Acura released the launch plan and pricing details for the 2014 RLX last week, and we've noticed the information seems to have created a bit of heartburn within the TOV community ranks. In short, we feel that this could be a bit of an overreaction, as this is -- (and here we go again...) -- yet another case where waiting to drive the car before casting final judgement is probably the most prudent course of action.
As a refresher, the RLX will come in two basic flavors - front-wheel-drive with PAWS (Precision-All-Wheel-Steering) or "later in 2013", the Sport Hybrid AWD model, which will feature Honda's first 3-motor hybrid setup, coupled to a 7-speed dual clutch transmission. Both vehicles will be motivated by the same all-new 3.5-liter SOHC VTEC V6 engine with direct injection. This latest version of Honda's venerable J-series V6 engine family develops 310hp and 272lb-ft of torque. Pricing starts at $48,450 for the base RLX and tops out at $60,450 for the fully kitted out PAWS Advance model.
Last year at the New York Auto Show, Acura rolled out an RLX concept with a full interior mockup, one of the few concepts in which we were actually able to sit inside the vehicle. This was to demonstrate the RLX's stretched rear-seat legroom. In concept form, it looked nice and upscale. Acura rolled out the production RLX at the 2012 Los Angeles Auto Show, but as we skipped the LA Show, our first experience with the production RLX came at last week's North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Based purely upon this static impression of the car, we can understand why people are a little bit underwhelmed by what the RLX seems to represent at the price point.
The New York concept interior was fairly impressive to us. The production version falls a little bit short of our hopes, however. It's a very nice design but some of the materials don't quite seem to be up to the standards of a $50k+ Acura. The best part of the RLX's interior is the limo-like rear seat legroom, a huge upgrade from the current RL.
Perhaps compounding matters, the RLX's anonymous exterior styling doesn't beg for many second looks. "Understated" is an understatement. With that said, "Understated" in and of itself isn't a bad thing in this class. In fact, Acura has tried the other way (ahem, 2009 TL), with little success, and perhaps a small degree of embarrassment, so we're fine with the RLX's muted demeanor. It's just that it doesn't quite pull it all together in a way that a car like the Audi A6 takes an incredibly basic design yet manages to project an image of class and polish.
As the saying goes, beauty is only skin deep, however. In the very near future, we will have our first opportunity to drive the 2014 Acura RLX, but we won't be able to tell you anything about that drive until mid-February. However, two months ago we were fortunate to have had an early preview of the RLX's new Sport Hybrid AWD (with 7-speed DCT transmission) and (front-wheel-drive) Precision All Wheel Steer™ system (PAWS) technologies via a special preview drive hosted in Japan at the (November) 2012 Honda Meeting in Tochigi.
At this meeting, we drove a pair of technology demonstration mules, which were based upon 8th generation Accords, each modified to house the RLX's new engine, transmission and chassis technologies. Obviously there will be some differences between these mules and the actual production RLX but it provided a great opportunity to preview the RLX's new technologies. We were told that dynamically, the RLX feels very similar to how these mules drove. We really hope that is actually true, because both of these test mules were quite impressive.
Precision All Wheel Steering
The front-wheel-drive RLX will pair the 3.5L V6 engine with a 6-speed automatic transmission. It will also feature Honda's trick new Precision All Wheel Steer™ system. All-wheel-steering isn't anything new to the automotive industry - Honda, Nissan, Toyota and even GM (on their pickups) have all offered four wheel steer systems in the past. The last time Honda offered it in the US market, was on the 4th generation Prelude, nearly 20 years ago. The 4WS Prelude is one of the few Honda models that I've never personally had the opportunity to drive.
Acura's PAWS system is fully integrated with the vehicle's EPS (Electric Power Steering) and Acura's highly intelligent Vehicle Stability Assist (VSA) systems, offering an unprecedented degree of control. PAWs utilizes precision electric actuators in the rear toe control links to independently effect toe changes of several degrees. Honda claims that this independent left/right rear control of toe is a world first.
With fully independent control of the toe of each wheel, Acura can optimize responses to various scenarios. For example, in a low speed parking lot setting, to minimize steering radius, the front and rear wheel toe angles can be operated in reverse phase. For high speed lane changes, the front and rear operate in the same phase, optimizing stability. During hard braking, the rear wheels can be toed in to optimize stability during deceleration. Honda claims that this is the first All-Wheel-Steering system to be able to offer this.
Quick Drive Impressions
Acura granted four laps in each test vehicle to get a feel for the PAWS and Sport Hybrid AWD systems on their Short Winding Road Course at the proving grounds in Tochigi. The first car I sampled was the PAWS-equipped Accord mule. Immediately I was impressed by the new Earth Dreams V6. It felt very much like a current (non-VCM) J35, only with noticeably more midrange punch and top end pull. The 6AT felt responsive and quick, and the gear ratios felt so ideally spaced that for a moment I thought I was driving the DSG-equipped Sport Hybrid. Further adding to this initial confusion was the way the car responded to steering input on the first turn.
