Launched earlier this year, Acura’s new flagship sedan debuted with an innovative rear steering system that transformed its large front-drive platform into a surprisingly dynamic machine. Unfortunately, that’s not very sexy unless you’re an engineer.
|1. A 3.5L V6 and three electric motors make 377 hp and 377 lb-ft of torque.
2. The RLX is the first Acura to use a new seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
3. The new Sport Hybrid replaces the mechanical rear differential in Acura’s conventional SH-AWD system.
4. Fuel economy is rated at 28 MPG city, 32 MPG highway and 30 MPG combined, an improvement of 25 percent over the FWD model.
Combined with rather subdued styling, the RLX not only failed to scare the Germans, it made the notoriously conservative Lexus look like the wild child of the Japanese luxury trio.
To up the excitement, Acura has now launched a new version of the RLX complete with more power, better efficiency, a long list of brand-first technologies and a revolutionary all-wheel drive system.
Called the RLX Sport Hybrid Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD), in many ways this car foreshadows the upcoming NSX with its powertrain a mirror image of what Acura’s supercar will use – minus a turbo or two.
Supercar Engineering, Subdued Style
With that fancy new name, unfortunately, the RLX Sport Hybrid doesn’t get the looks to match.
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Apart from its jewel eye LED headlights, there’s little drama to its design with only minor changes that include a modified front bumper with LED foglights and a dark chrome grille. Thankfully it does come standard with 19-inch wheels that are optional on the conventional model.
One wonders if the brand’s beak fiasco backfired so significantly that there’s now a level of fear in Acura’s design department with no one willing to take a risk. As a result, the RLX blends in rather than standing out, a dangerous place to be in the luxury segment.
It’s still handsome, but it’s not exactly what you dream about parking in your driveway.
Quality of Materials, Simplicity of Design
Move to the inside of the RLX and there’s a similar level of puritanical influence in its design. It lacks the sumptuous warmth of a Lexus or the adventurous curves of an Infiniti and is in fact rather BMW-esque in its simplicity of design.
What makes the car’s cabin is the quality of materials. On Acura’s top-tier products Milano leather is offered as an upgrade over the standard cow hide. Here it’s standard.
A flagship model needs unique flagship features and Acura delivers. There’s more that’s new here than just a high-tech all-wheel drive system.
Change Gears With the Push of a Button
Gone is the conventional gear shifter, replaced with a new electronic gear selector with buttons for Drive, Park and Neutral and a pull trigger for Reverse. It looks like the sort of modern signature piece that will trickle down into all future Acura products and we hope it does. Far simpler than it looks, it’s intuitive and the buttons fall to hand perfectly – the second time you drive the RLX, you’ll be operating the gear selector without looking at it.
Look out the front of the car and you can’t miss another new feature, the head-up display. We’ve griped about Acura’s implementation of electronics in past cars, with the graphics appearing dated. Here, they’re modern and crystal clear. In addition to displaying vehicle speed, there are screens for the tachometer, navigation instructions and the real time hybrid drivetrain display. During two days of testing in and around San Francisco, we never looked at the speedometer in the gauge cluster. Why don’t more automakers offer this?
The list of standard equipment is solid and includes two driver memory buttons, 12-way power seats with lumbar, an electric tilt and telescopic steering wheel, navigation, blind spot warning, forward collision warning, lane departure warning and keyless access with a push button ignition – something the Germans just love to charge extra for.
Only one upgrade is offered, the Advance package with a 14-speaker premium audio system, power rear sunshade, vented seats, heated rear seats, adaptive cruise control with low speed follow and lane keeping assist and an auto-brake feature.
There is, however, something missing from this cabin: an eco mode. This hybrid may deliver a claimed 30 mpg combined – we achieved just 22 during admittedly spirited driving – but Acura is focusing on the sport in Sport Hybrid.
