The Acura RL is all new for 2005, and it's sleeker, sportier and more fun to drive than last year's model. The RL still uses a V6 engine, but it's much more powerful than before. And while previous RL models were front-wheel drive, the 2005 RL uses all-wheel drive for improved grip and superior stability and to handle the higher horsepower. The new RL offers the responsive handling of a sports sedan yet it rides smoothly.
While the previous-generation RL had become big, bloated and boring, slinking around in the shadows of the Lexus LS430 and Infiniti Q45, the new RL compares quite favorably to BMW, Mercedes and Audi as well as Lexus and Infiniti. It's more fun to drive than a Mercedes E320. And while it may not offer the sporty rear-wheel-drive dynamics of the new BMW 530i, it's right with it on a race track.
Acura's innovative all-wheel-drive system makes the new RL easy to drive and helps keep its driver out of trouble. Called Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive, the system overdrives the outside rear wheel when motoring around corners, improving the handling balance and enhancing stability. It feels solid in corners. It forgives minor driver errors and makes the driver look skilled. And of course it works exceptionally well in adverse weather. Honda's 300-horsepower VTEC V6 provides plenty of power yet the RL is rated 26 mpg on the highway.
The RL is Acura's flagship luxury car. It's more luxurious and slightly larger than the sporty TL. The new 2005 RL is smaller outside but larger inside than last year's previous-generation model.
The 2005 Acura RL ($48,900) is available as one loaded model. No options are available. The navigation system comes standard along with just about every luxury and convenience feature we can think of.
Active safety features include SH-AWD, Vehicle Stability Assist with traction control, anti-lock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist.
Passive safety features include a driver's and front-passenger's dual-stage, dual threshold airbags, side curtain airbags designed to provide head protection for passengers in all outboard seating positions, and side-impact airbags designed to provide torso protection for driver and front passenger with an occupant position detection system for the front passenger. OnStar operators will direct emergency services to your car if the airbags deploy and you don't respond. A tire pressure monitoring system is also standard.
The all-new 2005 Acura RL is actually smaller than the previous-generation model. The new RL is shorter overall and rides on a shorter wheelbase. The track is wider, though. The engine is more compact. That, and other space-efficiency measures, have resulted in a cabin that's roomier than the previous model's. It's a sure sign of improved space efficiency when the outside of the car is smaller but the inside is larger.
The new RL looks sleeker and sportier than the previous model. It's attractive if not interesting. The front end is smooth with nicely integrated bumpers and headlamps. Xenon high-intensity discharge headlamps employ Acura's new Active Front Lighting System, which swivels the headlight beams into corners for better visibility.
From the rear, the RL looks vaguely similar to the newest designs from BMW, which are controversial. Viewed from the side, the trailing edge of the RL is somewhat reminiscent of the 7 Series where the rear deck seems separated from the rear fenders. It's far less pronounced on the Acura, however, and won't rise to the level of a controversy.
The interior of the RL is luxurious and functional. The seats are comfortable for cruising and supportive for hard driving. The wide armrests have a nice soft feel. This is a roomy car, though the back seats don't offer as much room as some of the competition's.
The cabin is finished in handsome leather with attractive stitching. Real wood is used sparingly, tastefully around the cabin and it's not too shiny. Acura says it used the finest materials and exacting attention to detail in the interior design. It shows. The RL's cabin is attractive, comfortable and functional. The biggest nitpick we noted is inconsequential: The cigar lighter cover was reluctant to open on the car we drove, and that was a pre-production model, a car built before the assembly line started.
The display is not a touch screen. Instead, an interface dial is used to control all functions. Positioned on the center stack, in front of the shifter, the dial is rotated like a knob and rocked like a joystick to select among function menus displayed on the navigation screen. Pushing down on the knob selects the highlighted function. Functions controlled by the interface dial include the climate control system, audio, navigation, and the AcuraLink satellite communications system. This interface dial is similar in concept to that of BMW's controversial iDrive, but Acura added redundant buttons on the instrument panel and steering wheel for most of the commonly used functions, making this system easier to use than BMW's. For its part, the interface dial has great feel.
As mentioned, everything described here comes as standard equipment, including the navigation system with voice recognition, which features a large 8-inch screen. The all-new AcuraLink satellite communications system delivers in-car traffic information in real time for major cities. LA has the most mature infrastructure to support this, and it's an impressive feature that could make commuting easier by helping drivers avoid heavily congested areas. Traffic flow is shown by color coding the highways in three levels (flying, normal and forget about it). Unlike radio reports, which just hit the highlights and don't provide detailed instructions for getting around tangles, this system uses data from the highway departments and technology developed by XM Satellite Radio to give the RL driver the level of detail needed to change routes on the fly. The RL is on the leading edge of this technology, and it may prove to be well worth taking the time to fully master this navigation aid.
Even without this newest twist, Acura's navigation systems are perennially among the best available. In the past, we've praised them for their ease of operation, clear instructions, speedy route calculations, and absence of errors. As with all of these systems, there is a learning curve. You'll need to study the owners manual and exercise patience before you can fully master the system and use it to its maximum advantage. Even then, trying to program navigation or other functions while driving is very dangerous; you should pull over, program your destination, get organized, then set out.
OnStar also comes standard. Having OnStar and a navigation system should ensure you are always guided to your destination. Pressing the OnStar button calls up an operator ready to assist you in any way possible, whether you need directions to the nearest gas station or ATM or the best sushi bar in town. OnStar operators can quickly pinpoint your exact location and the direction you're headed and won't hesitate to tell you to turn around. They can unlock the doors should you lock the keys inside. They can direct the police to your car should it be stolen. They will direct emergency crews to you should the airbags go off and you not respond to their calls. We've found most of them cheerful, friendly and engaging, patient, often with a sense of humor, though that isn't always true. Their voice comes through a speaker and you talk to them in normal tones while driving. Your voice is picked up through a microphone and there's no need to use your hands.
