First Look: 2014 Acura RLX

The Acura RL was the brand's flagship model for so long that the smaller, cheaper Acura TL began to catch up in terms of power, comfort, and technology. That meant any replacement for the RL would need to offer a big step up in order to justify its higher price compared to the TL. Acura seems to have taken that message to heart in replacing the aging RL with the all-new 2014 RLX, which debuts at the Los Angeles auto show. The new top Acura is roomier, more stylish, more powerful, and filled with even more technology than its predecessor.

The transformation begins with smart styling that carries over virtually untouched from the RLX concept show in April at the New York auto show. The Jewel-Eye LED headlights, contoured door panels, beak-like grille, and tidy trunk are all destined for production. Acura calls the angled, pointy nose "aero-fused" in reference to its improved aerodynamics. One character line curves up along both doors and is picked up on the rear bumper, while another follows the front fender before descending to just below the door handles.

Despite the typical three-box sedan design, the Acura RLX has a sloping rear windshield that ends in a tapered, boxy trunklid. A chrome strip connects big, overstyled LED taillights. Chrome trapezoids ensconce red reflectors in the lower bumper, while the exhaust tips hide below. Acoustic glass for the front windows and windshield is designed to muffle outside noises, and Acura even claims a new design for the alloy wheels reduces road noise by seven decibels.

Fifty-five percent of the body is made from high-strength steel, and lightweight aluminum is used for components like the fenders, hood, and front subframe, keeping curb weight to a respectable 3933 pounds, 166 fewer pounds than the skinniest RL. At 196.1 inches, the RLX is only 0.3 inch longer than the RL it replaces, but the new car has a two-inch greater wheelbase and is two inches wider overall. That affords 38.8 inches of rear legroom -- 2.5 inches more than the outgoing Acura, and also better than the BMW 5-Series, Audi A6, and Lexus GS350.

Two Powertrain Options

The RLX launches in spring 2013 with a new direct-injection 3.5-liter V-6 engine driving the front wheels. The engine sends 310 hp and 272 lb-ft of torque through a six-speed automatic transmission, and can disable three cylinders when cruising to help save fuel. Acura expects the car to achieve 20/31 mpg (city/highway), up from the Acura RL's rating of 17/24 mpg. The automatic transmission has steering wheel-mounted shift paddles and a sport mode.

The front-wheel-drive car gets a new Acura technology called Precision All-Wheel Steer (P-AWS), which uses adjustable toe links in the rear suspension to tighten the car's turning circle. The system can effectively allow the RLX to follow a tighter line through turns, and also provides better stability during high-speed lane changes. It worked well on a prototype we drove earlier in Japan, giving the test car a nimble and understeer-free cornering demeanor.

In fall 2013, Acura will launch a second version of the RLX with a new Sport Hybrid Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (Sport Hybrid SH-AWD) powertrain. It uses the same 3.5-liter V-6 engine, but with three electric motors and a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. One motor is connected to the engine and serves both as starter motor and generator; the other two are placed at each rear wheel to provide all-wheel-drive and torque vectoring. Acura says total power output is 370 hp, and expects the hybrid to return 30/30 mpg in EPA testing.

The car can drive on electrical power alone at low speeds using only the rear motors, and otherwise functions as a typical hybrid. In corners, the inside rear wheel acts as a generator to help overdrive the outside rear wheel, enabling tighter and more stable turns. Acura has promised this powertrain will offer performance on par to a V-8 engine with the economy of a six-cylinder car; a mule we drove in Japan was quick but not as fast as the claim led us to expect.

Technology Everywhere

No top-end luxury car is complete without a lengthy list of technologies, and the RLX's list begins with an updated version of the brand's AcuraLink infotainment system. The car scores a standard seven-inch touchscreen plus an optional eight-inch navigation display, the former offering features like Bluetooth, Pandora and Aha Internet radio, a text-to-voice system that reads incoming text messages, and real-time traffic information.

Push-button start, a power sunroof, a power rear sunshade, tri-zone climate control, Milano leather upholstery, and a power-adjustable steering wheel flesh out the options list. The center console storage compartment is said to be large enough to store a tablet computer, and an electric parking brake supersedes the RL's old-school foot-operated one.

Safety features begin with adaptive cruise control, which now gains a Low-Speed Follow mode that works in slow stop-and-go traffic. A windshield-mounted camera provides warnings of imminent collisions or lane departures, and Lane Keeping Assist will steer the car back on course if it crosses a lane marker. Collision Mitigation Braking System can apply the brakes if the driver ignores all the warning beeps, and a blind-spot warning system keeps owners from swapping paint when changing lanes. A capless fuel filler is a first for Acura, although Ford has already introduced it across almost its entire model range.

Five Trim Levels, Two Powertrains

There will be five different versions of the Acura RLX, each available with either of the aforementioned powertrains. The RLX and RLX with Navigation wear 18-inch alloy wheels, while higher trim levels get 19-inch wheels. The RLX with Technology Package trim level includes a 14-speaker Acura/ELS Studio sound system while the RLX Krell and Advance trims use a high-end stereo by Krell Audio. Full pricing and equipment details will be announced early next year, closer to the car's on-sale date.

Acura needed to drastically updated its top model if the car were to be worthy of the flagship descriptor, and the 2014 RLX appears to have met that challenge. The new car is better to look at, roomier inside, and packs more performance and features than the dated RL. Assuming it's better to drive than the RL, the RLX might just have what it takes for Acura to shake up the big luxury players from Europe and Japan.

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