There could be trouble ahead for Acura, which has just launched the pricey TL and RL series of sedans.

Sales of luxury cars are soft, and they are likely to stay that way as more and more buyers switch to decked-out sport-utility vehicles. It seems as if the last thing anyone wants these days is an expensive luxury car. Yet Acura has just launched its most expensive sedan yet, the 3.5 RL sedan, which is this week's test car.

It's hard to find success stories these days in the tough luxury car market. But Mercedes-Benz, one of Acura's major competitors, seems to have discovered a way to thrive. The new E-Class introduced last year has resulted in a double-digit sales increase for the German automaker. And Mercedes says that like the new E-Class, all its new models will be lighter, less expensive and better performing than the cars they replace.

Perhaps the success that Mercedes has found with its lower-priced new cars is proof that buyers have finally had enough of overpriced imported luxury cars.

After spending a week with the new Acura RL, I have no doubt that this is the best car Honda's luxury division has ever built. But when the market is favoring less expensive, less complex, more value-oriented cars, Acura has turned in the opposite direction.


Most $44,000 luxury cars come with V-8 engines. The RL does not, and that may hurt it, even though its serenely quiet 3.5-liter V-6 engine delivers excellent all-around performance.

Some auto enthusiasts - and I'm in that group - - feel that for 45 big ones, a luxury car should offer the sophistication of a high-tech multivalve V-8. If I had that much to spend for a car, gas mileage would not be a concern, and I would want the power and prestige of a V-8.

Be that as it may, chances are you'll find the RL's performance to be superb at all speeds. The RL is a plush luxury sedan that removes most noise and vibration from the driving equation.

The 3.5-liter engine, rated at 210 horsepower, delivers power to the wheels in a nearly noiseless fashion, just like a Lexus. When the engine is revved to about 4,800 rpm it makes a nice whooshing sound.

Our test car started quickly and ran flawlessly. The computer-controlled four-speed automatic transmission provides nearly seamless shifts.

The RL's front and rear independent double-wishbone suspension has been tuned for a soft, pure luxury ride, much like a Lexus LS 400.

Although the RL corners well, it doesn't feel particularly sporty. The speed-sensitive power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is smooth and easy to operate, but not as crisp and taut as it would be on a bona fide sports sedan.

Power-assisted four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes provide ample stopping power.


With its thick, soft leather upholstery and nicely polished burled walnut inlays, the RL's interior is warm and inviting.

On the technica l side, a trio of round backlit (Acura calls them electroluminescent) analog gauges highlight a very stylish, attractive and user-friendly dash. These gauges are tilted forward slightly, and they light up when the ignition key is turned. Look closely at the gauges, and you'll see an uncommon attention to detail in the shape of the needles.

Our test car came with all the latest high-tech gizmos, such as electronically adjustable steering wheel, a memory system capable of three settings for the driver's seat, mirror and wheel, micron air filter system, automatic air-conditioning system and heated seats. But I wondered if all these gadgets ? other than the sunroof - really added value to the car. How often would I use them?

Despite myriad features, your senses are not overloaded the first time you sit behind the wheel. The controls for the radio and air conditioner are in the center of the dash. They are well-labeled and simple to use. Other functions, such as lights,a e controlled by switches mounted on the turn signal or the windshield wiper lever behind the steering wheel.

Room and comfort also were given high priority when the RL's interior was designed. The front bucket and rear bench seats are semi-soft, but they conform to your body and offer excellent comfort and support once you settle in. The bottom cushion of the front bucket seats flexed from side to side - more than I can recall in any car I have tested lately. It was a somewhat odd sensation, but it did not detract from the overall comfort.

The RL's exterior styling gives the car a vaguely German appearance, but no new ground has been broken stylistically. In fact, the only thing that saves the RL's appearance from being dowdy and dull are the nicely curved taillights. The chrome grille is generic Japanese, a shape we've seen in some iteration somewhere before.

There's no doubt that the RL is a fine automobile. But I think it is too expensive for today's market. Acura has veered far away from its original path - to build less expensive sporty luxury cars as good or better than European and American automakers.

Specifications: Base price: $44,000 Safety: Dual air bags, side-impact protection, anti-lock brakes, front and rear crumple zones, traction control Price as tested: $44,589 Incentives: None EPA rating: 19 mpg city/25 mpg highway

Truett's tip: The RL offers Lexus-like smoothness and refinement. However, it is a very expensive car that comes only with a V-6 engine.