SAN FRANCISCO, California — Acura answers the age-old question of “Why?” with the age-old answer, “Because it can” with the launch of its new, all-wheel-drive hybrid version of the RLX flagship sedan. The name of the car says it all, in that the hybrid system is there to provide all-wheel drive and, thus, the sport. If you check “hybrid” on the order sheet, the RLX is no longer a front-wheel-drive car. That doesn’t make it a sport sedan, a term Acura assiduously avoids in describing the car, although it makes liberal use of the words “sporty” and “dynamic” as adjectives. In this context, Sport Hybrid means that two of the RLX’s three electric motors straighten out its handling, virtually eliminating the benign understeer you’ll find in the base front-wheel-drive car. This is not an über-high-fuel-mileage competitor for the Mercedes-Benz E250 BlueTec or BMW 535d xDrive turbo-diesels, although the RLX Sport Hybrid will cost about as much as the latter.
A showcase for Honda’s engineering expertise
Befitting its complicated model/trim name, the Acura RLX Sport Hybrid SH-AWD is a technically intriguing car, showing Honda’s engineering capabilities without regard to the question of whether anyone is interested in paying big money for it. Want to go green? There are options from Lexus to Cadillac to Mercedes-Benz if a loaded Tesla Model S is out of your price range. Want a premium sedan that’s fun to drive? BMW, though highly diminished in its ability to deliver a true driver’s car, remains the standard bearer, while the Cadillac CTS Vsport truly is more fun to drive. Want both? Really? Then perhaps this is the way to go. Perhaps.
The long-awaited RL replacement finally arrived last spring in the form of the RLX, a large premium sedan with an active rear-steer system that makes it a likeable Audi A6 alternative for Honda loyalists. While Acura still struggles to regain its Legend-ary (pun intended) glory, the brand is having some success as the purveyor of nicely done premium crossover/utilities, notably the new MDX.
V-8 performance with four-cylinder fuel efficiency
The RLX Sport Hybrid SH-AWD throws out the conventional driveshaft of the TL SH-AWD and instead uses two electric motors that torque-vector the rear wheels and provide gas-free power up to 50 mph. Up front is the familiar transverse 3.5-liter direct-injected i-VTEC V-6 with cylinder shut-off, but with another electric motor built in with the new transverse seven-speed dual wet-clutch transmission. The three motors use lithium-ion batteries, and the system adds 357 pounds to the weight of a FWD RLX with the Technology or Advance package. Either version is thoroughly equipped, and the Advance package includes Adaptive Cruise Control and the mildly autonomous Lane Keeping Assist System.
Acura claims V-8 performance with four-cylinder fuel-efficiency, and indeed, the engine-motor combo produces 377 horsepower and 377 lb-ft, with EPA ratings of 28 mpg in city driving, 32 mpg on the highway, and 30 mpg combined. Those numbers better the front-wheel-drive RLX P-AWS by 67 hp, 105 lb-ft and 8/1/6 mpg. The two rear-wheel motors are packaged between the ample rear seat and the trunk’s inner bulkhead, cutting into trunk space length slightly and eliminating the no-hybrid RLX’s armrest pass-through opening. The Power Drive Unit is neatly tucked into the center console. A tire-inflation kit under the trunk floor panel serves as the spare.
There’s no gearshift; just a set of buttons, including a kind of lever that you pull back for reverse, on the center console, plus paddle shifters affixed to the wheel.
On the road in sport mode
Press “drive” and pull out of the hotel parking lot entrance South of Market, and the electrically driven rear wheels push the car very quietly through stop-and-go traffic in the socially conscious City by the Bay. The electric motors continue low-speed cruising in EV-only mode for a few miles, effectively making the hybrid a part-time rear-wheel-drive model. How smugly satisfying is that?
The car steps out onto Highway 1 with full power on hand to cross north along the Golden Gate Bridge, and when 1 exits us off the freeway on toward the twisty coastal road to Stinson Beach, it’s time to engage Sport mode. This cuts the start/stop function, combines the electric motors and the 3.5L engine for “power” acceleration, and sharpens the shift points … the usual stuff. In sport mode, operating the paddles makes an “M” appear on the instrument panel, so it would seem that it’s a permanent manual mode. But the transmission sometimes intervenes, clicking off quick, well-timed downshifts on its own. It seems the high technology has gone to the RLX’s head — or its transmission at least, which is sure it can handle shifts better than the driver.
Acura’s grand concept
Performance is exemplary. If not for the sound, it would be easy to think all this power and torque is coming from a smooth V-8. Now that V-8s are being phased into low-volume, specialty car status, Acura can be vindicated for its longstanding refusal and inability to develop its own eight-banger. Acura’s “grand concept” for the RLX Sport Hybrid is Takaburi, or “exhilaration,” and Inomama, which means “at the will of the driver.” Acura product planning chief Lee DaSilva says the RLX Sport Hybrid has been designed to be “smooth handling and connected to the road.” This is why it’s “sporty and dynamic,” though not a sport sedan. The RLX is smooth first, with the handling coming next in its list of priorities. The inside front and rear wheels provide regeneration in a corner, while the outside rear wheel puts down more power to get the car through the corner more crisply.
In spirited driving, the RLX Sport Hybrid is smooth and planted, and it grips the road with no audible complaints from the big, nineteen-inch tires. Find a reasonably open piece of Highway 1 far enough north of the city, and you can get the tail to rotate until stability control catches it. This isn’t a wholly organic kind of oversteer, though. It feels as if the rear wheels are turning in ahead of the front wheels. The car feels more natural if you push it just short of the limit and let it corner with a neutral attitude. This probably won’t matter to typical owners, some of whom won’t even venture to explore the “sport” button. Those who do, however, will be a satisfied, if small, group.
The RLX Sport Hybrid SH-AWD prepares Acura enthusiasts for the return of the NSX, which will have a longitudinal V-6, in this case twin-turbocharged, and connected to a version of the seven-speed DCT with a built-in electric motor, plus two electric motors powering the front wheels. It would seem reasonable to amortize this complicated setup by applying a version of it to the more mainstream TLX (which replaces the TL and TSX next year), though it doesn’t seem easy to make that pencil out in a less-expensive model.
Acura’s target market for the RLX Sport Hybrid is a married, 48-year-old male enthusiast of cutting-edge technology who works in financial services, real estate, or healthcare and has an average household income of $200,000-plus. Seems achievable, but the question is how many of these guys Acura will be able to capture. The hint is the RLX Sport Hybrid with the “base” Technology package will start somewhere around $60,000, and the Advance package will touch $65k when the car goes on sale next spring.
That’s maybe $3000 more than a similarly equipped FWD RLX with P-AWS, which seems a pittance for all the complex technology it comes with. Conversely, the Sport Hybrid margin puts the Acura RLX in competition with a lot of interesting European, Asian, and American competition. With the RLX Sport Hybrid SH-AWD, it seems Acura has found another small, well-defined niche.
2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid SH-AWD
- Base Price: $60,000(est.)
- As Tested: $65,000(est.)
- Engine: 3.5-liter DOHC 24-valve V-6 plus 35 kW front, two 27 kW rear motors
- Horsepower: 377 hp @ 6500 rpm
- Torque: 377 lb-ft @ 4700 rpm
- Transmission: 7-speed automatic?Drive: Four-wheel
- L x W x H: 196.1 x 74.4 x 57.7
- Legroom F/R: 42.3/38.8
- Headroom F/R: 37.6/36/9
- Cargo capacity (without/with Krell audio): 15.3/15.1 cu ft
- Curb Weight: 4312-4354 lb
- EPA Rating (city/highway): 28/32 mpg