Nearly 15 years into our experiment of living in Los Angeles, we still don't know our way around this city. Forget about asking the natives (who are often even more hopeless than we are). We've got a 2014 Acura RLX Advance.
Entering an address into the RLX's navigation system makes us happy. There's a touchscreen that responds with tactile feedback when our fingertips hit it. Or, if we don't feel like typing, we just spin and push the standard Acura multifunction control dial as we would in a TL or TSX. And sometimes we just use our hands for driving and tell the car where we want to go. Most of the time, its voice control interface gets what we're saying.
The fact that the Acura RLX offers this kind of redundancy does not make it special among midsize luxury sedans. But judged for sheer ease of use, and the likelihood that you'll rarely ever have to crack open the owner's manual, the RLX's nav system ranks among the best in this class.
Of course, you practically expect a brand-new flagship to dominate its competition. But apart from its extraordinarily user-friendly cabin electronics, the 2014 Acura RLX poses little threat to the big-name luxury sedans you already have on your short list.
The Price Isn't Small
Lack of name recognition is one of many challenges ahead for the 2014 Acura RLX. It's the successor to the RL, an interesting but unloved luxury sedan that Acura couldn't give away by the end of its model run. Whereas the RL was all-wheel-drive only, the RLX will be offered with both front-wheel drive and AWD. The AWD version is going to be pretty radical: a 370-horsepower hybrid sedan with Version 2.0 of SH-AWD and a claimed 30 mpg EPA combined rating. It goes on sale in late 2013.
Until then, Acura will sell you a front-drive RLX with a conventional V6 engine in one of five trim levels. The base model starts at $49,345, but if you want the nav system, plus all the high-end audio and safety tech Acura has to offer, you'll find your way to an Advance model like this one, which costs $61,345.
That puts the 2014 Acura RLX in the same price territory as nicely equipped versions of the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, Lexus GS 350 and Mercedes-Benz E350. Acura's top luxury sedan has all the right amenities to compete with these cars. None of them can match its sense of space, either, as generous real-world legroom and shoulder room make the RLX feel more full-size than midsize.
These rivals have set the benchmarks for how a modern $60K luxury sedan should behave on the road, though, and the 2014 Acura RLX doesn't hit them.
More Fuel-Efficient V6
The Acura RLX's 3.5-liter V6 engine is a tempting target for criticism, simply because it's smaller than the 3.7-liter V6 in the old RL. But on the basis of efficiency alone, the 3.5-liter represents a significant upgrade.
It's the first Acura V6 with direct injection, a change that allowed the engineers to bump up compression from 11.2:1 to 11.5. Horsepower is up to 310 at 6,500 rpm (up from 300), while the torque curve remains largely the same, peaking at 272 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm. The engine also uses the automaker's Variable Cylinder Management (VCM) technology, allowing it to cut fuel and close the intake and exhaust valves on half its cylinders in low-load situations.
The results speak for themselves in the fuel economy department: The EPA rates the 2014 RLX at 20 mpg city/31 mpg highway and 24 mpg combined. Among six-cylinder midsize luxury sedans, only the BMW 535i (21 city/30 highway/24 combined) matches that. Our test car averaged 23 mpg even in 878 miles of testing, with a best run of 25.5 mpg over 398 miles (easily achieved with an 18.5-gallon tank).
But there's no denying that the RLX lacks the low-end punch of the forced-induction engines in the 535i and A6. In Acura tradition, power builds as you gather revs and the engine remains satisfyingly smooth. This is not a slow car. But with its 6.5-second 0-60-mph time (or 6.2 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and 14.6-second quarter-mile (at 97.1 mph) times, it's slower than the elite sedans in this price range.
The A6 is by far the quickest (4.9-second 0-60, 13.6-second quarter-mile), while the 535i and GS 350 hold a half-second advantage over the Acura in a quarter-mile drag race. The RLX is marginally quicker than the AWD 2013 Lincoln MKZ we tested (6.7 seconds to 60, 14.8-second quarter-mile) and has a comfortable advantage over the 2013 Cadillac XTS AWD (7.3, 15.5), though the Caddy also outweighs it by 300 pounds.
Gets You to Work in Peace
You're not likely to find fault with the 2014 Acura RLX's standard-issue six-speed automatic transmission on the way to work. Upshifts feel smooth and sophisticated as you accelerate up to speed on highway on-ramps, and the transmission downshifts with sufficient haste when you're ready to pass (plus, there are paddle shifters on the steering wheel if you simply can't wait).
