What It Is
The Acura RLX is a contender for the midsize luxury title, competing against cars like the BMW 5 Series, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, and Lexus GS.
Those who love the strong silent type have met their dream car.
"Inoffensive" is a nice word for "bland."
The 2014 Acura RLX doesn't revolutionize the luxury car market. But it is a very nice, very capable, and very comfortable luxury sedan.
In 1986, Honda introduced its Acura division, the first attempt by a Japanese manufacturer to compete head-to-head in the luxury market against the likes of Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Volvo and others. The Acura Legend, it's premiere sedan, shook up the luxury car segment, reset the common perceptions of what a luxury car was--including what it should cost--and set the stage for the high-end market to become one of the most hotly contested in the industry.
The 2014 Acura RLX, despite being the Legend's successor, is not a repeat of that 1986 revolution. That's not a condemnation of the car. Rather, it's a simple admission that as nice as the 2014 Acura RLX is--and it's very nice, indeed--any possible revolution will have to wait a few more months, when we get behind the hybrid-powered, all-wheel-drive version. That is the car that has a chance to once again stand the luxury market on its head, make Acura a serious player in the luxury market, and cause another round of industry rethinking.
For now though, Acura is introducing just the front-wheel-drive version of the RLX. Under the conservatively styled aluminum body panels is a new architecture, with a rethought suspension, active rear-wheel steering to improve handling, and a ton of technology designed to improve safety, comfort, driving performance, luxury, and quietness. The resulting car goes about its business with a quiet dignity, offering up a surprisingly dynamic side when you want, and all at a price that seriously undercuts its competitors. Most importantly, the RLX vanquishes the "expensive Honda" feel its predecessor--and many other Acuras--have suffered from for far too long.
WalkaroundThere is one standout styling feature on the 2014 Acura RLX, one that you immediately see when you approach the car from the front: The headlights. Acura calls them "Jewel Eye" headlights; we think they look more like insect eyes. Behind the protective cover are ten individual lighting prisms on each side, paired together, and each pair individually aimed and directed to provide a wide swath of LED lighting power. It's a striking and cool effect, standard on every Acura RLX, and soon to be Acura's signature headlight design.
As for the rest of the car? It's devoid of extraneous vents, swoops, curves, or flash. The grille--once a sore spot of Acura design--has been toned down and integrated into the nose to the point that it's hardly noticeable anymore. The flanks of the car offer up a hint of a curve over the front and rear wheels, but it quickly vanishes into a slab-sided sedan. In short, it's a little dull, almost Toyota Camry-like out on the road. It's not ugly, mind you, simply because there's not enough going on for it to be ugly. In a luxury market where even Lexus is pushing the extremes of car design, the 2014 Acura RLX is too generic to distinguish itself from other mid- to large-sized sedans competing for premium dollars. It's handsome, but without making a statement.
Sitting DownGet inside, though, and you'll be hard-pressed to believe the 2014 Acura RLX bears any family ties to the Honda Accord or Civic. No Honda--or Acura, for that matter--has had an interior this nice. The leather is plush and buttery. The seats are exquisitely padded, yet firm enough for aggressive driving. Every switch, knob and button has a tactile sensation to it that feels more like a high-end audio system than a car. Virtually every surface on the dash is covered in stitched leather. In our test vehicle's case, a light cream color that ensures RLX owners will be on a first name basis with their local interior detailer.
About the only thing in the RLX that resembles a standard-issue Honda is the center dash, which consists of two LCD screens; a large one above for functions such as navigation, radio interface and the like. The one below it is a touchscreen, used for operating deeper functions of the radio, climate control, and vehicle information systems. It's superficially similar to the system used on the 2013 Honda Accord, but there's an important difference: The RLX touchscreen uses haptic feedback to let you know you've done something, and it makes a huge difference. Tap an icon on the touchscreen, and you not only get a beep, you also get a small vibration under your fingertip. It feels like you're actually pushing a button rather than just tapping a screen. It's a cleverly intuitive system, similar to Cadillac's CUE, but the RLX's was more responsive.
Everyone sitting in the 2014 Acura RLX is treated like royalty. Obviously, the driver's seat gets the most attention. Along with the front passenger seat, it's heated and cooled and features a pneumatic lumbar support that can be adjusted a zillion different ways. Same goes for the passenger seat in front. But at last, rear-seat passengers in Acura's flagship sedan aren't an afterthought. Acura added two more inches between the front and rear wheels in the RLX compared to its predecessor, and the difference is dramatic. The upright styling gives passengers plenty of head space, not just above up to the ceiling, but you won't bump the roof rail when getting in, either. There's ample leg room, and we even managed to fit four 6-foot-plus adult men comfortably inside without any complaints. The rear seatback angle is optimal, too, just upright enough for safety, but reclined enough that you don't feel like you're in a pew. A quick hop into a few competitive vehicles Acura provided showed that, at least in rear seat comfort, the RLX is way out in front.