Putting the Sport in Hybrid
A car of firsts for Acura, it’s the brand’s first true hybrid and it takes the technology to a new level. Under the hood is a 3.5-liter gasoline V6 mated to another Acura first: a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. That unit also uses a 47-hp electric motor. Two more electric motors join the powertrain package at the rear axle adding 36 hp per wheel for a combined 377 hp and 377 lb-ft of torque.
The evolution of Acura’s SH-AWD system, it does away with a mechanical rear axle to deliver amazing results. SH-AWD was the first system to distribute power left to right in the rear to improve cornering. With this new system, the speed of the wheels is fully independent of the engine so a greater difference in wheel speed side-to-side in the rear can be achieved.
Exploiting the technology fully, it’s also possible for the RLX to control the speed of the left and right rear wheels using regenerative braking, meaning the car can control rotation in a corner even when you’re not on the throttle.
Who’s Really Driving This Thing?
That sounds like the RLX is driving itself, but it’s only in the rarest of circumstances and the limits of grip that you ever get a hint that some complex algorhythm is helping out.
Considering the complexity of the system, it’s incredible how natural it feels from immediate throttle response to natural braking feel (never an easy feat in a regenerative system).
The sensation of one rear wheel pushing you through a corner isn’t as pronounced as with the old mechanical unit. In that sense it’s a little less dramatic to drive, though it also feels more controlled.
It’s rare that you need to worry about excessive throttle inputs, and there’s a reason for it. Another RLX novelty is what is called a “Reactive Force Pedal” that varies the throttle pressure required based on tire slip. In some ways a trick by Acura engineers, your ability to put down more power is hampered by a stiffer pedal as soon as the tires start to lose grip.
Fast and Smooth
In performance driving situations, it is sharp and intuitive and yet it can also coddle the driver with a smooth ride quality, excellent sound deadening and even a start-stop system that won’t startle you. That’s something Deutschland’s cars do all too often.
The RLX feels much smaller than it is and handles even better than you’d expect. The dual-clutch transmission is smooth shifting (even at low speeds) and in Sport mode gears down the second you touch the brakes. And when the rpms rise there’s a satisfying growl from the V6 engine.
Acura never provided a 0-60 time and that’s likely because you wouldn’t be impressed. Unfortunately it doesn’t feel as fast as 377 hp should.
Issues and Gripes
The car is not without its flaws, particularly issues tied to the transmission. We noticed a prolonged delay after hitting the reverse button to when the car would respond to throttle input. Also, on a few occasions hitting the Drive button was met with the sort of resounding clunk you might get shifting a pickup truck into reverse on a hill. We were told by Acura PR that these were pre-production models and that some small issues may not yet be sorted out. We certainly hope these are among them.
If there are any other issues with the car they’re related to the space required by the hybrid components. One of the presumed advantages of this hybrid system is the lack of a driveshaft connecting the front and rear axles. However, that space is simply replaced by what Acura calls a “Power Drive Unit.”
As a result, there’s still a large hump in the center of the rear floor. Combined with a large bump in the center seat, this large luxury sedan (the largest in its class) is really only comfortable for four. Plus, packing luggage for that many won’t be easy as the lithium-ion battery pack in the rear of the car encroaches on trunk space, leaving just 12 cubic feet; less than what you’ll find in any compact car these days.
The best Acura in quite some time, it’s a flagship model packed with exclusive technologies for the brand and for the industry. Acura lacks the cachet of traditional German luxury names but with the RLX Sport Hybrid, it offers real driving enjoyment and the “gotta-have-it” factor of ground-breaking technology the Germans are usually known for. If it only had a more compelling design, the RLX might have more of a chance at shaking up a segment that’s as established in the automotive world as Warren Buffett is in venture capitalism.
Pricing has yet to be released but with Acura hinting that a fully-loaded model could cost around $65,000. If that proves true, the biggest trick up Acura’s sleeve might not be its Sport Hybrid SH-AWD or the feel behind the wheel, the impressive efficiency or even the high-tech features but delivering all of these in a value package.