The Acura RL now becomes one of those unanticipated wonder cars from Japan. Having driven a TL with the optional over-the-top wheel, tire, and suspension treatment, none of us was quite sure what to expect from the brand-new RL, which goes on sale in October. However, our own Michael Jordan predicted that I would love it-that the best people inside Acura were extremely stoked at what a delightful product it has turned out to be. The RL promises better styling, more power, better handling, and a bundle of cutting-edge technologies, and it delivers on each and every particular.When we first drove the Bentley Continental GT a year ago, we were blown away by its all-wheel-drive system. It was absolutely transparent in use, yet it contributed significantly to the Bentley coupe's stellar handling and roadholding. Now we can say exactly the same thing about the system that is standard equipment on the Acura RL.
Acura calls it SH-AWD (Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive), and super handling is not too superlative a descriptor. Acura claims it is the first system that not only delivers the optimal torque split between front and rear wheels but also varies the amount of torque available to right and left rear wheels. It can deliver as much as 100 percent of the rear torque to the outside rear wheel to benefit handling, roadholding, and feel. The net effect is to stabilize the car in fast corners in such a way that the words understeer and oversteer don't come up much when you're trying to describe the experience of lapping West Virginia's Summit Point racing circuit at your personal best speed-which is exactly what we did for three hours. In straight-line driving, the system shifts up to 40 percent of the torque to the rear wheels to improve acceleration. For highway cruising, most of the torque flows to the front wheels.
The RL is powered by a lightweight, com-pact, 3.5-liter VTEC V-6 that produces 300 horsepower at 6200 rpm, beating the specific output of everyone else's normally aspirated six-cylinder engines. Even so, highway fuel economy is improved by 1 mpg over that of its predecessor. The five-speed automatic transmission can be driven in full-automatic mode, which is perfectly fine. But it's considerably more fun to shift using either the sequential push-pull shift lever on the console or the shift paddles located on either side of the steering column. We found the shift lever to be more intuitive than the paddles, but that could be a generational thing.
Body and chassis components are lighter and stiffer than those of the outgoing RL. The new RL's subframe, suspension (control arms in the front, multilink in the rear), hood, trunk lid, and front fenders are all aluminum. Developed in concert with the RL's SH-AWD system, the suspension is fully compatible with and adaptive to the unique electronic management software. The large four-wheel disc brakes (with four-piston aluminum calipers on the front and a single-piston caliper on the rear), ABS, electronic brake distribution, and brake assist are every bit as arresting as the engine or the body design. The front brake calipers are quite visible through the spokes of the standard 17-by-8.0-inch aluminum wheels. When you're passed by one of these cars, your attention is immediately drawn to the ghostly view of the front caliper with its Acura logo. V-rated Michelin tires complete the package.
The headlights are interesting. Each low-beam lamp can swing out up to twenty degrees in response to vehicle speed and movement at the steering-wheel rim. During straight-line driving, the headlights perform like any others, but on entering a curve, the light grows larger as the inboard low-beam swings out to illuminate that television set the local kids placed in the road.
In the past, buyers could be forgiven for not knowing exactly what sort of car the Acura was meant to be. It never came across as a full-boat luxury vehicle, but it did seem to be edging in that direction. With the introduction of the new RL, there is no ambiguity. This is a luxury car. Every surface, every control-large or small-feels as though it's been evaluated and upgraded. The seats are comfortable and supportive, and switches and larger controls work with satisfying precision. The overall length is reduced, but the cockpit is larger, and this gives the car a taut, agile appearance with very short front and rear overhangs. The exterior features a much more subtle and discreet version of BMW's fanny pack. The Acura's rear deck is indeed higher but much better integrated than those on recent BMWs. The exterior appearance clearly signals the RL's great luxury and performance.
Also, like BMW, the Acura RL features a satin-finished aluminum knob in the center of the dash. It is rotated to select from a menu of electronic communications functions, climate control, audio, and navigation and pushed to activate the function selected. The number and variety of functions are probably just as complex as those offered by BMW, but somehow the Acura system seems more user-friendly, more logical in everyday use.
The crown jewel in this array is the Acura-Link satellite system. AcuraLink was jointly developed with the XM Satellite Radio people and delivers up-to-the-minute traffic information to the RL's navigation screen. It also can provide operating tips for the driver, diagnostic information, translation of malfunction signals, maintenance reminders, and the ability to auto-dial dealers or emergency service. Unlike radio or television traffic reports, the RL's real-time system gives a steady flow of useful information pertaining to the driver's chosen route and works hand-in-glove with a compatible hands-free Bluetooth telephone. The real-time traffic service is currently available in twenty major American cities, but the system is expanding, and AcuraLink is set up to operate in all forty-eight contiguous states.
There is, of course, a sound system that is at least as ambitious as AcuraLink. The Acura/ Bose DVD-audio system was developed to be a fundamental component within the RL's infrastructure, not an add-on system. It is a ten-speaker system with 360-degree surround-sound at every seat. It includes an in-dash six-disc changer and standard XM Satellite Radio. There is an important point here. Every feature on this lavishly equipped sport-luxury sedan, from all-wheel drive to XM Satellite Radio, is standard equipment. Everything its driver might require, from local traffic information to awesome passing acceleration on slick roads, is part of the deal. It is a comprehensively complete car.
We drove a small fleet of RLs in conditions from Washington, D.C., rush-hour traffic to wide-open laps on the Summit Point circuit. For our three-hour sojourn at Summit Point, we also had access to an Audi A6, a BMW 530i, and a Mercedes-Benz E320-all with automatic transmissions-for comparison purposes. It is impossible to get a perfect match from among the competitors, but these cars came fairly close. The Acura RL more than held its own and felt absolutely terrific at speed. For those who really wanted to go fast, IRL driver Dan Wheldon was on hand to provide astonishingly fast demonstration laps around the Summit Point circuit. He sold me, and I wasn't even in the car with him.