Thursday, February 21, 2013

Test Drive: 2014 Acura RLX P-AWS Tech

Power Acura of South Bay received their allotted two demo units of the 2014 Acura RLX and I had the good fortune of the dealer contacting me for a test drive. Both my brother and I have been following the development of the RLX quite closely, so naturally, I could not pass up this opportunity. The two units Power Acura had received were a white tech package model, and a dark blue advanced package model. Unfortunately, the general manager of Power Acura had decided to take the advanced model home with him, leaving only the tech package available for preview.


For those who are not yet familiar with the 2014 Acura RLX, Acura's replacement for the slow-selling RL, some of the highlights of the car are:
  • 3.5 liter "Earth Dreams" SOHC, Direct Injected, Variable Cylinder Management (3 and 6 cylinder operation modes) equipped V-6
  • 310 horsepower, 272 lb./ft. of torque
  • Precision-All Wheel Steer (P-AWS)
  • "Jewel Eye" LED headlights
  • Smart entry keyless entry and push button start
  • Electronic parking brake
  • Multi-Angle rear view camera
  • 8 inch color multi-information display
  • 7 inch multi-use touch screen
The tech package model also adds the following:
  • Acura Navigation System with Voice Recognition
  • 19 inch noise reducing alloy wheels
  • Michelin 245/40/19 all-season tires
  • Premium Milano leather seats
  • Blind Spot info system
  • 14 Speaker Acura ELS sound system
  • Acoustic Glass
  • Rain sensing wipers
  • Power retractable side mirrors
  • Smart entry for all four doors and trunk
The Good

At first glance, the RLX is quite the handsome looking vehicle from a distance, especially in the white pearl that enshrouded the demo unit. The body possesses an attractive shape, and even works well with the now much maligned "power-plenum" grill. Acura's new Jewel Eye LED headlights are the definite crowning achievement of the RLX design. The tech package's 19-inch alloy wheels provide an aggressive stance for the vehicle, and do a fine job of filling out the wheel wells. Since a base model and navigation model were not available for demo, I can only assume the 18 inch wheels that come with those two models would appear smallish.

The inside of the RLX is a dramatic improvement over the second generation RL. Gone is the four spoke steering wheel cluttered with buttons, and in its place is a thick rimmed, three spoke steering wheel with a few buttons and two scroll wheels. Also gone is the button heavy center stack, and in its place are two screens with the most commonly used controls for HVAC and radio using physical knobs and buttons. Acura has also finally upgraded the RLX's navigation screen to the latest version which has a higher resolution and appears significantly crisper. Surprisingly enough, the multi-function touch screen in the center responds promptly to inputs. In our review of the Cadillac ATS, both my brother and I criticized Cadillac's CUE system for the lag exhibited between touching the screen and the system responding. Acura seems to have gotten it right as touching an icon on the RLX's screen brings about a near instantaneous response.     

Looking around, virtually every surface within reach is swaddled in a soft touch leather. This definitely gives the car a very upscale feel compared to the interior of the RL. In the tech package trim and above, the seats are covered in a premium Milano leather, which is definitely softer and more supple than the standard leather Acura has included in its vehicles over the years.

Look at all the leg room!
Since it was introduced as a concept, Acura has touted the RLX as being "BMW 5-series size on the outside, but 7-series size on the inside." A claim they have definitely lived up to. The front seats of the RLX feels roughly the same size as the RL, but the rear seating is absolutely cavernous! With the driver's seat adjusted to my preferred position, the available leg room makes me confident that a person well over six feet tall would be able to sit comfortably in the back seats. 

Also of note, the RLX is significantly quieter than the second generation RL. Acura's use of acoustic glass, and revised road noise absorbing alloy wheels deliver a one-two punch in making the cabin nearly tomb quiet. Seeing as how most owner complaints of the second generation RL came in the form of road and wind noise, the RLX will not disappoint in this department. All of this sound deadening does not detract in the least from the amazing note produced by the RLX's gem of an engine. Acura's 6-cylinder motors have always made the right sort of mechanical symphony, especially when pressed hard.

Probably the biggest highlight of the RLX is the way the car drives. For a front wheel drive luxury cruiser weighing in at nearly 4,000 pounds, this thing hustles. Tap the "Sport" button below the shifter, mash the throttle and the car just comes alive. The exhaust note generated by the new "Earth Dreams" 3.5L V-6 is deep, rich and satisfying. It is actually a little surprising that an engine that can give such a big car this much thrust, can also potentially deliver 31 highway miles per gallon. And like every other J-series motor Honda has produced, this one is buttery smooth in its power delivery.

