After a foot of fresh snow fell on New England, I was ready to take the Acura RL out for an action traction thrash. Unfortunately, the RL is a keyless wonder. When you twist the ignition knob into the off position, it's not really off– it's in accessory mode. You have to depress the plastic do-hickey and twist it another notch. Who knew? OK, there was an electronic warning. But modern cars bong more than Hawaiian dope smokers. I'd checked that the RL's lights were off the previous night and called it good.
Anyway, I wasn't the only car hack to flatten the battery. And the thing is, the $50k RL can't afford such a basic misstep. Acura's "I-swear-I'm-not-a-bling-Honda" is competing deep inside Caddy, Merc, Bimmer, Audi and Lexus territory. As BMW learned with its iDrive You Nuts debacle, any luxury car that makes you think too much starts from the back of the pack. A car that won't start, well…
After a quick defibrillation, I hit the slopes. The slippery stuff couldn't flummox the Acura's Super Handling [if they don't say so themselves] All-Wheel Drive. The system sends power from back to front or left to right, depending on which wheel or wheels need traction. In other words, an RL has an arrow-like ability to keep heading where you point it. Unless, of course, you head for some ice, boot it and throw the steering wheel hard over; at which point the RL will drift sideways with the best of them.
That's big fun, but it's beside the point. The RL is made for imperious wafters. Or is it? The design doesn't say luxury car to me. While the rear angle and side profile are reassuringly sedate, the car's nose is a disaster. It's too small for the RL's frame, poorly positioned, badly angled and over-creased. What's more, the car's squinting headlights and lower grill make it look like it's sniggering at someone who just fell down. Empathetic Europhiles need not apply.
From inside, the RL's ugly snout isn't much of a problem; the windscreen is so steeply raked you can't see the hood. For those who find this TV screen driving perspective disconcerting, the digital 5.1 surround sound audio system provides ample distraction. On the other hand, maybe it's best to keep your eyes on the road. The RL's multi-layered dashboard is an unsightly farrago of curves, angles, materials, textures, displays, typestyles and switchgear. The steering wheel's thin rim is a particularly egregious example of the RL's failure to pass the 50G taste and tactility test.
On the positive side, the Acura's cabin seats four large adults in reasonable comfort, and comes equipped with every toy known to carkind: sat nav, real-time traffic info, voice recognition, Bluetooth compatibility, heated memory seats and dual-zone climate control that automatically adjusts the fan speed according to the sun's position (determined by optical sensors and the onboard GPS positioning system). You can even press a button, call OnStar and ask them how it works.
What the Acura doesn't have is a V8 engine. The RL's V6 churns out 300hp– enough oomph to push the two-ton sedan from zero to 60mph in an entirely useful 6.7 seconds. You can switch to semi-auto mode and use the wheel-mounted paddle shifts to hold the gears for extended urge. Even so, the RL's sweet-spinning six is like bringing a knife to a gunfight. At this price point, customers expect the unruffled progress provided by a powerplant with two more cylinders. If nothing else, the RL sounds unduly stressed at anything more than partial throttle– even though it isn't.
In fact, you can hustle an RL without breaking a sweat. The hard-riding suspension will go all floaty-drifty if pushed, but there's enough body control to accommodate an enthusiast in a hurry. By the same token, the RL's brakes lack feel, but slow the car with real conviction. The rack and pinion steering is over-assisted, but still manages to keep you abreast of handling events as they occur. And that Super-Handling stuff really is the biz, facilitating some seriously squirrelly maneuvers.
Taken as a whole, the RL is an aesthetically-challenged gizmo-lover's Honda with admirable road manners– unless you drive it at night. Then, suddenly, it all comes together. The RL beckons with gently glowing door handles, welcomes with blue light in the foot wells and cossets with leather and air. The active noise cancellation creates a hushed atmosphere, the switchgear stops shouting and the car's well-sorted dynamics offer perfect poise. Gliding through the gloaming, the RL is its own man: cool, calm, collected and… debonair.
With a V8 engine, a nose job and an interior makeover, the Acura RL would give BMW's 5-Series a decent run for the money. Meanwhile, fixing the key slot would make a good start.