By Carol Traeger, Tue, 10 May 2005 08:00:00 PDT
When Honda launched Acura in 1986, it fired the first salvo in the Asian assault on the U.S. luxury-car market. One decade later, Honda's luxury brand found itself overshadowed by the more distinctively styled and V8-powered offerings of Lexus and Infiniti.
With the introduction of its snappy 2004 TL and the all-new 2005 RL flagship, Acura has revitalized the nameplate and put its competitors on notice. In January, Acura celebrated its 16th consecutive record-breaking sales month. January also marked the third month in a row that the 2005 RL set a new monthly sales record, exceeding last January's RL sales by 203 percent.
The previous RL was a fine car, but it wasn't one to set hearts racing. With its last redesign dating back to 1996, the 2004 RL was a dusty dinosaur: blandly styled, underpowered, and easy to overlook.
For 2005, Acura has imbued its flagship with 'tude. The RL's stylish wedge-shaped body is a refreshing departure from the humdrum designs that have emerged from Acura for years. My RL test car attracted more appreciative looks and queries than any other Acura in memory. A former owner of an Acura Legend (remember those?) approached me one day to pepper me with questions about the "great looking" RL.
First 300-hp Acura. Unlike most luxury sedans the RL doesn't have a V8, but Acura's engineers managed to squeeze 300 horsepower from the all-new 3.5-liter V6 (up from the previous RL's 225 hp), making this the most powerful Acura ever. The engine is joined to a five-speed automatic transmission with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters for manual operation.
First Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) system. The RL boasts the first all-wheel-drive system that not only shuttles torque between the front and rear wheels, but sends extra power to the outside rear wheel during fast cornering to enhance handling, stability and steering feel. During straight-line cruising and moderate cornering, up to 70 percent of the torque goes to the front wheels. During heavy acceleration, up to 70 of the torque is sent to the rear wheels.
First standard real-time traffic. The RL is the first North American vehicle to offer standard real-time traffic information. Utilizing XM Satellite Radio's "XM NavTraffic" service, the RL's navigation screen displays up-to-the-minute traffic information, including traffic speed, accidents, and construction on freeways in 20 major metro areas. The continuously updated flow and accident information enables drivers to take the least congested route to their destination.
Four inches shorter (in wheelbase and length) than its predecessor, the new RL is a much bigger car in terms of power, performance and hedonistic interior amenities. The RL is offered in one trim level (loaded). There are no options because everything is standard, including: a navigation system with real-time traffic and voice recognition; glove-leather seats, real maple wood trim, 10-speaker sound system with six-disc CD and DVD-audio player; OnStar telematics, keyless entry and start system; dual-zone climate control; HandsFreeLink wireless phone interface; power moonroof and rear sunshade; rear side sunshades, and all the safety features you can shake a stick at.
Three days isn't enough time to partake of all the RL's pleasures, but the features I did use -- the navigation system and audio system - proved superb. Interior comfort, design and ergonomics are outstanding, and a new control knob makes the navigation system the world's user-friendliest.
The RL drives like a dream. The steering is quick and accurate, the suspension is firm, the 17-inch tires are grippy, and outside noise is subdued. The engine is strong and silent, though not quite as punchy for passing as a V8.
In all respects, the RL is a winner. It seems Acura has finally produced a flagship that not only meets, but exceeds, the Legend's promise.
2005 Acura RL, an all-wheel-drive, 4-door, 5-passenger luxury sedan. Base price: $49,470
V6 not as pass-happy as a V8
Sharp exterior, elegant interior, smooth and quiet ride, "Super-Handling" AWD, navigation with real-time traffic, intuitive controls, cornucopia of standard features