By the sales figures alone, Acura's RL appears to be a model not long for this world. In 2010, sales of the company's premier sedan amounted to only 2037 cars, making the sedan its slowest-selling model in the U.S. Despite that meager total, Acura remains committed to the nameplate
Although plans for a larger RL and an eight-cylinder engine were eschewed during the global financial meltdown, the company still plans on rolling out an all-new model in the next few years. Until then, it's blessed the 2011 RL with a few modest tweaks designed to tide buyers over.
An Evolutionary Exterior
Those buyers, we're told, are typically much more conservative than those who spring for the popular TL. Perhaps that's why the sedan's design has changed so little over the past seven years. Despite receiving a makeover in 2009 to bring the car in step with Acura's current design language, the majority of the RL's exterior form dates back to the 2005 model year.
Angular fenders and the so-called Power Plenum grille design have invoked controversy on other Acura models, but the RL manages to wear them in a handsome -- if not forgettable -- manner. That doesn't change for 2011, as designers have limited exterior revisions to a new grille insert, along with a revamped trim piece for the trunk. New 15-spoke, 18-inch wheels also incorporate Helmholz resonators within their outer edges to help counter road noise.
In photographs, the RL may look larger than the TL, but the two are almost dimensionally identical. At 195.8 inches long, the RL is only three-tenths of an inch longer than the TL, and its 110.2-inch wheelbase is almost an inch greater.
The Techno-Cabin Continues
Remarkably, the two are almost identical when it comes to interior space. The RL offers nearly 99.1 cubic feet of passenger volume, eclipsing the TL by a sole cubic foot. Front and rear head, leg, and shoulder room are also within a half-inch of one another.
That said, the two cabins couldn't be any more discrete. While the TL offers an edgy, geometric, and perhaps futuristic cabin, the RL's passenger space uses softer, more traditional forms. Dark burlwood dash trim -- new for 2011 -- cascades into a rectangular center stack, which presents its controls in clean, well-arranged manner. An 8-inch screen displays information tied to audio and (if so equipped) navigation systems, but some settings -- primarily those tied to the climate control system -- are also shown on a slim LCD display located at the top of the dashboard.
In typical Acura fashion, our fully loaded RL was jammed with all sorts of technological goodies. Standard features include heated front seats, XM satellite radio, a Bose 260-watt, ten-speaker surround-sound system with noise cancellation, HID headlamps, six airbags, and Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity. Opt for the Technology Package, and Acura throws in navigation, adaptive headlamps, rear parking sensors, a rear-view camera, and ventilated front seats. The Advance Package goes one step further, throwing adaptive cruise control, collision-mitigating brake system, and power-folding side-view mirrors into the mix.
Farewell Five-Speed; Say Hello to Six Gears
Mechanically speaking, the 2011 RL is virtually identical to 2009 and 2010 models. Honda's 3.7-liter DOHC V-6 is still nestled underhood in a transverse manner, and is still rated at 300 horsepower at 6300 rpm and 271 pound-feet of torque at 5000 rpm. That power is channeled to all four wheels via the company's advanced SH-AWD all-wheel-drive system. Not only can the driveline send up to 70 percent of the engine's torque to the rear axle, but it also can channel power to a single rear wheel, optimizing traction and helping rotate the car through fast corners.
The big news for 2011 lies with the transmission. Long dogged for retaining an antiquated five-speed automatic when competitors were switching to six, seven, and eight-speed designs, the 2011 RL finally receives an extra gear, bringing the grand total to six.The transmission is as smooth and well geared to the V-6's power range as the previous five-speed, but the additional cog helps bolster fuel economy. The EPA rates the 2011 RL at 17/24 mpg (city/highway), and improvement of 1 and 4 mpg, respectively. Driving conservatively, we saw a 23-24 mpg average over a 60/40 split of highway and city driving.
A Supple Ride, With A Dash of Sporty
Acura claims the RL moniker stands for refined luxury, but that doesn't mean the car can't provide the driver with a little fun while behind the wheel. Ride quality is softer than that of the TL, and turn in isn't quite as sharp, but body roll is kept to a surprising minimum, and the SH-AWD's torque-vectoring skills further help the car stay planted when pushed in corners.
Push you certainly can. The 3.7-liter V-6 never lacks the grunt needed to toss around the RL's 4110 pounds. Shift times of the six-speed improve slightly when in sport mode, but drivers who insist on selecting their own gear can do so with the new steering wheel-mounted shift paddles.
Even when flogged to its limits, the RL delivers a civilized ambiance to those seated within. The 3.7-liter is smooth even as it approaches its redline, and the cabin is impressively insulated from wind, tire, and road noise.
A Fine Foundation, But What's Next?
The RL is a stylish, solid package, and at $48,000 for a well-equipped base model, it's reasonably affordable. Load it up to the $56,000 mark, however, and it's up against several other worthy competitors, including the Infiniti M, BMW 5 Series, and Mercedes-Benz E-Class, many of which offer a little extra panache and prestige.
Ironically, the car's biggest competitor may come from within Acura's own lineup. The RL looks, feels, and drives like a mature spin on the TL, an impression bolstered by the two models sharing powertrain, dimensions, and content. This may have allowed the RL to cultivate its own small niche of followers, but as the TL itself moves slightly upmarket for 2012 while retaining a smaller price tag, the RL's already small customer base may quickly shrink.
Acura has all the foundations of a true premium luxury sedan in place with its 2011 RL, but in order to revert the nameplate's recent sales slide in an increasingly competitive segment, the next-generation needs to pack the visual pizazz and unique personality today's model lacks.
2011 Acura RL
Base Price: $48,060 (including destination)
Powertrain: 3.7-liter DOHC, 48-valve V-6
Horsepower: 300 hp @ 6300 rpm
Torque: 271 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
L x W x H: 195.8 x 72.7 x 52.7"
Legroom F/R: 42.4/ 36.3"
Headroom F/R: 38.5/37.2"
Cargo capacity: 13.8 cu ft
Curb weight: 4112 pounds
EPA Rating (city/highway): 17/24 mpg