Disassemble a luxury car and try to distinguish it from a normal vehicle. You won’t find much difference. Some extra steel and aluminum and glass, maybe some wood or a few ounces of carbon fiber. Mostly, you’ll get more sound deadening and more badges. What’s left behind are the intangibles like prestige, heritage, and word of mouth.
With the 2014 RLX, Acura offers up the first reinvention of its flagship sedan in more than a decade. And instead of plying you with acres of responsibly harvested wood, or exotic hand-massaged leathers, it says it’s offering “luxury defined by you.” Is that nebulous enough to woo back the shoppers that might have been smitten by the biggest Acura when it was a Legend–and now find themselves behind the wheel of a Lexus, an Audi, or even a Mercedes or BMW?
After our first in-depth drives in the Acura RLX, we’re apt to define luxury as something more intensely flavored, unique, and barely attainable. Leather and branded audio and electronic driving assists? They’re to be had in $30,000 family sedans these days. Luxury has to be more.
On that scale, the 2014 RLX is a polite, well-composed premium sedan, a contender in the ring with the Cadillac XTS and Lincoln MKS–but not crazy, not flagrantly out of skew, not brilliant enough in any single facet to run any of the old-money names off the VIP list. That’s despite some thoughtful new safety gear and some nifty handling tricks that obscure its front-drive running gear.
The RLX has understatement down pat while it runs lean on sizzle. It’s a gentle reiteration of the BMW 5-Series with a softer Acura boomerang of chrome applied to the front end, a hint of animal musculature over its front wheels in the fender lines. It’s a no-drama zone from LED headlight to LED taillight, elegant in the same way the cabin is pretty and handsomely constructed, orchestrated instead of inspired. The leathers and grains are better than any Acura we’ve sampled. They just need a touch of alchemy.
The name’s only two vowels away from “relax,” and that’s a clear predictor of how the Acura RLX tackles the road. It’s up only 10 horsepower in a crazy age where the Lincoln-cum-Volvo MKS has 365 hp–and the Hyundai Genesis, 429 hp. On principle it gets the best gas mileage in the class, by Acura’s estimates, and in practice, it feels it, with ample but steady acceleration, woken up at 3000 rpm with some intake snarl that’s bound to be remixed in 12-inch form on the upcoming NSX’s soundtrack.
There’s a hybrid all-wheel-drive version with the same 310-hp V-6 and six-speed automatic on tap, but 30-mpg fuel economy across the board. We’ve just driven the front-drive version, which eschews the adaptive suspensions common in the class for a well-tuned set of coils, links, and digressive dampers. It’s a setup that is well aware of what the RLX wants to be: a mildly cushy cruiser, with only token amounts of road-surface feedback. That’s what makes the RLX’s electric steering system so unusual: it has actuators on the back wheels that work in concert to deliver rear-wheel steering, an effect that lends stability to the RLX on the interstate but sounds like an exotic solution for a car without high-performance intentions.
Size is a factor Acura hopes will appeal to RLX lookers. It remains about the same size as the outgoing RL sedan, although overhang has been shortened somewhat and the wheelbase is two inches longer—which together with two more inches of width, in all, means more passenger space inside. The front seats are supple and trimmed in very rich leather, but rear headroom is scant for tall adults, and trunk space is only average.
Safety is again a focus for Acura’s flagship sedan. The brand’s first application of Lane Keep Assist is available, and all RLX sedans have standard Forward Collision Warning and Lane Departure Warning. In addition to the usual roster of safety features and airbags, the 2014 RLX will include a driver’s front knee bag, and Acura is already expecting top five-star scores from the federal government and the upcoming Safety Pick Plus status from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The optional adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping systems even work together as a follow function: the RLX will steer itself at low speeds behind another car, say, in stop-and-go traffic.
Five grades of RLX are on the order sheet for the 2014 model year: RLX, RLX with Navigation, RLX with Technology package, RLX with Krell Audio package, and RLX with Advance package. All have an extensive list of features including dual LCD displays for infotainment functions, while upper trim levels get a next-generation AcuraLink Communication system and the Aha streaming-audio interface, as well as an expanded range of infotainment and connectivity features based on smartphone integration. The navigation system now includes surface-street traffic, and security features include stolen vehicle tracking, airbag deployment notification remote locking and unlocking, and 24-hour concierge services.
Prices start from just under $50,000, and the top RLX with Advance retails for more than $61,000. The 2014 Acura RLX is on sale at dealers as of March 15, with the hybrid model to follow later this year.