What makes the RL distinct or alluring among luxury cars? How is it much different than the same-sized TL? And shouldn't a brand flagship feel a little more exclusive, a little less mainstream-lux?
These are all questions shoppers will be wondering, and we couldn't help but be left pondering them even after several days with a 2011 Acura RL Advance. In short: Performance was satisfying enough, and we felt comfortable and at ease, but as soon as we thought about what else we could get with the same money, we couldn't help but think that we'd jump ship for a Jaguar XF, BMW 5-Series, Infiniti M37. Heck, maybe even a Saab 9-5.
Part of it could be that, in a fickle luxury market, the RL's design isn't fresh. While the RL has been given a modest refresh for 2011, in the form of a new front end, revised interior tech and entertainment features, and a number of mechanical changes including a new six-speed automatic transmission, most of the car is carried over (and is now more than five years on).
Design still feels fresh inside, though not outside
For some seasoned luxury car buyers, the anonymity might be appreciated, but as Acura's left it for 2011 this sedan looks derivative and lost from the outside. Stepping around the RL, it just feels flat-out dull for a supposedly glitzy luxury car. Acura calls the RL's exterior styling aggressive, but after hemming and hawing from various angles, we just couldn't see it; it's a very conservative sedan. The snout had been its main talking point, but what replaces it this year is a revised, oddly conservative (and cheap-looking) grille treatment that looks less fluid and integrated than the original (of this generation) 2005 RL.
Inside, it's better, with the familiar Acura instrument panel layout—still close to that used in the TL—which has held up well. While stylistically it's pleasing and complex, with a middle belt that wraps across the dash and around into the doors, functionally it's refreshingly simple, if a bit cluttered, with center-stack controls nicely arranged with climate control up top, audio below that, and nav/trip controls beneath that.
Power is provided by a 3.7-liter V-6, making 300 horsepower and 271 pound-feet. It's not the torquiest off the line, but it builds to a sonorous and impressive power peak, for as quick of a super-legal two-laner semi pass as we could ever see laid back drivers wanting. One longtime problem with all V-6 Honda and Acura cars—lumpy, almost harsh shifts on gentle acceleration—seems to have been completely solved here; Acura says that the six-speed automatic has a new multi-clutch torque converter, which aids fuel economy and probably has something to do with that smoothness.
Invites being driven fast, but not being driven hard
There's something about the way the RL is tuned (and how well it's isolated, perhaps) that doesn't invite you to drive it hard, but it has no problem being driven fast. The numb, innocuous steering and all-around isolated feel keep you from pushing it hard, but if you do you'll find it's actually quite hard to fluster. Acura's SH-AWD system here simply delivers with composure and grip, whenever you need it. And as for sheer velocity, if you don't watch it, you'll probably end up pushing well past the speed limit; with its quiet, supremely isolated interior and a suspension that keeps body motion very much under wraps yet without giving up comfort, it's a go-fast touring machine for the sorts of trips where you want to cover hundreds of miles a day while catching up with your road-trip companions.
On a cracked, undulating two-laner in Oregon's Coast Range road we felt nothing of the changes in surface and only heard, faintly, the most jarring impacts, all while we were able to glide around tight, choppy curves very quickly—though again, without much of a thrill factor.
Interior refinement and noise are very, very impressive, even when you're pitching the RL into tight corners, on rough pavement, and nailing the throttle just before apex. The RL also managed to effectively soak up road noise from a stretch of nearby expressway that brings out the boominess in most new vehicles. We didn't hear a hint of wind noise either, and engine noise only was only discernible when accelerating hard. Acura uses Active Sound Control, an advanced form of its Active Noise Cancellation system that actively cancels out an even wider range of background noise and harshness—including most tire noise—meaning that it very easy to carry on a quiet conversation, even at high speeds on a harsh surface.
Aside from being able to order up a little more steering feel, we'd have liked a little steadier brake feedback. The brakes have an initial, almost overboosted bite that seems to fade in longer stops; it can feel almost like fade, but add a little more pedal pressure and you'll find it isn't.
Whisper-quiet, but not all that roomy
2011 Acura RL headroom
The RL's interior, while one of the quietest, is far from the roomiest. The RL's front seats are firm and supportive, with ventilated leather striking a good comfort balance; all they're missing are extending thigh supports. In back, though, there's, surprisingly, just enough space for adults; and with the front seats in their rearmost position, six-footers will find headroom and legroom in back very tight (it really doesn't feel any more ample than in a TL or Accord). Per the pic, the roofline has been awkwardly carved out to get that headroom, even. The trunk feels miniscule for a vehicle in this segment, too; the decklid and opening are quite small, and toward the frontal portion the space tapers inward and upward.
With limited voice-command capability, a sluggish interface, frustrating menus, and seemingly incomplete map sets, the RL's navigation system now feels a full generation behind the systems in most of its luxury-car rivals. And this proved another sour experience with an Acura nav system; at one point the system actually thought that, along U.S. 101, we were nine miles from where we were—leaving us to resort to an iPhone for navigating. After restarting the engine (and nav system), it silently corrected its position.
Over about 250 miles of driving, a mix of suburban errands and a weekend trip mixing Interstate cruising and two-laners, we managed about 22 mpg overall—pretty respectable for a large-displacement V-6, and about on par with its EPA ratings of 17/24.
Trying to make sense of where it fits in
Sticker price for our test 2011 Acura RL Advance was $56,010 including destination. That's a few thousand more than a comparably equipped Lincoln MKS EcoBoost, or nearly 15 grand more than a Hyundai Genesis V-6 with its available Tech Package. It's also about ten grand more than a Volvo S80 T6 Turbo, loaded with nav, premium sound, and its Technology Package. Or you could have slightly less well-equipped versions of the BMW 5-Series, Jaguar XF, or Mercedes-Benz E-Class—all of which either have more style and luxury cachet, more driving thrills, or both.
2011 Acura RL Advance
A lot of the current must-have luxury features are here, though: xenon headlamps with Active Front Lighting, adaptive cruise, heated and ventilated seats, Bluetooth and USB interfaces, and a great-sounding Bose sound system. But the design is showing its age in some details, like the little add-on stub on the steering column, to enable 'keyless' ignition.
At this point, let's work in reverse. The RL is definitely not a vehicle for the one who wants the fastest, edgiest, or most distinctive sport sedan, nor for the one who must have the most ostentatious or pillowy luxury car. What's left is the person who values understatement and more of a classic, conservative 'executive car' feel, and the one who maybe wants some of the latest tech features but not piles of gleaming chrome. Target: A dentist or real-estate agent who wants to enjoy wealth and be seen as successful but not swimming in it (where an S-Class or 7-Series might be too much)?
Once we'd reasoned out who the target buyer is, the RL makes a little more sense. And if you have to cover vast distances for work or play and can get a good lease deal on an RL, we wouldn't hesitate to recommend one.
Which brings us back to the initial point—and it concerns what we see in much of the current Acura lineup, except for the excellent TSX sedan and wagon. Our appreciation of the RL is only lukewarm, and we can't help but attach so many ifs and buts. Ultimately, the RL feels like it's trying so hard to fit in that there's nothing charming or captivating, as there was once upon a time with the Legend. And charm is, after all, a big part of a luxury brand's cachet, right? By appealing to the least-common-denominator luxury shopper, Acura's not really appealing to anyone.