The RLX's handling and steering was actually quite a surprise. While the last generation RL handled fairly well, in no small part due to the SH-AWD system, it just could not shake the big, soft, spongy feeling when being thrown through a corner. With the RLX, the amount of body roll feels significantly less than with the RL, giving the car a more planted feeling through the corners. While I was not driving fast enough to trigger the Precision-All Wheel Steer, cleverly called P-AWS,  at highway speeds, I was able to observe its effect at parking lot speeds, maneuvering the big RLX through Power Acura's parking with the greatest of ease. In terms of steering feel, the RLX offers a surprising amount of feed back while cornering and at low speeds. With sport mode active, steering tightens and responds quicker, which definitely helps the driver feel more confident when moving this giant sedan around. Does this mean Acura has finally gotten electric power steering correct? Almost.  

The Bad

There is much to praise about what Acura has done with the RLX, but it is still not without its faults. For starters, while the design of the car is quite stunning from a distance, look closely and you realize that the RLX looks too indistinct from various angles. Many have even stated that the rear looks a lot like the Hyundai Genesis or BMW 7-series. Dark colors further exacerbate this effect, seeming to hide all the lines that add character to the RLX's design and, unlike some of the lighter colors, make the grill stand out too much. Another minor design quibble can be found on the front of the car. While not unattractive, Acura tried too hard to style the front end around the grill and the Jewel Eye headlights, giving the front a sort of flat, stubby look. From head on, you do not really notice it, but from an angle, it does seem quite apparent. 

Much like many of the other luxury car manufacturers out there today, Acura offers the RLX with a staggering amount of technology. Unfortunately, all this new technology can spell frustration, especially for people who are new to many of the technologies offered in the RLX. Acura's multi-function touch screen is far better in execution than Cadillac's CUE or Ford's My Touch systems, but it is still a bit complicated to use, requiring digging several screens deep to make adjustments to the audio menu. This is incredibly frustrating when you want to make some quick changes at a stop light, only to have to abandon your quest to prevent holding up traffic. Luckily, Acura made the right decision to include normal buttons for basic audio controls, unlike some competitors who rely on capacitive touch controls for everything.

Acura's decision to continue using their plastic looking fake wood trim in their cars is a continued disappointment. If there is one thing Acura does not do well, it is fake interior wood trim, and the RLX is no exception. The majority of the interior is covered in sumptuous leather, tasteful chrome accents, and beautiful soft touch plastics, only to be nearly-ruined by the horrid plastic-looking fake wood. At the very least, Acura made the right decision to keep it off the steering wheel this time, unlike the mid-cycle refreshed RL. If anyone from Acura ever reads this, either use the real stuff or switch to a different trim material instead. The RLX is supposed to be your flagship, so make sure every detail of the interior looks it. I am almost certain your customers would greatly appreciate the effort.  

My last complaint about the RLX has to do with the steering. Yes, the steering at low speeds and during cornering offers a surprising amount of feedback for a car of this class, but the on-center feel is sort of non-existent. What I mean is that when you drive the RLX in a straight line, nearly all response through the steering wheel disappears; the feeling of the road and which way the wheels are pointing at a given time pretty much vanishes entirely. Even with sport mode active, the steering's on-center feel does not improve. It is a little bit eerie when you feel more confident throwing a car of this size through corners than driving in a straight line. I realize that this is a sensation that likely will disappear over time as an owner gets familiar with the car, but for it to require this much acclimation seems unusual.


Summary

So the question here would be whether or not Acura has finally fixed their luxury flagship. From a driving and content standpoint, the RLX is absolutely spectacular, and is leaps and bounds above the previous RL. Unfortunately, I do see a major potential problems for the RLX down the road. The first one is the somewhat anonymous styling. I am not saying the RLX is an ugly car. In fact, I believe the RLX to be a very handsome car. The RLX is simply too anonymous versus its other luxury mid-size competitors, especially given how aggressive Lexus and even Mercedes have gotten with their entries in the same class. And while brands like BMW can get away with just about anything through their snob appeal, Acura simply does not have the brand cachet to pull that off at this point.

A possible second problem has more to do with the continued use of front wheel drive. A rear drive car will almost always have better driving dynamics than a front drive car and nearly every single competitor, including luxury intenders, such as Hyundai, have a RWD platform in this class. The good news here is that the trend in this market seems to be shifting towards all-wheel drive, which Acura has an answer for in the form of the Hybrid SH-AWD system due to be released later this year as a separate model for this car.

Would I buy a 2014 RLX P-AWS Tech? I would have to say "not yet." Why? Towards the end of the year, Acura will be introducing the RLX Sport Hybrid SH-AWD model. This RLX will incorporate the advanced hybrid all-wheel drive system that Acura has been developing for the NSX. This system would be mated to the same 3.5 liter "Earth Dreams" V-6 of the P-AWS model, but will have three electric motors supporting it as well. With one electric motor hooked directly to the engine and one motor at each rear wheel, the system will still offer torque vectoring like the mechanical SH-AWD equipped Acura models, and is expected to make over 370 horsepower. All of this will be mated to Honda's first dual-clutch, seven speed transmission and will be expected to achieve an EPA estimated 30 miles per gallon combined. Before I would make a decision to purchase or lease an RLX, I would definitely want to try the Sport Hybrid model before drawing any conclusions.