Acura's flagship sedan, all new just last year, is by far the best car ever produced by Honda's premium-car line.

That's saying a lot, considering that Acura vehicles have always been very good -- among the industry's best vehicles.

But no matter how hard it is to outdo yourself, Acura has done so with the redesigned RL. This newest RL represents the evolution of this sedan to its highest level yet.

Intoduced as a 2005 model, it has returned for 2006 mostly unchanged, but it did get two new high-tech features: radar cruise control, along with a feature that automatically begins applying the brakes if the RL gets too close to the one in front of it.

There is still no V-8 option, as Honda does not have a V-8 in its lineup of engines. But the RL's 3.5-liter V-6 turns out an impressive 300 horsepower, so a V-8 isn't really necessary.

The car was completely restyled for this generation, with a new body that is part aluminum and part high-strength steel.

High-tech features are included throughout the car, with such amenities as a DVD-based audio system similar to that of the TL, a great navigation system, and even Bluetooth technology for wireless communications. XM Satellite radio is standard.

With a price beginning at about $50,000, the 3.5RL makes a nice package with the kind of quality and reliability that one can expect from a Honda product.

With a price beginning at about $50,000, the 3.5RL makes a nice package with the kind of quality and reliability that one can expect from a Honda product.

It comes in two versions -- the base model ($49,300 plus $615 freight), and an uplevel model ($53,715, including freight) that includes the "technology package" (a $3,800 upgrade).

With the technology package, you get the radar cruise control, which paces the car to the speed of the vehicle in front.

Buit it also has a system that uses the same radar beam, from behind the grille, to monitor how quickly the RL is closing on the vehicle in front of it. If the unit's brain believes that a collision might occur, it first warns the driving that the car is getting too close to the one in front. If the driver doesn't take action, though, the system them will apply the brakes lightly. But that's not all. If the system determines that a collision will occur anyway, it retracts the front seat belts and hits the brakes hard to try to reduce the force of the impending crash.

Also included in the technology package are Michelin PAX run-flat tires. The allow the vehicle to drive up to 125 miles at speeds up to 50 mph following a tire puncture.

As the company's flagship, this is the car against which the rest of the Acura line -- and many competing luxury cars as well -- are judged.

For those unfamiliar with the Acura line, it was the first of the Japanese premium brands, launched by Honda in the mid-80s. It wasn't until about five years later that Toyota introduced its Lexus luxury brand and Nissan gave us Infiniti.

The first in the line was the Legend, which eventually was replaced by the RL. This latest version of the RL is much better than the previous generation and miles ahead of the original Legend, which wasn't much more than a loaded version of the Honda Accord of that time.

This newest RL has 75 more horsepower than the previous model. Acura officials downplayed the lack of a V-8 when introducing the RL, instead focusing on the performance that they believe the car's V-6 offers to consumers in the luxury segment.

It's a 24-valve, all-aluminum engine that has Honda's patented variable valve timing system, and it also meets so-called LEV2-ULEV (ultra-low-emissions vehicle) standards. The engine is connected to a five-speed Sequential SportShift automatic transmission that allows the driver to change gears (without a clutch, of course) manually by using the console-mounted shift lever or paddles mounted on the steering wheel.

Standard is a fulltime all-wheel-drive system, which was designed to get away from the front-wheel-drive configuration that the car would have been stuck with otherwise. The RL's chassis is derived from a front-drive platform, though, so rear drive was out of the question.

With all of the power the engine delivers, the front-drive system would be subjected to annoying torque steer during hard acceleration; the only solution other than to offer rear-wheel drive is to give the car all-wheel drive.

Here in Texas, many people believe all-wheel drive is something they have little or no use for, something they would need only in a snow-belt state. But all-wheel drive is great in a performance-oriented sport sedan such as this. It provides the best traction on all road surfaces, including dry, smooth ones, and can eliminate that torque-steer problem, in which the car has a tendency to try to turn in the direction of the wheel receiving the power.