DrivingLuxury car manufacturers are engaged in an arms race of sorts, with each determined to build a car that can absorb as many of the driver's duties as possible, yet still remain interesting to drive when he or she wants to take the reins. Thus, the proliferation of active driving assistants in virtually anything with a starting price tag in the $50,000 range.
As one of the newest kids on the block, the 2014 Acura RLX boasts tech that's among the most advanced. Take, for example, its active steering assistant. Not only does it beep at you when you begin to wander out of your lane, it gently nudges you back to your own side of the road. The eeriest part is when you take your hands off the wheel--don't do this, by the way, as this is not really a self-driving car--and the RLX continues to make small, nearly imperceptible adjustments to its steering as it guides itself down the road, even around gentle bends. You've seen this kind of driving before: When you're doing it. Leave your hands off the wheel for 15 seconds or more, and the RLX displays a unique warning on its dash: Steering Required. The active cruise control works at all speeds, even bringing the car to a full stop and resuming when you either tap the gas or flick the "Resume" switch. It also warns you about your blind spots, equips you with a camera to see behind you, automatically turns on the climate control's recirculate function when it detects hydrocarbons. If it could, we bet it'd even put the toilet seat back down for you.
But what's really amazing is when you turn off all this self-driving stuff--all of it has an off switch--and just drive the RLX on your own. The 3.5-liter V-6 engine's 310 horsepower pull strongly, and the six-speed automatic transmission shifts quickly and smoothly; together they help the RLX get better fuel economy than its predecessor. Put the car into Sport mode, and you're rewarded with more aggressive steering response, a slightly stiffer suspension, resulting in a surprisingly responsive big car. Acura had a few handling exercises set up for us; wet weather dialed back the speeds. But we still had a chance to see how well this big sedan could dance. Much was made during the car's introduction about P-AWS: Precision All-Wheel Steer. This four-wheel steering turns the rear wheels ever so slightly, and independently of one another, to help the car around turns fast and slow. It definitely made a difference. The RLX doesn't feel like two tons of front-wheel-drive car when pushed hard, yet it doesn't really feel like a rear-drive car, either. About the best approximation is that it's like an all-wheel drive car. At the outer reaches of its limits the front wheels lose traction first, but not until after the rear end has put in its fair share of the handling duties, too.
There is one downside to the RLX's dynamic capabilities, one that just can't be avoided with clever engineering: torque steer. Torque steer is a tendency for powerful front-wheel-drive vehicles to pull to one side when at full throttle. It's physics, really, and while automakers have done a stellar job of diminishing it, there's still only so much that can be done, without resorting to all-wheel drive. The RLX, sadly, is not immune to the laws of physics, and if you mash the gas pedal in a straight line, you definitely feel it pull slightly to the right. But only slightly, and only at certain times. If you're looking for the ultimate sport sedan, you're not going to like the sensation. But if you're looking for a comfortable, refined, quality feeling and feature-packed luxury sedan, it's hardly a deal killer.
SummaryDriving a high-end luxury car through the wineries of Napa Valley, listening to Capriccio Italien on a mobile audio system that's better than what most people have in their homes, and being surrounded by soft and rich-smelling leather, it's hard not to like the 2014 Acura RLX. But the same thing could be said of many other luxury sedans, and we're forced to wonder what makes this one stand out.
The truth is that while it's easily competitive, and it has some cool technology, it doesn't really raise the bar on the luxury segment the way that first Legend did so many years ago. Anybody who buys an RLX will like it. Maybe even more than they would a similarly equipped BMW, Audi, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, etc. They'll certainly love the money that they save over those competitive vehicles, but stuff-for-the-dollar isn't exactly a luxurious notion; one doesn't buy a Rolex instead of a Timex because it keeps better time, after all. It's about how the car feels when you're behind the wheel. Is it special, and more importantly, does it make you feel special?
And that's where our problem with the RLX comes in. It's a decent car, yet, we can't see ourselves falling in love, either, because as comfortable and well equipped and everything else that it is, it's still lacking that last...something. An intangible that makes us look at it and say, "Yes, that car should be on the short list." For us, that special something may just be the hybrid system Acura has in store. With two independent electric motors driving the rear wheels, not only will it be more powerful, but the ability to independently control those two wheels could revolutionize the way big sedans like this handle. Or not. Either way, we can't wait to find out.