2009 Acura RL Review
By Chris Haak
Acura launched the current generation RL flagship sedan for the 2005 model year and had great expectations for the car. It combined an engine that was then rated at 300 horsepower, all wheel drive, pretty much all of the technology that a luxury car buyer could want, including navigation, DVD audio, satellite radio, Bluetooth, surround sound, adaptive cruise control, and nearly every safety feature out there. Unfortunately for Acura, the RL was never able to crack onto most premium car buyers’ shopping lists, with its front wheel drive little brother, the 2004-2008 TL, taking up most of the RL’s potential sales in an arguably better-styled package. Critics also lampooned the RL for offering only a V6 engine while competitors at its price point had optional V8s, for cramped accommodations in its Accord-based cabin, and a relative lack of brand prestige. I personally wish the RL were still called the Acura Legend. That was a good name for a car.
Now, Acura – the first luxury division of a Japanese nameplate to be sold in the US, starting way back in 1986 – has committed to boosting its prestige to Tier One luxury status – to the equivalent of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Lexus. At this point, it’s not at that level, with the work to be done at the top of the house in terms of reaching upward into more expensive segments such as building competitors to the 7-series and S-Class, since Acura’s lower-end offerings and crossovers are generally well-regarded. The stillborn Acura NSX supercar would have certainly helped Acura in this regard, but the global financial crisis has killed that car. Honda has also made some noise about including a V8 offering in the next-generation RL; while most 5-series and E-class sedans I see on the road are of the six-cylinder variety, I believe that having the option of a V8 helps the prestige of those brands, as does having more powerful, more expensive models slotted above them in the lineups. In the meantime, though, Acura has its V6-powered RL, and is sticking with it for a few more years.
The RL received a fairly extensive mid cycle enhancement for the 2009 model year to bring the styling more in line with the family design language. While the car is less bland looking than before, I’m not convinced that the styling changes improve the car’s looks. It’s almost like the the car lost some attractiveness in the interest of spicing up the styling. From a styling standpoint, the TL is a bit more unique (for better or worse) and more modern. The RL looks like like little more than a spruced-up Honda Accord. Its best feature is the tasteful bulge in the front fenders, but the roofline and rear end treatment are fairly pedestrian, and the RL reveals its front wheel drive-based roots through unfashionably long overhangs, particularly in the front. The roofline is fairly low in the back with a dramatic downward slope, and I whacked the side of my head on the edge of the roof when attempting to check out RL’s back seat accommodations.
Inside, the RL has a pleasant design with upscale materials. Soft-touch surfaces abound, and there are some really nice lighting treatments, such as small blue LEDs in the ceiling over the gearshift and over the center rear seating position. Still, the RL’s interior lighting is not as dramatic as, say, the Jaguar XF’s or the Cadillac CTS’s. The gauges were clear and easy to read, with an interesting blue halo near the outside edges (which reminded me of the gauges in several Infiniti products I’ve driven), and controls all had a consistent, nicely-damped feel that Hondas are famous for. Also, nobody can build a car with doors that close as perfectly as Honda does – they don’t rattle, don’t slam, don’t thunk – only a very smooth motion and a solid sound upon closing. Honda has figured out that it’s not just about the way a door closes, but the way it opens, that gives customers the feeling that they’ve purchased a quality product. The thing is, an Accord has the exact same sound and feel when closing the door. The RL, however, has much better acoustic insulation than do lesser Honda-built products, and also has far higher quality leather on the seats. Honda has done some decontenting in the interiors of Honda-branded vehicles, but none of this was apparent in the RL. Another thing that I appreciated about the RL’s interior was the fact that the center console is fairly narrow, which allowed me plenty of room to move my legs without banging against any hard points with my right knee. On the door, the spot where my knee rested was padded – both of these were nice contrasts from the wide center stack and hard plastic touch point that my left knee rests against in cars like the Cadillac CTS. A thoughtful design like this is not something that most folks would be able to notice in a short test drive; indeed, it never occurred to me during my first drive of the Cadillac.
This was my first real-world encounter with Honda’s navigation system, and it left me with mixed feelings. On one hand, the joystick interface is among the easier-to-use joystick-like systems (others being BMW’s iDrive and Audi’s MMI system), but the display resolution was lower than in most modern cars, and it lacked a 3D “bird’s eye” view option as the Nissan, Cadillac CTS, and some other systems now have. It’s almost as if the hardware is a generation or two behind the state of the art in factory navigation systems. However, the software was pretty good – it included XM’s NavTraffic service – and also had a Zagat database for restaurant rankings, allowing you to browse restaurants by price, food quality, atmosphere, and service in a given geographic area, then either call the restaurant for reservations or route you directly to their door. The problem with a static database like this is that the rankings in my 2009 model year tester were from 2007, and without purchasing expensive update DVDs, the information will not stay current. The biggest is that destination entry is permitted while the vehicle is in motion; the biggest minus is that I found the Bluetooth pairing to be impossible without referring to the instructions – generally, that is not necessary in the better systems.