It would be dishonest to say that this car felt like a rear wheel drive car but it cornered like no other FF (front-engined, front-drive) luxury vehicle I have ever driven.
I made it a point to drive rather foolishly through some of the more challenging parts of the track, just to feel how the system responded. To say the least, I was quite impressed. While the test cars wore a sticky set of 19" Michelin Pilot Sport 3 tires, what impressed me the most about the car wasn't the grip, but more about how tossable and poised it remained out on this handling loop, especially considering the fact that it's a luxury car. At times when I felt the car was drifting a little wide of the intended arc, I simply dialed in a bit more steering lock (and even some throttle) and to my surprise, rather than plowing even worse, it dutifully tightened the line. It was actually quite a bit of fun to drive on the winding road course, much more fun that I anticipated a 2-ton FWD luxury sedan to be.
There was one segment of the track where I was able to sense what seemed like a little bit of a glitch in the rear phase change logic, but it was very, very minor. I was able to repeat the glitch on 3 of the laps, however, so I reported it to the engineers and they assured me it would be corrected. Basically I was feeling just a little bit of a step out while transitioning from to a left hand corner coming out of a hard right hand corner under full throttle. It will be interesting to see if the production car is able to cure this glitch.
Sport Hybrid All-Wheel-Drive
Next up was the Sport Hybrid All-Wheel-Drive test mule. Acura has labeled it "Sport Hybrid" for a number of reasons. The most obvious part of the name is the "Hybrid" part: the RLX has a battery pack, and 3 electric motors providing propulsion and regeneration services. Pretty simple. The "Sport" comes in via the punchy 3.5L V6 and 7-speed dual clutch transmission (which houses the largest of the 3 motor/generators). It may not be the fastest luxury sedan on the road, but I doubt few people will complain. As we've recently discovered, an 2013 Accord V6 sedan is capable of pumping out 0-60 times in the mid 5-second range, and it would be a bit of a surprise if the all-wheel-drive $60000 RLX can't top that. One of the engineers indicated to me that while Acura claims a system output of 370hp for the RLX SH-AWD, the real number is probably closer to 400hp. With that in mind, we're thinking the 0-60 times should end up in the 5.0 second range. That is a pretty good number, but when you consider the 30mpg combined fuel economy number, it probably sounds even more impressive.
As you can imagine, the DCT (dual clutch transmission) shifts seamlessly and the selection of ratios along with the V6's fat torque curve means that you're unlikely to find yourself in any sort of unexpected power hole, under any foreseeable circumstance. One of the downsides of conventional DCTs is that it is basically an automated manual transmission, with a robotic clutch actuation. Once the car is underway, a typical DCT's shift quality is pretty close to perfect (as there is essentially no "shift shock" by virtue of the dual clutch design), but where conventional DCTs come up short is at lower speeds. At parking lot speeds, conventional DCTs tend to be a little jerky with clutch engagement/disengagement. The RLX's setup is almost the perfect answer for this, as Honda basically gets the car moving (at least for the first few mph) exclusively under electric power, then if more power is needed, the engine fires and the clutch engages imperceptibly, giving a very strong sense of thrust with all systems putting power to the axles. This gives the Sport Hybrid setup a level of refinement that is unparalleled in the world of DCTs.
From a handling perspective, Sport Hybrid All-Wheel-Drive raises the bar for Acura's luxury division. There are two critical design advantages of Acura's Sport Hybrid AWD system: 1) With electric motors on the rear axles, full torque is available basically instantaneously and 2) Left/Right torque split on the rear axle remains completely independent, but thanks to the electric motors, a NEGATIVE torque component can be introduced, and in fact to achieve this, the motor switches into a regeneration mode and actually generates power which can be delivered to the opposite (typically outside) axle. This conservation of energy contributes to the RLX's fuel sipping ways, but the icing on the cake is that the RLX swivels about its center axis in a very pleasing manner. It was a lot of fun to dive in to a turn and then just stand on the throttle while the AWD and VSA systems sorted out the details. The cool thing was that this system even generated a fair amount of oversteer feel if you really pushed it. While the Sport Hybrid AWD RLX will certainly weigh more than its PAWS counterpart, on this short winding road circuit it was very difficult to sense the system's added mass.
While we haven't (yet) driven a production RLX, we came away very impressed with the driving dynamics of the technology mules that we drove in Japan. If the RLX delivers a level of dynamics that are comparable to what we sampled during the technology preview drive in Japan, the RLX will represent a significant upgrade over the current RL. It's much roomier, much quicker, better handling, and more efficient than the outgoing model. Sadly, Acura's flagship sedan hasn't been relevant since the Legend nameplate departed the lineup. The question is, will the RLX be good enough to make Acura's flagship sedan relevant once again?