The RL's system, "Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive," is billed by Honda as "the first and only all-wheel-drive platform that distributes the optimum amount of torque not only between the front and rear wheels, but also between the left and right rear wheels." In conditions of straight-line cruising and moderate cornering, the company says, the system sends up to 70 percent of the power to the front wheels. But during heavy acceleration or "spirited driving," up to 70 percent of the power goes to the rear wheels, which allows for increased acceleration and enhanced cornering. Luxury-sedan purists who prefer rear-drive or all-wheel drive that sends power primarily to the rear wheels would still consider the RL to be mostly front-drive as a result of this setup, but at least it does get power to the rear wheels when necessary.

Acura insists that this system gives the RL "class-leading cornering performance" and stability, as well as enhanced traction on dry or wet surfaces. Rear drive is generally preferable in a performance vehicle on dry paved roads, but on slippery surfaces, front drive usually offers much better traction than rear drive; all-wheel drive, of course, is the optimum system.

The body of the new RL has been stiffened considerably from before to handle the extra power, Acura says. Among the changes are an aluminum subframe, suspension, hood, trunk and front fenders. Besides adding rigidity to the chassis, the aluminum cuts out some weight, the company says.

Safety also has been enhanced by the RL's frame, which is meant to help disperse collision forces. The lightweight chassis and the car's four-wheel independent suspension combine to give it great handling and a smooth ride, without much of a trade-off in either direction. It's almost the perfect balance between a driver's car and a rider's car. Four-piston brake calipers and slotted brake rotors give the car better stopping power than before, the company says.

Exterior styling has been changed significantly, and the new car is shorter and wider than the one it replaced. Still, passenger space has increased.

The RL comes with the new Acura adaptive front lighting system, in which the low-beam headlights swivel up to 20 degrees to the side in response to the car's speed and input from the steering wheel. When entering a curve, the lights turn to give the driver a better view of the area into which the turn is being made. It's the same idea as cornering lights, but using the headlights instead of separate side lights. It's not a new idea; it was standard on the Tucker in the late '40s.

This car's ride is amazingly smooth, and even at interstate highway speeds, the interior is refreshingly quiet. People in the rear seat can hear those in the front seat even when they are whispering.

Luxury surrounds the driver and passengers. Among interior amenities are standard real-time traffic information as a feature of the car's GPS satellite-based navigation system, providing the driver with traffic information (where available), including traffic flow, accidents, and construction. The Metroplex is included in the areas that this info is offered.

The 10-speaker premium Bose DVD-audio system delivers concert-hall style "surround sound" to all passengers. A similar system was introduced in 2004 in the redesigned TL sedan, and if the system is playing a surround-sound engineered music DVD, the sound is somewhat like sitting on stage in the middle of the band that is performing..

Another feature of the new RL is a keyless access system, something that several other premium brands have introduced recently. This allows for locking and unlocking of the doors and trunk, and starting of the car without using the key.

EPA fuel-economy ratings are 18 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg city. The tank holds 19.4 gallons of fuel, and unleaded premium is recommended for the best performance.

G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. His automotive columns have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at (210) 250-3236; chambers@star-telegram.com.

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At a Glance

2006 Acura RL sedan

The package: Full-size, four-door, five-passenger, V-6 powered, all-wheel drive luxury sedan.

Highlights: Acura's flagship sedan, the RL, was completely redesigned just last year, featuring 75 more horsepower and an all-wheel-drive system as standard equipment. This is a smooth, well-designed luxury car that finally can compete against the European bluebloods on equal footing.

Negatives: No V-8 engine offered; small trunk for a large sedan.

Engine: 3.5-liter V-6

Transmission: Five-speed automatic with clutchless manual-shift option

Power/torque: 300 horsepower/260 foot-pounds

Overall length: 193.6 inches

Wheelbase: 110.2 inches

Curb weight: 3,984 pounds

Trunk volume: 13.1 cubic feet

Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, power, antilock

EPA fuel economy: 18 miles per gallon city, 26 highway

Fuel capacity, type: 19.4 gallons, unleaded premium

Major competitors: Audi A6, Infiniti M45, Lexus GS 300/430, Jaguar S-type, Mercedes-Benz E-class, BMW 5-series, Volvo S80, Cadillac STS

Base price: $49,300 plus $615 freight

Price as tested: $53,715 (including freight and technology package)

On the Road rating: ***** (five stars out of five)

Prices quoted are manufacturer's suggested retail; acutally selling prices may vary according to manufacturer and/or dealer incentives, rebates or discounts, if any.