Ingrid Loeffler Palmer, Contributor
There is a great book titled "The Good Life" about a couple that rejected modern society, moved to rural Maine and lived off the land. The book chronicled 60 years of self-sufficient living, including the couple's struggle to build their own home, grow their own food and make everything they needed to survive and prosper. Well, survive, at least. Prosper, to many Americans, means something else entirely.
While the couple's radical example of living and working in nature is inspiring, "the good life," to most people today, involves something more like a high-paying and satisfying career, owning a home and a vacation getaway, having a loving family, good health, and plenty of time for their favorite hobbies. Oh, and a luxury vehicle like an Acura 3.5 RL parked in the garage wouldn't hurt, either.
The all-new 1999 Acura 3.5 RL is a symbol of the good life that Americans can have even if they're not looking for an extreme life change. Our spin in the vehicle early this winter proved that the RL is a capable family or professional car that is fun to drive and soothing to behold. The upgraded styling of the 3.5 RL, including its chiseled character lines, lends a more aggressive look to the vehicle while still maintaining a polished and suave appeal. Snuggled somewhere between a sports sedan and a luxury cruiser, the Acura is an excellent choice for people who like variety, or who just can't make up their minds. It offers a chameleon-like presence that seems to change from athletic to poetic in a heartbeat, depending upon your mood.
Last year, the RL could be purchased in either a base model or a premium package. For 1999, Acura dropped the base model and is offering the RL in one trim level only, stacked full with all the goodies from the premium package. These standard features include traction control, heated front seats and a six-disc, trunk-mounted CD changer.
Power for the RL is provided by a 3.5-liter, 210-horsepower V6 engine that is mated to a four-speed electronic automatic transmission. Off the line, the Acura felt sluggish to our editors, and we found ourselves wishing for a bit more low-end torque. Hitting the gas at a stop sign, one editor almost got nailed by a Mustang that was speeding towards him. Luckily, the RL's power kicked in just in time to sprint out of the way. Power on the highway was excellent, and we had no problems sailing past slower-moving vehicles when the need for speed hit us. Though this engine feels bigger than it actually is and moves the RL adequately in most situations, the car is not offered with a V8 engine — even though most of its competitors have them. By offering only a V6, which moves most people as fast as they need to go, Acura is able to keep the price down on their flagship sedan. Coming in at least $8,000 lower than its competitors, the RL is a great deal for people who care more about luxury and prestige than smoking out their tires at a stop sign.
Acura tuned up the RL's double-wishbone suspension for 1999, and the vehicle now provides passengers with a more solid feel, tighter handling and impeccable road manners. Other structural improvements include a wider stance, increased body rigidity and larger brakes. All of these tweaks help to make the Acura a dream to drive, whether on a twisty mountain road or a straight highway.
The driving position itself was comfortable, the footrest was perfectly positioned and the high seats provided crystal-clear visibility for drivers under 5-foot-3-inches tall. Our tallest editor, who sizes in at 6-feet-5-inches tall, was not as comfortable behind the wheel and complained that the steering wheel felt too thin, though he appreciated the super-soft leather padding on the door where he could rest his arm while cruising.
Sitting in the cockpit of this vehicle is a relaxing experience overall; the leather seats are supportive but supple, noise from the outside world does not penetrate the cabin and shiny wood trim is liberally splashed throughout the interior for a sophisticated look. In a vehicle with such a soothing interior, one would think that inserting the key into the dash-mounted slot to turn the vehicle on would be an easy, mind-numbing task. Not so in the Acura: the key must be turned quite far before the engine sparks to life, causing you to either contort your wrist into an unpleasant position or release the key halfway around and grip it from the other side to complete the operation without pain.
We were also disappointed by the lack of dual climate zones in a car of this status and, though the stereo volume knob was large and easy to grip, it was positioned to the far right side of the center console, making it difficult to reach from the driver's seat. The instrument panel, made up of three large, round gauges, was easy to decipher, but the digital displays were washed out in bright sunlight. Cruise control buttons mounted on the steering wheel felt like Fisher Price plastic and the on/off switch was inconveniently located to the far left side of the instrument panel, requiring another unnecessary reach to initiate the system.
Uplifting our impression of the car's interior was the optional Acura Navigation System — the only factory option available — which wowed every one of us with its advanced features. This satellite-linked system allows you to view a map of your current location at several zoom modes, maneuver the map so that you can see what is near your route, see current location details and call up address information for any location on the map display. It also utilizes a key shading feature to assist in choosing street and city names, and can help you find a destination by telephone number. The $2,000 navigation system is located at the top of the center console and faces straight out, which makes it easy for the passenger to fiddle with the system while the driver concentrates on the road. We were delighted to find that the screen could be brightened or dimmed and that we could choose from written, mapped or audio directions. One drawback is that the system cannot be turned off easily; you must first back out of the screens and get to the main menu to push the exit button. Also, the interior digital clock readout can be viewed only when the navigation system is turned on, which makes life difficult on short jaunts for those who don't wear watches.
Acura introduces two new airbag safety systems in its 3.5 RL this time around and, like the navigation system, they are worth noting. One system, the first-ever used in an automobile, automatically adjusts the deployment of the front passenger airbag based on the severity of a frontal impact crash. Here's how it works: if you hit something at a slower speed, the dual-stage inflator either does not deploy the airbag at all or deploys the airbag in a sequence mode and with less force than if you had run into a brick wall at 70 mph. This prevents passengers from being stunned by a full-force airbag in a less serious collision.
Parents will appreciate Acura's second, new side airbag system, which protects children who may be sitting in the front passenger seat. The system uses seven sensors to deactivate the side airbag if a passenger is determined to be too small and out of proper airbag position — such as when leaning against the door taking a nap.
Built with more than 360 modifications from last year's model, the 1999 Acura 3.5 RL is certainly a vehicle to covet, no matter your lifestyle. It seats five comfortably and has a large trunk that holds enough groceries for a family with that many members.
Buyers need not be independently wealthy to enjoy the Acura 3.5 RL, either. With a base price of only $42,355, the RL rivals other higher-priced vehicles like the Mercedes-Benz E430, Lexus GS400 and BMW 540iA. While its competitors offer more power in terms of V8 engines, the Acura stacks up just as well — if not better — in areas like style, nimbleness, value and curbside charm. So, if you have the urge to capture that elusive American dream, don't pass up this sedan — it may just be your first treasure collected in the quest for the good life.
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