In Defense Of: The Acura RLX

Derek Kreindler
by Derek Kreindler
in defense of the acura rlx

“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.

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  • Nine11c2 Nine11c2 on Jan 13, 2014

    tedward For the most part I agree. I understand the difference in layout - but what does the difference in layout really give you? I drive FWD car as my every day ride, a TSX. I had a Fusion before and and AWD before that. In a car that size, they ahve cured much of the oversteer issues, it handles very well. The only difference is being able to put hte power down in a turn, control the car with the throttle and torque steer, all issues that the makes little difference which way your FWD is laid out. I think they ride fine on the highway - to me the difference between FWD and RWD or AWD is from 85% to 100% on a winding road or track..

  • Tedward Tedward on Jan 13, 2014

    Yeah I don't think transverse vs. longitudinal is necessarily that big a deal either. It's just that no one makes a transverse rear drive and there are precious few who bother to make transverse AWD rear biased. I, personally, wouldn't have a existential problem with a transverse RWD car, not that anyone would make one. That's kind of why I try to include FWD Audi's in my criticisms. I DD a transverse FWD car as well (and even expect quite a bit of fun from it), I just don't think anyone can do an exceptional transverse FWD car at the sizes the premium brands play in nowadays. I love the TSX personally, especially because Acura hasn't priced and sized it up to current 3-series/A4 proportions.

  • Tassos Chinese owned Vollvo-Geely must have the best PR department of all automakers. A TINY maker with only 0.5-0.8% market share in the US, it is in the news every day.I have lost count how many different models Volvo has, and it is shocking how FEW of each miserable one it sells in the US market.Approximately, it sells as many units (TOTAL) as is the total number of loser models it offers.
  • ToolGuy Seems pretty reasonable to me. (Sorry)
  • Luke42 When I moved from Virginia to Illinois, the lack of vehicle safety inspections was a big deal to me. I thought it would be a big change.However, nobody drives around in an unsafe car when they have the money to get their car fixed and driving safely.Also, Virginia's inspection regimine only meant that a car was safe to drive one day a year.Having lived with and without automotive safety inspections, my confusion is that they don't really matter that much.What does matter is preventing poverty in your state, and Illinois' generally pro-union political climate does more for automotive safety (by ensuring fair wages for tradespeople) than ticketing poor people for not having enough money to maintain their cars.
  • ToolGuy When you are pulled over for speeding, whether you are given a ticket or not should depend on how attractive you are.Source: My sister 😉
  • Kcflyer What Toyota needs is a true full size body on frame suv to compete with the Expedition and Suburban and their badge engineered brethren. The new sequoia and LX are too compromised in capacity by their off road capabilities that most buyers will never use.