What It Is
A hybrid version of the RLX with more power and better fuel economy.
Excellent cornering and turning thanks to Acura's new Sport Hybrid Super Handling All-Wheel Drive.
Outdated navigation, interior accents.
It's a capable performance hybrid with unique capabilities, but we think the market for this vehicle is limited.
When we tested the gas-powered Acura RLX, we were impressed by its value, but the market has tended to favor flashier luxury cars like the popular BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Acura's new sedan may help reverse the trend. While the new Sport Hybrid retains some of the subtlety that defines the Acura brand, it takes things up a notch, perhaps putting Acura on the map for many performance-minded buyers. On the outside, it has the personality of an accountant but inside reveals a peppy V-6 engine and three electric motors for a total output of 377 horsepower.
The Acura RLX Sport Hybrid is somewhat in a segment of its own as a hybrid all-wheel drive sedan. On top of this, Acura's proprietary all-wheel drive system uses a separate power source to route power to the rear wheels, providing a boost in torque for better cornering and handling. This was a thrill when we drove the car through the twisty roads of Panoramic Highway.
Set to go on sale in the spring of 2014, the Acura RLX Sport Hybrid will be available with either the Technology or the Advanced trim levels. Pricing for the models has not yet been announced, but we expect the car to run several thousand dollars more than the traditional RLX, which is priced between $50,000 and $60,000.
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Acura doesn't stray too far away from tradition, implementing a highly similar design to the traditional RLX and even its predecessor, the RL. The luxury sedan gives an overall impression of tame beauty, highlighted by its bright Jewel Eye LED headlights. The few visual cues exclusive to the Sport Hybrid model are subtle, including a dark chrome-plated grille, a revised lower front bumper with LED fog lights, slightly different wheels, and hybrid badging. Still, we wish it had a few more aggressive cues to distinguish it from its more mainstream counterparts.
While a beautiful drive, it was also a long one. Planted in the driver's seat of the car for the better part of five hours, we surprisingly had no complaints. The seats are wide, comfortable, and supportive, and there was plenty of room throughout the entire cabin. A large center console also provides plenty of space for front seat driver and passenger. Although overall the car produces an aura of modernity, the chestnut finish wood grain ages the cabin as does the outdated AcuraLink navigation screen on the model we tested. Thankfully, Honda is developing a new infotainment system for the 2014 Civic and 2015 Fit with smartphone-style controls that we hope will find its way into the Acura lineup (which, in our opinion, it already should have).
In the interior, drivers will enjoy plenty of advanced technology features and creature comforts. Milano leather swathes the seats, and front seat occupants will enjoy 12-way power heated front seats. Navigation, head-up display, and power side mirrors are also standard. The Advanced package adds several safety technologies including lane assist and braking systems as well as a high-fidelity Krell audio system.
All versions of the RLX Sport Hybrid come with an electronic gear selector instead of the standard lever. While innovative, drivers may prefer a more streamlined method. Putting the car in reverse requires pulling at the knob while other buttons can simply be pushed.
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Driving the 2014 RLX Sport Hybrid is, by far, the most interesting part of it. Like other cars in the Acura lineup, the car benefits from Super Handling All-Wheel Drive. Traditional all-wheel drive cars use a front and rear differential with a center differential that mediates power to the rear wheels. These cars can apply braking to individual wheels when the steering wheel doesn't match the actual direction of the vehicle. But in Acura's all-wheel drive, power is applied directly to the individual rear wheels through "torque vectoring." This is essentially four-wheel steering, providing the car with better handling, more cornering capability, and less front-end plowing otherwise known as understeer.
This system evolves further in the RLX Sport Hybrid. Since the Super Handling All-Wheel Drive does not rely on an engine but instead derives its power from a lithium-ion battery pack and two rear-mounted electric motors. This setup further enhances torque—acceleration feel—and steering. It also works in off-throttle situations during braking, recapturing energy and driving it back into the battery pack for future use when rear-wheel power is needed.
We were able to test the Acura alongside its competition on the route, and we found some noticeable differences. We drove the Lexus GS 450h hybrid sedan, probably the closest competitor, and we found the steering was not as responsive as the Acura's. Steering was pretty much on par with the Audi A6 quattro V-6, a non-hybrid, all-wheel drive model.
Overall, the Acura is powerful and stable, although it didn't glide over potholes and road imperfections. The cabin remained quiet throughout the trip regardless. Along with a 30-mpg combined fuel economy rating, the car also benefits from responsive braking, smooth steering, and a workhorse seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
Capable, comfortable, and composed, the Acura RLX Sport Hybrid has a unique set of capabilities that should appeal to performance-minded buyers. But will it? Those who concern themselves with pure horsepower will likely gravitate toward the 445-horsepower BMW 550i xDrive or other flashier models. The Acura RLX Sport Hybrid is a worthy car, but with its understated styling and hard to understand technology, it may be relegated to second-class status in the marketplace.
3.5-liter direct injection V6, 1.3 kWh lithium-ion battery, three electric motors, seven-speed dual clutch transmission, all-wheel drive, 377-hp, estimated $65,000 price, 28 mpg city/32 mpg hwy