Nor must you use your hands for talking on the telephone. The RL is set up to operate with Bluetooth-enabled cell phones, which allows hands-free dialing and communication. The navigation system also features voice recognition. The Keyless Access System further frees you from having to use your fingers by letting you unlock the doors, open the trunk, and start the car without having to dig the keyless remote out of your pocket or purse.
The back seats are comfortable, though they don't offer quite as much space as some of the other cars in this class. Getting into the back seats is eased by rear doors designed to open wide. A retractable rear sunshade filters the sun, nice on bright days. Retractable rear headrests improve rearward visibility when people aren't back there.
The trunk is nicely finished and offers 13 cubic feet of space. The keyless access system prevents locking the key fob in the trunk.
The all-new 2005 Acura RL is much more of a driver's car than last year's model. It handles better. It's tauter, more poised. It grips better in corners, has tauter transient response and stops in shorter distances. The ride is comfortable, firm enough to feel expansion joints but not so firm as to be harsh, and it cruises easily. The cabin is quiet, benefiting from a noise cancellation system that reduces road noise and tire noise but especially boom from the engine exhaust.
Acura's Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive improves the handling of the RL considerably. SH-AWD distributes power not only between the front and rear wheels but also between the left and right rear wheels. This distribution of power can be controlled, and it uses this capability to enhance the handling. Essentially, the system overdrives the outside rear wheel in corners to reduce the understeer that is inherent with all-wheel-drive layouts. (Technonerds: It employs the same principles as the old Honda Prelude SH, only at the rear wheels instead of the front, overdriving them by up to 5 percent.) In short, the RL doesn't plow in corners. It simply motors around them.
We found the system particularly helpful in tight corners where it keeps the nose of the car tucked in. The RL seems to respond well to throttle in the corners. The effects of overdriving one of the rear wheels is most noticeable at competition-level speeds, but the system improves handling feel even at a moderate pace. It feels precise, and the RL goes exactly where you want to go. You get improved handling stability on dry or wet roads. All-wheel drive also brings improved traction and stability on snow and ice. The system is biased to the front. When cruising along, 70 percent of the engine's power goes to the front wheels, and 30 percent goes to the rear wheels. Stand on it, however, and up to 70 percent of the power goes to the rear wheels. That means little or no wheel spin when accelerating.
To compare the handling of the RL, we drove it back to back with some other cars on a winding racing circuit, the new Shenandoah 1.2-mile road course at Summit Point in West Virginia. Of particular note was how the RL compared with a Mercedes E320 4Matic (all-wheel drive). The E320 felt heavy and lethargic, like an old Mercedes. Compared with the Acura, the Mercedes lacked grip and suffered from understeer and slow steering; plus it was hard to modulate brakes and hard to modulate the throttle. A previous-generation RL and a previous-generation Audi A6 were also on hand, and both were hopelessly outclassed by the Acura and BMW, serving as stark examples of the superiority of the latest models over five-year-old designs. (There's an all-new A6 for 2005, but there wasn't one available for this test.)
By far, the stars of this exercise were the Acura RL and BMW 530i. The RL was the easiest of the group to drive, making it the quickest. The 530i felt livelier and more fun with its rear-wheel drive and sports suspension. Whether the BMW would ultimately be quicker in timed lap sessions wasn't clear. What was clear was that the RL was the easiest to push to the limit in unfamiliar corners. The new Acura would be an excellent choice if told to drive as fast as possible over an unfamiliar mountain road, and that would be even more true if the conditions were slippery or unpredictable.
Fortunately, there's plenty of power to go with the RL's excellent handling. Its V6 is the most powerful engine ever in an Acura. The 3.5-liter engine generates 300 horsepower at 6200 rpm and 260 pound-feet of torque at 5000 rpm. That's impressive power from a V6. You'll get more power and more low-end response from a V8, but the RL offers decent performance. It can accelerate from 0-60 mph in less than 7 seconds. It's smooth, responsive and enjoyable. It's quicker than a Mercedes E320 and comparable to a BMW 530i. Better breathing helps the 24-valve, single overhead-cam, aluminum VTEC engine combine substantially increased power yet with lower emissions and good fuel economy: The RL meets the government's stringent standards as a LEV2-ULEV Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle and earns an EPA-estimated City/Highway 18/26 mpg.
The driving experience is aided considerably by the excellent five-speed Sequential SportShift automatic transmission. Shifting is crisp and quick but super smooth, making the RL more responsive and more enjoyable. It seems to shift up early, but never seems to hunt. The driver can shift manually using a shift lever on the center console or with paddle shifters located on the steering wheel. It's fun to play with, but most of the time we simply put it in Drive and let it do the job it does so well.
We found the brakes to be excellent, with a good, firm pedal. Acura says it upgraded the brakes to create a true high-performance system. New 12.6-inch ventilated front rotors use aluminum four-piston calipers in front, with ventilated discs in the rear. Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD) automatically adjusts the front/rear brake pressure to suit conditions, while an anti-lock braking system (ABS) helps the driver maintain steering control in hard braking situations. Brake Assist helps drivers apply full braking pressure in an accident-avoidance situation.
The all-new Acura RL sheds the stodginess of the previous-generation model and embraces the agile handling and quick acceleration performance of a sports sedan. The RL is easy to drive and helps keep its drivers out of harm's way, with the latest in all-wheel drive technology. Yet it rides nicely, coddles its occupants and exudes a sporty, luxurious ambience.