RUTHERFORD, CALIFORNIA - Tasty mountain roads connect Napa Valley's swank Auberge du Soleil resort with Sonoma's Sears Point Raceway. On these roads, you can push a car like the 2014 Acura RLX without beating the tires into squealing submission. After nine years, Acura has replaced the front-wheel-drive RL with another FWD luxury flagship, the RLX, and this fall adds an all-wheel-drive hybrid version with 60 more horses. A brief drive of the hybrid awaits us at the raceway.
On the way to Sears Point, the RLX exhibits competent handling: the big sedan gets around the mountain roads with very little understeer and a bit of cushy body roll, although the inevitable electric power steering is average in feel and feedback, which is to say, there's not enough of either.
Lacking Old World luxury-car provenance and a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive platform, Acura high-techs its way through such shortcomings. The RLX marks the debut of its Precision All-Wheel Steer, badged "P-AWS" on the rear deck. An electronic control unit in the rear suspension provides independent rear torque control, creating toe-out for the inside tire and toe-in for the outside tire in a curve. Brake early for a tight bend and you can put a lot of power down while exiting. The sport mode--a requisite feature in any modern luxury sedan--also adjusts the EPS's assist for better feel and sharpens response of the 3.5-liter gas direct-injection engine and six-speed automatic. Although the transmission quickly shifts itself out of first, it allows you to bump the redline from second through sixth.
A few laps of coned-off Sears Point make the RLX's mild understeer more evident. We had a couple of the same limited laps in an RLX hybrid with Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive, which uses an electric motor to power the rear wheels and combines with the 3.5-liter V-6 and seven-speed dual-clutch transmission to provide 370 horsepower. The hybrid's steering and handling responses are sharper, and the powertrain is a hoot: the V-6/electric hybrid should be able to keep up with the average German luxury V-8 and, at the limit, the chassis will be more likely to give in to four-wheel drifts. Acura was hush-hush about the RLX hybrid's specs. It has a series of pushbuttons in place of the front-wheel-drive car's conventional gearshift and will be a standalone option rather than a separate trim level.
The hybrid powertrain is not the Acura RLX's most startling techno-feature. That would be the Lane Keeping Assist System (LKAS), which relies on the RLX's adaptive cruise control with low-speed follow and a color camera in the lower front fascia to read road marks, Botts dots, and the like. It takes the car one step closer to autonomous driving. The adaptive cruise can bring the car to a stop, although if it does so you have to reengage the cruise control when you start moving again. With LKAS on and no hands on the steering wheel, the car is able to steer itself for up to ten seconds around gentle curves on the highway. Acura says this reduces driver fatigue. More important, it makes it easier for the driver to change the radio station or perhaps tap a number into a smartphone. Grab the wheel while LKAS is activated, and you'll feel odd feedback that could only come from an electric power steering system, similar to Audi's lane-departure control system. A few software tweaks would make the car more of a self-driver, large car project leader Yousuke Sekino says, though he warns, "If you start to over-trust the systems ... you could go too far."
Other techie items include AcuraLink with real-time street traffic info, Pandora, Aha, and SiriusXM radio, applications that let you control features with your smartphone, and a fourteen-speaker Krell hi-fi that supersedes Acura's excellent ELS audio systems, which are still available. Even with all those features, Acura has cleaned up the RL's busy center stack. The supple interior's fit and finish is nearly perfect, with generous padding for every leather and plastic surface that could conceivably come into contact with the driver's hands.
The car surely is the quietest Honda-based product ever. With a two-inch wheelbase stretch over the RL, the RLX has a vastly improved back-seat package. We only drove the $61,345 top-of-the-range Advance model, but an RLX with Navi package - which should be standard - is $51,800, and from there trim levels matriculate through a Tech package and a Krell package. Advance includes active cruise control and lane-keeping assist.
Exterior design is what you'd expect of a luxury Honda sedan with the familiar Acura nose. The swage line that cuts downward from the top of the front fenders to the front door cut reduces wind noise at the sideview mirrors. The main problem is the transverse-engine dash-to-axle relationship, but there's little Acura can do about it, and it won't matter for most mid-lux sedan customers. Those drawn to the car who are enthusiasts of Honda's frisky FWD handling of yore will find the RLX's sport setting competent. They'll enjoy technology that lets them safely text, make calls, or find that perfect iPod playlist while in heavy traffic. Like Lincoln, Acura also has launched a concierge service to find RLX owners "responsible luxury" resorts like Auberge du Soleil [full disclosure: I'm here with my wife and am one of several journalists from major outlets enjoying the resort with a significant other], to where I return from Sears Point in the RLX on more mundane roads, fully relaxed.
2014 Acura RLX
Base Price: $49,345
As Tested: $61,345
Engine: 3.5-liter SOHC 32-valve V-6
Horsepower: 310 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 272 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
L x W x H: 196.1 x 74.4 x 57.7 inches
Legroom F/R: 42.3/38.8 inches
Headroom F/R: 37.6/36.9 inches
Cargo capacity: 15.3 cubic feet (15.1 cu. ft. with Krell Audio and Advance packages)
Curb weight: 3997 lb
EPA rating (city/highway): 20/31 mpg