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.
By pushing power to the same wheels that are steering, and with nearly 61% of the car's weight hanging over those front wheels, the RLX meets enthusiastic turns with poor grip and a sloppy line.
Acura claims to have mitigated this Achilles' heel of front-drive cars with what it calls Precision All-Wheel Steer, or P-AWS. This electronic system is standard on all models. It steers the rear wheels in the opposite direction from the front during turns for better agility. It can also move the rear wheels on the same path as the front for quicker lane changes.
Despite the hype, this system only marginally improves the RLX's tendency to plow through curves when pushed. It had an equally minor effect on making the car behave like a proper rear-wheel-drive sedan. There's just not enough electronic lipstick to mask a front-wheel-drive pig.
Eager driving was further discouraged by the transmission's manual mode. Start tapping the standard paddle shifters and the car rolls off upshifts so slowly you'd think they were relayed by carrier pigeon.
Yet other electronic wizardry that's optional on the RLX proved more useful. Our tester had the Advance package, which added a hefty $12,000 to the $49,345 base price. Included in this package is adaptive cruise control, the best lane-keeping assist system we've encountered, and forward collision warning and braking.
This package also added heated and cooled leather seats, a 14-speaker Krell audio system, blind spot monitoring, moon roof and a navigation system with real-time traffic updates. Items including a backup camera, Pandora radio, iPod integration, seven air bags and lane departure warning are standard on all models.
Also standard are what Acura calls Jewel Eye LED headlamps. Together with handsome (non-jeweled) LED taillights, they make up the only interesting element of the RLX exterior. The car certainly isn't ugly, and in the flesh it exudes a conservative yet stately air.
This is all fine until a Jaguar XF pulls up next to you and suddenly you feel as if you're driving the nicest Honda Accord in the world. It's all relative.
Inside the RLX, this feeling continues. To be clear, this Acura has the right amount of leather-covered surfaces, digital screens and dabs of brushed metal and faux-wood that let it lay claim to the luxury club.
The dual-screen setup in the dashboard is a particularly nice touch. One large display screen for the navigation system sits at the center of the console. Below it is a second, smaller touchscreen. Its functions vary between audio and climate, and this layout wisely conserves space. The rest of the cabin is quiet and comfortable.
Yet somehow the insides of the RLX lack the intangible gravitas of something like a Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Passengers are further reminded about this by the cheap, hollow noise put out by the suspension when the wheels run over rough surfaces.
Viewed on a macro scale, know that if you find yourself at an Acura store with at least $50,000 to spend on a new car, there's no outright reason not to buy the 2014 RLX. Just don't look across the road at a rival lot that sells any of its peers. You'll quickly learn why Acura dealers always want you to shop there last.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times