Strip away the $61,345 price tag and ignore all of its competitors, and the 2014 Acura RLX isn't a bad car.
It's a quiet, luxurious and stylish front-wheel-drive sedan that sits at the top of the lineup for Honda's premium brand.
Unfortunately, the RLX has plenty of competition, since it swims in the choppy waters of the mid-size luxury pool. Its peers throw into sharp relief the fact that the RLX feels and drives too much like a Honda to justify even the $49,345 base price.
Plus, every other car in this class holds a meaningful advantage the RLX lacks.
The king of value is the Hyundai Genesis. Tank-like construction? The Mercedes E-Class. The Audi A6 and Jaguar XF are more stylish, the Lexus GS hybrid and Lincoln MKZ hybrid are more fuel efficient.
Buyers seeking Japanese reliability will prefer the Infiniti M, while shoppers who want spirited driving have the BMW 5-Series and Cadillac CTS to consider.
The minor accolades that set this Acura apart are ample rear-seat space and a pile of electronic goodies. But they're not enough to help the lagging fortunes of Acura in this segment.
The predecessor to the RLX — the RL — had more than a little trouble distinguishing itself in its segment. After peaking in its inaugural year in 2005 with more than 17,000 sales, according to Edmunds.com, the fall has been precipitous. By 2012, the RL sold just 379 copies. All year. The BMW 5-Series averaged more than that over a long weekend.
Hoping to correct the RL's unpopularity, Acura made several changes to the formula for its biggest sedan.
It started by stretching the wheelbase by two inches and throwing the dividends from this growth into rear legroom, which is now the best in the class. The extra space is appreciable, and comfort and space in the front and rear seats is excellent. But how high does rear legroom rank on shoppers' list of priorities?
Acura also made the RLX more powerful and more fuel efficient than the RL.
Hiding behind Acura's recently subdued metallic beak-grille is a smooth-revving V-6 engine. At 3.5 liters, it's 0.2 liters smaller than before, yet horsepower is up by 10 to 310. Torque rises by a single pound-foot to 272.
Honda and Acura rarely fail to bolt together an enjoyable engine. This is no exception. Though the RLX is no lightweight at an eyelash under 4,000 pounds, this V-6 remains composed when pushed hard (though drivers must engage the car's Sport mode for best results). The only problem is that this is a segment in which impressive engines are as common as seat belts.
Acura does deserve credit for adding direct-injection and lower-friction surfaces in the engine to eke out better fuel mileage while increasing power. The RLX has a six-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy is rated at 20 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway.
In 215 miles of testing, we averaged 21 mpg. But for the same money as this Acura, there are a myriad of better hybrid models for those who want a fuel-efficient luxury car.
Later in the year, Acura itself will put on sale a hybrid version of the RLX. It will combine all-wheel drive with at least 370 horsepower, a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, and expected fuel economy of 30 mpg in both city and highway driving.
Pricing hasn't been announced, but it will probably sell for at least several thousand dollars more than the $49,345 base price of the front-wheel-drive RLX.
Acura sees this more powerful hybrid model as making a play for customers who would opt for a V-8 from a rival brand. This philosophy is similar to how Lexus positions its GS hybrid, the 450h.
But the biggest reason to wait for this uber-RLX is it should clean up the woeful front-wheel-drive tendencies of the model we tested.
Of everything the RLX competes with, only the Audi and Lincoln are also front-wheel-drive, though a majority of Audi buyers opt for the all-wheel-drive version. The rest of the field is driven by the rear wheels, the way God, or at least physics, intended.