Honda built its reputation in America on its reliable, economical little Civic. The Acura brand was Honda's way of stretching into the luxury car field, and they have successfully done so for 20 years. We take it for granted today, but luxury Japanese cars were unknown in America until the mid 1980s, when Acura introduced the Legend. Today, Honda's finest car is called simply called the Acura RL.
And what a car it is. The early Civics had as little as 60 horsepower, but the RL gives you 290-the most powerful engine ever offered in an Acura, including the NSX supercar. Typical for a Honda/Acura product, this powerplant is certified as an ultra low emission vehicle (ULEV), and is rated at 18 mpg City, 26 Highway (I averaged 18.7 mpg-using premium). Power is plentiful, which is good, because the competing Japanese and German luxury brands offer V8s in their flagship sedans, and Acura doesn't.
Luxury is many things, and to Acura, it means clean, elegant styling, top quality materials, exquisite fit-and-finish, and, of course, lots and lots of high technology. My Opulent Blue Pearl test car, with its optional Technology Package, was packed with it.
Leather seats and real wood highlight a dramatically styled cabin, with dash and console shapes evoking fine furniture and top-of-the-line audio gear. The richly textured vinyl, handsome leather, and matte black instrument areas contrast with the satin metal finished vertical center console. With soft gray background accents, the controls are very pleasant to use and are well laid out. The pushbuttons are big enough, and dials are easy to grasp.
I liked the way the instrument panel gauges seem to float over their backgrounds. I also enjoyed the Keyless Access System. You can keep the key fob in your pocket while opening the door and starting the car, and even when you open the trunk.
Of course there are all the niceties expected of a luxury car, such as dual-zone automatic climate control, electronic tilt and telescoping steering wheel with audio controls, and the full spectrum of audio entertainment to go with them. My tester had much more to offer, though.
How about the Super Handling All-Wheel Drive System (SH-AWD)? Many all-wheel-drive cars switch torque from the front axle to the rear and so on, but SH-AWD regulates it from left to right, too. I never noticed it working, but you can see a graphic display on the instrument panel that shows where the traction is going. Just don't forget to watch the road!
Some cars have navigation systems, usually as an expensive option. The RL's standard system has voice recognition, with 560 commands available. It's like being the captain of a starship (Warp 5, Scotty!). The AcuraLink system also uses traffic information from XM Radio to display flow and accident information for 22 major metropolitan areas. The car's hands-free wireless interface lets you talk directly to the folks at Acura in case of mechanical or other problems. The HandsFreeLink wireless telephone interface gives you access to hands-free conversation if your phone is Bluetooth enabled.
Virtually every car has a sound system, but the RL boasts a premium 10-speaker Acura/BOSE DVD-Audio system. The surround sound recreates a concert venue, and Acura says the sound resolution is better than a CD. It makes me wonder what happens if you're playing a CD.
Most cars today offer cruise control, but Acura goes one better. Their Adaptive Cruise Control system can compensate for varying traffic flow. The system automatically adjusts the speed by applying the throttle and brakes so you always maintain the same distance between you and the car in front. It can feel a little eerie to have the car take over, but you won't be surprised when the guy you're following hits the brakes.
Every car has brakes, but the RL gets the Collision Mitigation Braking System (CMBS) when you spring for the Technology Package. CMBS uses radar inside the grille to measure the distance and closing rate between you and the vehicle ahead and assesses if a crash is likely. The system goes through three stages, starting with warnings, then, if it's more severe, with actually braking the car. The third stage assumes that a crash is inevitable, so it pulls the seatbelts tight and stomps on the brakes for you with full force.
Run flat tires fill out the safety feature list, along with a full collection of airbags. The RL gets the top rating in all categories in Government crash tests-a rare honor.
If there is any disappointment at all, it's in the RL's styling. The sedan is handsome from every angle, but nothing in the design inspires passion. The look doesn't stand out, and certainly gives little clue to all the splendid style, comfort, and technology that's aboard the car.
The RL comes without the Technology package for $49,300 and with it at $53,100. You get a six-year, 70,000-mile powertrain warranty, and much more, including a free year of the OnStar system and XM Satellite Radio.
If you want to travel in exquisite luxury with plenty of power but keep it a private pleasure, the Acura RL does it all while blending in with the crowd. Let's hope the cops won't notice you either.