Our one complaint about this six-speed automatic is that its Sport mode isn't practical to use during a normal commute: It locks out 6th gear and often keeps the engine spinning for no good reason in stop-and-go traffic. It's disappointing, because throttle response feels more linear in Sport and downshifts are rev-matched.
This is a fleeting annoyance, though, amidst the peace and quiet of the RLX's cockpit. Acuras aren't known for serenity, but the 2014 RLX is significantly quieter than the competition at wide-open throttle and a 70-mph cruise.
Part of the credit goes to the active engine mounts and active noise cancellation system (the latter is a measure to keep you from hearing the VCM system transition the engine to three-cylinder mode). At startup, you'd never guess this V6 is direct injected, because unlike many D.I. engines, it doesn't idle like a UPS truck (at least not to the naked human ear).
Meanwhile, driving aids like all-speed adaptive cruise control, a blind spot warning system and a lane keeping assist system work exactly as you'd expect. Still, we'd like to see the Honda Accord's excellent Lane Watch system make it to the Acura line, because a camera image of vehicles in your blind spot is more useful than an LED on the A-pillar.
Handles Decently, But the Ride Isn't Alright
Ride quality is the 2014 Acura RLX's greatest failing. It doesn't matter which route we take: The RLX never finds that perfect medium between compliance and composure unless we're driving on freshly poured asphalt. The 245/40R19 98Y Michelin Primacy MXM4 all-season tires on our RLX Advance model crash over ruts in the city, while less than optimal damping gives the car a bouncy, almost buoyant feel as it crests freeway expansion joints. (Eighteen-inch tires are standard on the lower trim levels, and it's possible they might improve the ride.)
We might forgive some of the harshness around town if the RLX showed some athleticism on twisty back roads, but that's not its thing, either. The electric-assist power steering is precise and responds crisply to inputs, but the rest of the car is in no hurry to change direction. As you've heard, the RLX has a rear steering feature (known as Precision All-Wheel Steer, or P-AWS). It provides subtle benefits on a road like Mulholland Highway, tidying up the big front-driver's cornering line, but it's not magic and there's no payoff in pushing beyond a comfortably brisk pace. If you like to drive, you'll prefer the sharper-handling 535i, A6 or GS 350.
These sedans also laid down better handling numbers at our test track. In fairness, the A6 and GS 350 owe their impressive slalom and skid pad numbers to their stickier summer tires, but a rear-drive 535i on all-season rubber managed better numbers (64.9 mph through the slalom, 0.84g on the skid pad) than our front-drive RLX (63.3 mph, 0.82g).
The RLX's 120-foot braking distance from 60 mph is average for this class, but as is too often the case with Acuras, the brakes get smelly and the pedal softens after repeated stops.
Cabin Needs More Flair
Of course, we've never heard an Acura owner complain that his car can't keep up with a BMW 5 Series. Not everyone needs a Bimmer. Not everyone needs rear-wheel drive. But one thing that made the old RL special when it came out for 2005 was its sophisticated interior. All-in-one control interfaces were still in their infancy back then, but Acura managed to pull it all together in a design that really felt cutting-edge.
And in spite of how well everything works inside the 2014 Acura RLX (though we've yet to try the three cloud-based Acura Link apps that weren't active during our test), it doesn't have the appealing futuristic vibe of its predecessor. Part of the problem is that the RLX's 7-inch touchscreen and the 8-inch map display above it don't look they belong in the same dash. Plus, the 8-inch screen is the same size, aspect ratio and resolution as the map display in the Accord. It doesn't look high-end enough for the Acura flagship.
Materials quality is good in the 2014 RLX. But if we're being picky, neither the leather upholstery nor the wood trim has that no-expense-spared feel you get in any of the German sedans. The metal speaker enclosures for the Krell audio system look fantastic, though. And the fit and finish in our preproduction test car is excellent.
You Can Do Better
If user-friendly technology is critically important to you in a premium-brand midsize sedan, you should give some thought to the 2014 Acura RLX. This is the sort of car that's going to reliably reconnect to your smartphone every time you start it up. You're never going to get confused programming the nav system and you're always going to able to play the Baseball Tonight podcast.
However, if you're less concerned about cabin electronics and more interested in driving, there are better midsize luxury sedans out there. For similar money, you could have one of the German sedans or a GS 350 that offers better acceleration, handling and, most importantly, ride quality. You could also buy a loaded Cadillac XTS or Hyundai Genesis for quite a bit less.
We have little doubt that the upcoming Acura RLX Sport Hybrid SH-AWD will be more engaging to drive than this RLX, but in the meantime, Acura is going to have a tough time keeping its flagship on customers' radar.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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