improvement over non-hybrids like the BMW 535i xDrive, which returns only 20/29/23 mpg, and the non-hybrid RLX itself, which is rated 20/31/24 mpg (both of those also require premium gasoline). So at least as far as the big luxury sedan class goes, Acura’s hybrid system does offer some benefits.
The RLX Sport Hybrid’s ride deserves mention, as it was very comfortable on several long drives. The car has 19-inch wheels that can, on some cars, contribute to a harsh ride, but the Acura was able to handle bumps and ripples in the pavement quite well. That it was able to provide such comfort and still encourage aggressive driving shows Acura’s delivering the level of refinement you should get in the luxury class.
The interior is comfortable, with a nice mix of leather, wood and other materials. The overall look is understated and won’t be attractive to those looking for the most luxurious interior. It ranks behind both the BMW 535i and the Lexus GS 450h in that regard.
The RLX Sport Hybrid is roomy. The center console is large, but it didn’t cut into my legroom and I never felt hemmed in when driving. There’s also ample room in back, but if you’re like me and carry a lot of your height in the torso, you might notice headroom’s a bit tight. I never noticed it when I was just sitting in the backseat, but when I shifted my weight or leaned forward, I’d feel my scalp scrape on the headliner.
Visibility is decent but not exceptional. There’s a sloping A-pillar that obstructs the view, but otherwise visibility isn’t noticeably bad in any area. The RLX Sport Hybrid with the Advance Package comes standard with multiple cameras that offer rear views, front views and a view around the car in every direction. The 360-degree camera was OK, but I found the front-view camera to be most useful when parking the RLX Sport Hybrid. Something about the camera’s position and zoom factor made it the most useful view for me.
As it is with the cameras, so it is with the electronics as a whole: There are a lot of useful features, but it’s worth it to take the time to find the setup you prefer.
The Sport Hybrid version of the Acura RLX’s interior is laid out in a straightforward way, unlike other cars that mount the start button on the other side of the steering wheel or do crazy things with the heater controls. Also, someone at Acura deserves a medal for designing a heated steering wheel that’s easy to turn on and off. In some cars the control is buried in a touch-screen menu, but here it’s a big button that’s unmissable. Good job.
The standard head-up display is very well done because you can adjust both what appears in the display (navigation and so forth) and how high up on the windshield it projects. All such systems should be set up so simply, even if it might take you a sec to get it arranged how you like it.
Acura uses a two-screen setup for its multimedia system, which displays the navigation on the upper screen and, say, the radio presets on the bottom touch-screen. That’s nice, but the bottom screen controls a lot of functions, ranging from climate to audio source and so on. Over time, I became a little tired of having to remember how to do things like change the climate control’s fan speed.
Interestingly, Acura has a shortcut system that lets you store anything from phone numbers and destinations to audio and climate settings. That’s nice and useful, though one could suggest that if you need to make shortcuts to make the system easier, the system may be too hard in the first place.
I noticed that, overall, the system was really slow to accept alphanumeric selections for navigation system destinations. The rest of the controls didn’t lag as much as that function did. More than one editor preferred using smartphone mapping over the built-in navigation system.
All in all, as impressed as I was with the drivetrain technology, I was unimpressed with the multimedia system because of its lagging, its complexity and the fact that the graphics just don’t look good. Not only do they look exactly like the graphics you’d see in a non-luxury Honda model, they just look dated and low-resolution. That’s bad in any car, and it’s unacceptable in a luxury sedan.
Finally, outside the multimedia realm Acura has shifted to a push-button gear selector that requires a lot of acclimation. Reverse is pretty well-defined — you just lift up on a lever — but Drive requires pressing a button. The issue for me is you have to look down to make sure you hit the correct button, and I just don’t think that’s a good thing. Too often, while I was looking for the button someone would walk in front of the car thinking that, since I was delayed, I must be waiting for them, and it startled me when it came time to go. Is it the end of the world? No. But it doesn’t need to be an issue in the first place.
In-cabin storage in the Sport Hybrid version of the Acura RLX is mixed. There are only two cupholders and small door pockets up front, but the center storage opens two ways and was very handy. It’s not the deepest center console I’ve seen in a luxury car, but was still a useful size. Backseat passengers have only two cupholders, mounted in a flip-down center armrest.
The trunk is fairly wide, but the hybrid battery pack takes up a lot of room. Further, Sport Hybrid version of the Acura RLX models don’t have a folding backseat, or even a pass-through from the trunk to the cabin to carry skis. Non-hybrid models have a pass-through and greater cargo volume. The RLX Sport Hybrid has 11.6 cubic feet of space, compared to 14.7 (with the Advance Package) and 14.9 (with the Technology Package) in the conventional RLX.
The 2016 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid got the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s highest rating in all tests, including “superior” performance in front-crash avoidance.
The Sport Hybrid version of the Acura RLX has a number of standard safety features, including a forward collision warning system that can also apply the brakes to prevent or lessen the impact of a collision. It also has standard lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control and blind spot warning. Browse through the complete list here.
The lane keeping system kicked in a few times and “jiggled” the steering wheel as it steered me back to my lane. It was obtrusive enough to get my attention, but not so aggressive that I thought something was wrong with the car. I tend to judge these systems by whether they’re so annoying I’d want to turn them off, and the Acura system stayed on for the entire test drive. It’s well-calibrated.
Even though I’m neither wowed by the interior nor charmed by the multimedia system, I still think the RLX Sport Hybrid is a strong competitor in the luxury sedan market because of its driving experience. Unlike any other hybrid I’ve driven, the RLX Sport Hybrid does very little when you’re driving it to remind you that it is, in fact, a hybrid. It just goes, and goes quickly.
Whether I was tooling around the city or on a highway trip, the Acura was simply a nice car to drive in a way that the Lexus GS 450h, with its odd hybrid response, isn’t. And while the BMW 5 Series is a powerful highway machine, I’ve found it to be a heavy-feeling car that can be a bit ponderous in the city. You can compare these cars and their features here.
To me, it all boils down to this: If you want the flashiest car on the block, with the most plush interior and the prettiest navigation screen, the Sport Hybrid version of the Acura RLX will not satisfy you. However, if your tastes tend toward understated luxury combined with responsive driving dynamics, you owe it to yourself to at least test-drive the RLX Sport Hybrid.