He didn't know it at the time, but the middle-aged guy at the gas station summed up our reservations of Acura's newest luxury car, the 2005 Acura RL, when he said, "What is that, the new Accord? It looks pretty nice, wow, what an interior, it's beautiful. Honda really builds a nice car."
Not only did our friend, who was filling up his modified Nissan 300ZX, mistake Acura's new $50,000 flagship for a mainstream Honda, he used the word "nice" when describing it. And he used it twice.
Nice? Socks are nice. A pat on the back is nice. Saving 40 cents when you supersize is nice. This is an opulent, 300-horsepower, all-wheel-drive luxury car with enough high-tech gadgetry to rival a Battlebots convention.
The Acura RL isn't nice. It's a car capable of taking on Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz. It's great. It's awesome. It's bitchin'. It might even be fresh if the kids are still using that one.
This kind of thing didn't happen with the BMW 530i we recently tested. Reactions to that sedan were strong from our fellow citizens at the pumps. Comments ranged from "cool" to "hot" to "that's one of the ugliest cars I've ever seen, but it's better-looking than the BMW 7 Series."
Not everyone liked the look of the BMW, but no one confused it for a car that costs half as much, which let's face it, isn't nice.
That new skin, sexy or not, is part of this car's commitment to cutting-edge technology. The front fenders, hood, trunk lid and even some of the suspension components are manufactured out of aluminum instead of steel to reduce weight and increase strength.
The coolest part of the Acura RL's exterior, however, has to be its huge headlights that incorporate a new Active Front Lighting System. The low beams can swivel up to 20 degrees in either direction in response to vehicle speed and input from the steering wheel. In other words, the car really does help its driver see around corners. Similar systems are already on the market on some Lexus and BMW products.
Faced with the prospect of designing a luxury car with sporty driving dynamics, Acura went a step further than equipping the RL with the now ubiquitous stability and traction control systems. The Acura RL also grips the road with Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD).
SH-AWD splits power 60/40 front to rear during straight-line acceleration, but the majority of power is sent to the front wheels when the car is cruising down the highway.
Things get really interesting in tight corners, when the SH-AWD can transfer up to 100 percent of torque to one side of the car or the other, essentially accelerating the outside wheels to make the car pivot around a corner. The process is completely transparent to the driver, and it really works.
We flogged the RL on both wet and dry roads, and found the car's handling unaffected by standing water even at high speeds. Most full-size sedans will slide when pitched around a wet curve, but the RL held its line without a hint of traction loss. Handling was completely neutral, and the tires didn't howl or complain even once.
When you're ready to bring the fun to a halt, massive four-piston aluminum brake calipers up front and large single-piston calipers out back are tied together with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and provide enough stopping power to pull the fillings right out of your teeth.
Despite its high performance, we have mixed emotions about the RL driving experience. All the different electronic systems that help the car corner take away the road feel that true driving enthusiasts crave. To put it simply, this car doesn't "talk" to the driver the way a real sport sedan does.
For the real enthusiast, the soon-to-be-available A-SPEC Kit should give an RL a slightly sharper edge. For $5,500 plus dealer installation, the Acura RL A-SPEC package will lower the car three-fourths of an inch and add 18-inch alloy wheels with Michelin Pilot Sport tires, a tasteful body kit and a deck lid spoiler.
Power to Burn
RL buyers can choose any engine and transmission they want, as long as it's a 3.5-liter VTEC V6 bolted to a five-speed automatic. With 300 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, it's the most powerful standard V6 in the class, but it has a lot of weight to haul around.
At the track, the RL sprinted from zero to 60 in 7.2 seconds, which isn't bad, but it doesn't suck your eyeballs into your head either. Stomp the throttle, and you're forced to wait a few beats as the V6 winds up and starts making power.
In comparison, the less powerful BMW 530i runs the exact number while an Audi A6 takes 7.9 seconds. The bigger issue is that other vehicles in the category, including the 5 Series and the A6, can be ordered with a V8, which in the BMW's case shaves a second off its time.
Power aside, the V6 is smoother than melted chocolate, even above 6,000 rpm when the VTEC system is working overtime. In the grand Honda tradition, it sounds great at the top of the tach, emitting a gentle growl without sounding obnoxious.
The five-speed is more difficult to praise. We grew tired of it constantly searching for the right gear, and its downshifts are noticeably rough for a luxury car. They're also slow to come, even if you use the paddle shifters mounted behind the steering wheel.
Inside is where the Acura RL really shines. Virtually every surface is covered in supple leather, highly polished maple wood trim, satin-finished aluminum or soft-touch composites. The twin-pod gauge pack is backlit with soft blue LEDs for a futuristic effect, and the tilt and telescoping wheel is loaded with controls for everything from the stereo to the nav system.
The high-tech theme continues on the center stack, where the interface for the AcuraLink system is a large aluminum knob. It looks similar to BMW's much maligned iDrive, but it's very easy to use and understand, we stumbled through the basic navigation and stereo controls in a few minutes.
Speaking of the stereo, a cooperative effort between Acura and Bose has led to one of the most advanced and pitch-perfect factory stereo systems we've ever heard, complete with true surround-sound technology and DVD-audio compatibility.
Other noteworthy AcuraLink features include standard XM radio, and a streaming real-time traffic feature that can update the navigation screen on the conditions of the freeways in 20 major cities, including Chicago, L.A. and New York. It works, as does the voice recognition software that allows occupants to request anything from driving directions to restaurant recommendations without touching a button.
Finally, a keyless entry system for the Acura RL allows the driver to simply walk up to the car, touch the door handle to unlock it, then climb in and twist the start knob that resides where a key would normally go. After all, keys are so 20th century.
Seat comfort front and back is excellent regardless of your body shape. This is the kind of car you drive through two states and emerge without any backache. It's also roomy, with 36.3 inches of rear-seat legroom, it's within an inch of the larger and more expensive Lexus LS 430 and about half an inch larger than the BMW 530i.
One of the best, but
No factory options are available on the 2005 Acura RL. The only way you can buy one is loaded-to-the-gills, for a hair under $50,000. It's not a bad deal if you're a tech junkie looking for a comfortable ride with the latest and greatest gadgets. If you crave absolute thrust, however, you'll want to go with one of its bigger-motored competitors.