Acura's flagship sedan gets a makeover

Sunday, September 14, 2008

If there's one car that deserves the Most Overlooked Award, it's the Acura RL.

A midsize sedan with a quiet, comfortable ride, enough high-tech amenities to satisfy a computer geek, a top government safety rating and a "recommended" label from Consumer Reports magazine, the RL often is dismissed as merely a nice but conservative-looking luxury car.

But updates for 2009 give the RL an aggressive new look, sportier handling and a more powerful engine with 300 horsepower. Not to mention the new safety features.

And Acura didn't touch the starting retail price, including destination charge. It remains at $47,040, like last year's RL.

But the 2009 RL still finds itself in the middle in price among midsize luxury sedans.

The 2009 Lexus IS 350 with 306-horsepower V-6 starts at $37,070 and the 2009 Lexus GS 350 with 303-horsepower V-6 starts at $45,315, while the 2009 Jaguar XF sedan starts at $49,975 and comes with a V-8 producing at least 300 horsepower.

The changes to the RL for 2009 come after a redesign of Acura's flagship sedan in 2005 failed to boost sales. In fact, RL sales declined every year since 2005.

Besides the plain looks of the previous RL, some critics blamed a lack of power because the previous V-6 produced only 290 horses. And there's no uplevel V-8.

Additionally, unlike German luxury cars, the RL isn't rear-wheel drive.

But it has something deceptively satisfying -- an all-wheel-drive system that doesn't just power front and rear wheels for improved traction, it increases the rotation of the rear wheel that's on the outside of a corner as a driver goes through the corner. In sporty driving, this helps make the car feel better planted as it turns.

I noticed the confidence this feature provided on the test car and wondered why anyone wouldn't want to have this advanced system, which Acura calls Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive.

The test RL was the top-of-the-line model with both Technology Package and a new safety system called Collision Mitigation Braking System (CMBS). The name is a mouthful, but the first time it activates, I guarantee you won't forget it.

Triggered by a millimeter-wave radar unit at the front of the car, CMBS can come on without warning, as it did for me when I was moving from one lane to another in tight quarters. The system decided my proximity to the car ahead was too close and it slammed me back into the seatback with a powerful cinching of the seatbelt and applied the brakes.

I had to quickly glance behind me to ensure no car back there was caught unaware by the sudden braking. But the swiftness of the CMBS actions made me turn the thing off for a while before gradually keeping it on and driving less aggressively.

The RL has a presence now, thanks to a heavy-handed band of shiny silver decoration across the grille, new and large 18-inch wheels and tires and a restyled back end that sort of reminded me of a BMW.

It was enough to prompt a young motorcyclist to stop, park and check out the RL outside my home. I never saw an RL prompt that reaction before.

I liked settling into the RL because armrests were soft to rest on and seats were cushioned, yet supportive. The perforated leather front seats included rear cushion ventilation for cooling on hot days and heating on wintry days.

The dashboard, with real wood in the test RL, was accented by a center stack that swept gracefully upward toward a good-sized display. There, navigation items, stereo information and even current weather plus five-day weather forecasts were clearly visible. In fact, I felt like I had my own Weather Channel inside the car with me.

The Acura/Bose audio system put out strong, rich tunes that made the RL a personal concert hall.

But the real joy in the new RL is driving the car.

The new, 3.7-liter V-6 is the first single overhead cam engine to use Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control for intake and exhaust valves. It's a smaller, lighter-size engine than last year's 3.5-liter V-6, but horsepower finally hits 300, and torque -- that "oomph" feeling during acceleration -- increases 9 percent to 271 foot-pounds at 5,000 rpm.

The test car responded quickly and readily to my foot on the accelerator pedal, and I moved easily in both city and highway traffic.

But I was surprised that fuel economy was so low. The federal government rating is 16 miles per gallon in city driving, which is what some crossover sport utility vehicles get. And the RL's highway rating was a ho-hum 22 mpg.

Note that the midsized Buick LaCrosse sedan with V-8 is rated higher, at 16/24 mpg.

Additionally, Acura requires premium unleaded gasoline in the RL, so a fill-up of the 19.4-gallon tank these days is easily over $70.

Handling is much sportier now compared with earlier, cushier-riding RLs. The tighter ride in the 2009 model comes with a larger rear stabilizer bar, revised shock absorbers, upgraded coil springs and a revised steering rack.

Yet, the ride isn't punishing or noisy. There appears to be a nice middle ground here that provides an easygoing ride when needed and a stick-to-it character on hilly road switchbacks.

I still had problems, though, with Acura's voice recognition system that allows drivers to control the radio, navigation system and ventilation via verbal commands.

In the test RL, about half of my commands weren't understood, and I'd often wind up frustrated as the system turned on the CD player when I didn't ask for anything to do with the CD.

Nearly all safety items, including six air bags, are standard. The exception is the CMBS, which is offered only on the top RL.

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