What's New for 2009
The 2009 Acura RL has been heavily updated. Highlights include a more powerful engine, freshened styling, a revised suspension and new features.
Almost two decades ago, a golden-mulleted Andre Agassi (he wasn't always bald, you know) used his bad-boy tennis image to hawk Canon EOS Rebel cameras. "Image is everything," a smug Mr. Agassi said. This is a lesson Acura's executives should have learned, for around the same time, they decided to rename their flagship sedan from Legend to RL and (unknowingly) send it down a path of increasing anonymity.
While image actually has little to do with a tennis star's skills, it does mean a great deal for the average luxury sedan buyer. The first-generation Acura RL was competent but bland to look at and even less exciting to drive. The second-generation RL that came out for 2005 was a step in the right direction, thanks to a more sporting personality. But even with a trick all-wheel-drive system and wealth of high-tech features, it was still seen more as a dour Pete Sampras than a mullet-man Agassi.
For 2009, Acura is trying again with a heavily revised version of the RL. On the docket is freshened styling, including completely new front and rear ends, a more powerful engine, revised suspension tuning, a quicker-responding AWD system and new features such as traffic rerouting for the navigation system, a USB port for the excellent Bose audio system, improved voice recognition capability and active front head restraints.
The new styling, which Acura says is meant to give the car a more aggressive look, hasn't been much of a hit with our staff. But if you can get past the bagel-slicer grille and bustle-back trunk lid, the new RL has a lot to offer. The new, larger (3.7-liter vs. 3.5-liter) V6 now hits the 300-horsepower mark, and it comes matched to a quicker-responding five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift control, the latter done via steering-wheel-mounted paddles. Acura's Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH-AWD) system, which enhances handling by sending more power to the outside rear wheel to push the car around a turn, has also been modified for quicker reflexes. There's also a slightly freshened cabin, firmer suspension tuning and bigger tires (18-inch versus the previous 17-inchers).
All told, the 2009 Acura RL continues to be a very smart choice for luxury sport sedan consumers focused on value. We're fond of it, especially since similarly equipped competitors from Audi, BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz can cost upwards of $10,000 more than the Acura. But even with this year's changes, the RL still lags behind much of the competition in terms of prestige. A V8 engine isn't available, and this Acura is going to have a hard time displacing something like a 550i when it comes time to valet. Image isn't actually everything, but for many buyers, it certainly comes close.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2009 Acura RL is a midsize luxury sedan available in three trim levels: RL, RL Technology Package and the eloquently named RL Technology Package with CMBS. The base RL comes very well stocked, with 18-inch alloy wheels, xenon headlights, 10-way power and heated front seats with driver memory settings, leather upholstery, a sunroof, a keyless ignition, Bluetooth connectivity, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls and a 10-speaker Bose surround-sound system with a six-disc CD/DVD-audio changer, satellite radio and both a USB port and an auxiliary audio jack.
The Technology Package adds adaptive headlights, a rearview camera, a GPS-linked and solar-sensing climate-control system, AcuraLink real-time weather reporting, a navigation system (with real-time traffic and traffic rerouting capabilities), ventilated front seats and voice-command functionality for climate, audio and navigation functions. The CMBS package adds adaptive cruise control, real wood instrument-panel trim and Acura's Collision Mitigation Braking System technology (hence its name).
Powertrains and Performance
The sole engine available in the RL is a 3.7-liter V6 that produces 300 hp and 271 pound-feet of torque. This allows a 0-60 time in the 6-second range, just above par for six-cylinder large luxury sedans. A five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift control sends power to the SH-AWD system. That system has the ability to send varying degrees of torque to each individual wheel to improve handling and wet-weather traction. In terms of fuel economy, the RL has an EPA rating of 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway and 18 mpg combined, which is a little below average for the V6-powered luxury sedan segment.
Standard safety features include antilock disc brakes with brake assist, front-seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags, active front head restraints and a stability control system. The optional CMBS can help prevent or minimize a frontal accident by providing warnings to the driver or actually applying emergency braking if a collision seems unavoidable.
All RLs get a five-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for front-impact and side-impact safety. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the RL a "Good" rating (the highest possible) in its frontal-offset and side-collision tests.
Interior Design and Special Features
The 2009 Acura RL's interior is beautifully crafted and attractively designed. A swath of convincing or real (depending on trim level) wood trim flows into a neat waterfall center stack that integrates the car's sizable number of electronic functions. This year brings revised climate controls, a new steering wheel (with wood trim on CMBS) and new metallic accents. The standard 10-speaker Bose surround-sound system is so superb that you'd swear Gladys Knight was riding shotgun with the Pips crammed in back.
With the optional Technology package, major functions like audio, climate and navigation systems can be controlled by voice commands, buttons on the steering wheel and dash or a multipurpose control knob and LCD screen. These redundant controls may seem confusing in description, but allow the driver choices in how to access commonly used functions. The trunk measures 13.1 cubic feet in capacity, a somewhat disappointing figure for this class.
The SH-AWD system in the 2009 Acura RL works transparently but very effectively to maintain traction under the worst of circumstances and, along with the newly firmed-up suspension, provide cornering abilities that are more "sports car" than "luxury sedan." Acura's flagship sedan offers a nice balance between a cushy ride and competent handling and, as a result, makes an excellent everyday luxury sport sedan.