In Search of Style
Enter the refreshed 2009 Acura RL CMBS and you'll find a tasteful luxury environment, class-leading telematics and a host of driver-assist systems like CMBS (Collision Mitigation Braking System). Drive it and you'll be even more impressed, as the 2009 RL also has great dynamic qualities thanks to a new, free-revving 300-horsepower 3.7-liter V6, high-tech all-wheel drive and a superb balance between ride and handling.
But in the luxury segment, styling more than anything is what moves cars off the showroom floor, and that's where the RL falls on its buck-toothed face.
Acura's styling recently took a metaphorical turn into oncoming traffic with the MDX and TSX, and the whole big-and-bold grille thing has done the new RL no favors. Fang-face is not exactly an endearing descriptor.
And it's a shame, because not only does the 2009 Acura RL have a nice, luxurious interior, but also a few qualities that make it feel downright racy. The new RL is a Super Accord no more, yet it still lacks style, which is the very thing its competition does best.
Take It to the Limit
We're not accustomed to talking about power where the RL is concerned, but there's a new 3.7-liter V6 under the new car's hood and it does not disappoint. Aside from the increase in displacement to 3.7 liters from 3.5 liters, the new V6 has Honda's VTEC variable valve timing for intake and exhaust valves.
It's rated at 300 hp at 6,300 rpm, the kind of peak power you expect from an Acura engine. Torque is rated at 271 pound-feet at 5,000 rpm, which leads you to think that this engine will lack low-end power just like so many other Honda V6s, but it pulls strongly from the bottom end right on up to the redline at 6,800 rpm. The transmission plays a role here, as it doesn't try to shift into top gear every second for the sake of improved fuel economy.
This five-speed automatic's ratios are well spaced (though five speeds aren't many in an era when luxury cars have seven and even eight speeds), and the engine spins freely as you flick up through the gears using the shift paddles on the steering wheel. If you leave it in Sport mode, the transmission will hold each gear all the way to redline. It's fun to spin the engine up to the 6,800-rpm rev limit in every gear, focusing on the cartoonish tach that looks as if it were lifted off a Civic, and listening to the racy engine growl and exhaust note. You wouldn't do this with any of the RL's luxury competitors; what would be the point?
But the feeling of quick acceleration isn't supported by the test track numbers, where the 2009 Acura RL recorded a 0-60-mph time of 7.2 seconds (6.8 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip), and 15.3 seconds at 92.8 mph for the quarter-mile. For comparison, the 2009 Hyundai Genesis V6 accelerates to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds (6.1 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and does the quarter-mile in 14.6 seconds at 95.6 mph.
Shod With SH-AWD
The RL is equipped with Acura's sophisticated Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) system; there's no front- or rear-drive version. The system continuously varies the amount of engine torque distributed between the front and rear wheels, an obvious performance advantage in slippery conditions. The SH-AWD system also has a torque vectoring component that overdrives the outside rear wheel at a faster speed to generate a yaw moment, which helps rotate the vehicle sufficiently in a corner to reduce understeer.
We didn't get to experience the benefits of AWD in any low-traction circumstances here in sunny SoCal, though it's surely an advantage out there in real America, especially during the winter. Even so, we couldn't find a discernible advantage with SH-AWD in the dry.
The 2009 Acura RL seems as if it has a fairly neutral balance in the corners during normal driving, and feels quicker than its weight and size would suggest, but it does understeer as you push harder. At the track, the RL posts a very good slalom run of 64.1 mph, although it doesn't really like quick transitions. Our test driver found it best to enter the slalom at moderate speed and then gradually apply more throttle through to the finish. The RL posts a respectable 0.82g on the skid pad.
Putting Your Foot Through the Floor
The brake performance proves a bit mixed. During everyday driving, the brakes had good control with a firm feel and a short stroke, and decent stopping distances. But the track was a different story.
Although the RL stopped in 131 feet from 60 mph, there was severe fade on the third attempt as the pedal went to the floor without even any ABS pulsing. For comparison, the 2009 Genesis V6 came to a stop in 117 feet.
Braking performance seems to be an issue with Acura, as the 2009 TSX also exhibited dramatic fade, and the pads were smoking by the third stop.
Open the Pod Bay Doors, HAL
Acura continues the march toward autonomous driving with its Collision Mitigation Braking System (CMBS), its own trim level within the 2009 Acura RL line. CMBS uses millimeter-wave radar mounted inside the front grille to detect vehicles ahead, monitor potential rear-end collisions, warn the driver and initiate automatic braking.
CMBS has three operating modes. If you're following another vehicle too closely and the RL determines a collision is possible, a big visual alert in the bottom of the speedometer dial flashes "BRAKE," along with auditory beeps. If you do not slow down, the CMBS will tug at the driver's seatbelt and begin light braking. If CMBS determines that a frontal collision is unavoidable, the slack in the front seatbelts will be taken up and strong brake force will be automatically applied.
Tailgaters can rejoice, because there is a CMBS defeat switch just below the tachometer. But when you rear-end another car on the freeway, just remember to turn the CMBS back on before the Highway Patrol and your insurance adjuster arrive.
CMBS also includes the increasingly common adaptive cruise control (ACC), which uses the millimeter-wave radar to adjust speed and distance to the preceding vehicle. When driving the RL on the highway, you may not ever have to touch the pedals, but please do anyway.
The Enemy From Within
When Acura first entered the market as the pioneer of the Japanese luxury car segment ahead of Lexus and Infiniti, it positioned itself as Japan's answer to BMW, a driver's luxury car, only with reliability added to the equation. But as Acura trailed in the wake of Lexus, the Honda luxury division shifted its focus to advanced technology and electronics. Yet this hasn't improved RL sales, as the company moved just 6,262 examples in 2007.
While we think the 2009 Acura RL is really accomplished in terms of dynamic performance, it still occupies the bottom rung of the luxury car ladder in terms of style and panache. Styling has become increasingly important in all car segments — even determining many engineering decisions during the design phase — but it's critically important in the luxury class. Acura has tried to turn the RL around with more aggressive styling, but it comes off looking like a TSX nose grafted onto an Accord with a body kit.
The greatest threat to the success of the 2009 Acura RL comes internally from Acura: the 2009 Acura TL. The TL is very similar in dimensions and weighs a few hundred pounds less. The TL SH-AWD has the same engine as the RL (making slightly more horsepower) and the same SH-AWD drivetrain and is available with nearly all the advanced telematics as the RL. The only things missing are wood trim and CMBS. You get all this for $10,000 less than the RL.
Despite this makeover, the big story will be the styling and design of the next RL. Will it look great and feature a V8 and rear-wheel drive? Acura needs to make a game-changing shift in strategy, because we're not doubling down our bet on the new RL's success.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.