“There aren’t many bad cars on the market,” is the trope trotted out by auto reviewers when justifying their enthusiastic response to whatever is trotted out in front of them at the Lowes Santa Monica on Wave 2 of the latest press launch. The post-recession era is one where the quality of the average car has never been higher, at the expense of idiosyncratic flaws that give cars character. Sure, there are always the whipping boys of the market, namely cars people actually buy like unibody crossovers and some that people don’t, like big, front-drive sedans.
Big, front-drive sedans are a segment in decline. In the mainstream market, crossovers, SUVs and even crew cab pickups have displaced the full-size car from its traditional role as a family vehicle. Roughly half of them go to fleets, and the segment is chock full of nameplates like “Taurus”, “Avalon”, “Maxima”, which have as much sex appeal as Kirstie Alley flaunting her post-Weight Watches body on Oprah. As far as I’m concerned, they send power to the wrong wheels and their dynamics have more in common with a sea-faring vessel.
They’re also quiet, comfortable, ride smooth over most surfaces and have lots of room in the back. These are very desirable traits for a lot of buyers, as evidenced by booming sales of, you guessed it, unibody crossovers, SUVs and crew cab pickups. Most car reviewers, who would gladly place themselves in the enthusiast camp, don’t care all that much about these traits. Performance is what matters, whether that means an uncomfortable ride, heavy steering, a complicated gearbox and a thirsty engine are all desirable, even at the expense of driveability in situations that don’t involve sub-8 minute laps of the ‘Ring.
This has been a chief complaint about Cadillac. Rather than trying to build the best Cadillac they can, The Standard of the World really wants to be The Ultimate Driving Machine. And one could argue that to varying degrees, Audi, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz are as well, with the A6 3.0T S-Line, the GS F-Sport and the newest E350, which isn’t completely numb to drive.
And then there’s Acura. When everyone is going for rear-drive, German-inspired, letter-series lukewarm D-segment sports sedans with lots of “high gloss piano trim” (read: black plastic with a shiny finish) they launch the RLX a front-drive, Accord-based sedan that looks utterly anonymous and has absolutely zero sporting pretensions.
When the RLX was introduced, the internet product planning brigade (Associates Degree required, must have an internet connection and 2-3 years selling mobile phone accessories at Best Buy) was livid. “No serious luxury brand sells a front-drive V6 powered car,” they sputtered, half choking on a Five Guys burger. “Acura needs a V8 and rear-drive to be taken seriously.”
I’m not about to get into a discussion of what Acura’s future direction should be, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. And that makes me qualified enough to tell you that the RLX is a pretty good car. Is it a rival for the crop of rear-drive 5-Series wannabes? No, but the four-wheel steering system (dubbed with the comically stupid moniker P-AWS, from the people that brought you Super Handling All-Wheel Drive) really does work as advertised, helping the car rotate when pushed into a corner hard. I only did that once, since I wanted to drive the car as your typical RLX buyer would, and in that context, it excelled.
The venerable Acura 3.7L V6 feels quick enough, and instrumented tests show that it’s about as quick as a Camry V6, or quick enough to dust a Fiesta ST to 60 mph. More important than that is what you don’t notice. The RLX is supremely quiet, while the chassis neutralizes whatever imperfections exist in the road. The steering isn’t totally numb, but you don’t have to put much effort into using it. The front drive layout means that there’s no driveshaft or large transmission tunnel cutting through the back seat area, so there’s lots of room for rear passengers. The Krell audio system is one of the best I’ve experienced in any car, and I hope it filters down to other Acuras.
For a lot of people, that’s what real luxury is about. Driving from one destination to another, in a silent, climate controlled conveyance, the only noise emanating from the stereo if they so choose. Not long ago, I would have shied away from that notion in near revulsion. I’m the kind of guy who wouldn’t buy a new car unless it had a manual transmission, and I consider it a treat whenever I can drive something with a real cable throttle, let alone rear-wheel drive. My father’s E39 530i will always be my benchmark for sports sedans.
Back then, the 5-Series was distinct from the other offerings, with a purity unmatched by anything that didn’t have a roundel on the hood. Now, you’d be hard pressed to tell the BMW apart from the Audi from the Lexus if you could do a hypothetical blind taste test. The RLX on the other hand, is more like a Japanese take on American luxury. In a strange sort of way, that’s a rather unique proposition.