Wet roads and cold weather conspired to keep the RL and me away from my favorite back road loop to push the car’s handling and steering as I like to, but the SH-AWD is a pretty trick system. I had an opportunity to take a 2009 TL with SH-AWD for two laps around a racetrack, and the system does a remarkable job of shifting torque both laterally and fore-aft. The result is that the cars actually do a little better in curves with engine power applied, because the AWD system can push the back end of the car into the proper line by applying extra torque to the outside rear wheel, for example, to neutralize the typical front wheel drive understeer. On wet roads, the RL would not spin its tires from a stop regardless of whether the electronic nannies were activated or not, unless I was turning the wheel while applying power.
Engine power is adequate but not really in abundance. The RL feels fairly heavy, and while the 3.7 liter V6 sounds almost exactly like the 3.0 liter Honda V6 I spent 80,000 miles driving until this past summer, with the exception of a more aggressive exhaust note. I’m absolutely convinced that there is no sweeter V6 sound in the world than a Honda V6 running to its redline – it loves to rev and sounds great – but, again, acceleration wasn’t exactly neck-snapping. Part of the issue is the extra weight of the AWD hardware, and part of the issue is gearing; with just five forward ratios, the RL does not have the ability to offer a lower first gear for snappier acceleration, nor a taller high gear for loafing at highway speeds. Therefore, both acceleration and fuel economy suffer. In fact, I was disappointed by the fuel economy that I observed during my time with the RL; driven similarly, its 15 mpg was worse than similarly-sized AWD cars such as the Lincoln MKZ (18 mpg), Chrysler 300C (17 mpg), and Mercury Sable (16 mpg). The Acura had a smoother powertrain and nicer interior than the Lincoln and Mercury did, but I’d prefer the 300C with its Hemi if I was going to get two miles per gallon better. (I know, different classes of cars, and totally different buyer demographics.) The EPA rates the RL at 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway; the TL (here I go again) is rated at 17/25 with basically the same drivetrain and interior dimensions.
Subjectively, the car felt buttoned down most of the time, but rode a little more softly than I generally prefer (I tend to tolerate a fairly firm ride), but the car is an easy one to drive. Steering feel was very good, especially considering the car’s front wheel drive roots, but I could not get myself to like the narrow steering wheel rim and oddly-placed [apparently genuine] wood trim on it. The garden-variety Accord EX has a steering wheel that feels better in my hand. I didn’t really tax the car’s braking capabilities, but never had trouble slowing down rapidly and under control. My old 2004 Accord EX V6 had some nasty torque steer habits under hard acceleration, but torque steer is completely absent in the all wheel drive RL, in spite of there being a significantly higher torque number under the RL’s hood.
In terms of pricing, the price difference between the TL and RL is really the elephant sitting in the room. Because the all-new 2009 Acura TL has grown, received a larger engine (a 305-horsepower version of the RL’s 300-horsepower 3.7 liter V6), and the same SH-AWD that the RL has, the TL is very much stepping on the RL’s toes. So basically, the TL gives you 90% (or more) of the RL’s content, with more modern (albeit controversial) looks, interior dimensions that are within fractions of an inch in nearly every measurement, in a car that is $8,000 less expensive. It must be nearly impossible to sell an RL – which, by the way, now has almost the same controversial shield grille that the TL also features. Aside from a handful of additional features such as Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) available in the RL but not the TL, the RL really just gives you slightly more horsepower and slightly more technology, better interior materials, and a $54,000 price tag instead of a $40,000 price tag.
All this being said, the RL is still a very good car – but there are a lot of other very good cars out there too. Unfortunately, I drove the TL more than three months ago, so my relative memory is hazy in terms of whether the TL’s interior was as nice as the RL’s; my gut tells me that it was not. The RL is a fairly quick, very smooth car that was nearly rendered obsolete by its cheaper sibling in the new duds. If you’re a luxury or near luxury buyer who wants the most amenities in the Acura lineup and appreciates the engineering excellence of Honda – while perhaps compromising somewhat on prestige and pure performance – the RL might be the car for you. Me, though? I’ll take something a little cheaper or with a bigger engine. I just can’t see this car offering consumers any particularly unique value proposition – luxury, styling, power, performance, prestige – when it competes in a very, very tough segment against an honor roll of outstanding vehicles. We journalists have to grade cars on a curve, but unfortunately for the RL, the top of the class is getting excellent marks, so the curve doesn’t help.
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