2017 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid
A classic wolf in sheep’s clothing
The car grew out of fertile Acura Legend roots, which was a four-door sedan created off the back of the Honda Accord for Acura’s initial offering in 1986. It sold very well, reaching a peak of 70,770 units in 1988, and helped the brand earn early respect in the luxury sector.
The Legend was replaced by the larger and more upscale RL in 1995, but in an attempt to appeal to more traditional luxury buyers its conservative styling and sedate driving dynamics didn’t strike a chord with Honda faithful looking to move upmarket, and wasn’t able conquest many luxury buyers either, so unlike the RL was a relative sales flop with its best year of 1997 only resulting in 16,004 deliveries.
Acura countered the initial RL failure with a totally reimagined car that focused much more on performance and enhanced interior refinement, but its small cabin and limited trunk space made it less practical than the much more popular TL sedan and therefore sales continued to languish, its best U.S. sales results being 2005 when Acura was able to move 17,572 units, although following years found unprecedented lows culminating in just 379 deliveries in 2012, its final full year of availability before this current RLX was introduced in 2013.
When Acura changed the RL name to RLX, most thought it had added all-wheel drive, which would’ve made sense being that its front-wheel drive layout had long been considered a drawback when compared to competitors offering more sporting rear-drive and all-wheel drive designs, but the initial car only wore its “X” by name, continuing forward with FWD.
The design combined some of the sportier second-generation RL styling elements with the more practical upright nature of the first-gen RL, while adding Acura’s now trademark Jewel-Eye LED headlamps, incorporating the shield grille introduced on the MDX, and also providing then-new active safety technologies such as autonomous braking. It was a highly advanced flagship model that showcased many Acura/Honda technologies, but unfortunately its styling remained too conservative to compel would-be buyers to give it a try, so when the much more capable Sport Hybrid version arrived, which included an electrified form of all-wheel drive, the car had already lost momentum on the sales charts.
To say that it ever had any real momentum was paying it more respect than deserved, as its best sales year was 2013 when it found just 5,053 buyers, followed by 3,413 deliveries in 2014, 2,195 in 2015, and only 1,478 last year. As of April 30, 2017 Acura’s sold just 399 units, which means that its handful of buyers enjoy the type of exclusivity normally only provided by Bentley and Rolls-Royce ownership.
While I’ve been calling it a flagship luxury model, to be clear it’s no larger than Mercedes-Benz’ E-Class sedan, which is the most popular luxury model in the mid-size premium segment. By comparison Merc sells about 35 Es to every single RLX, but Acura isn’t the only brand that gets beaten up by the three-pointed star in this category.
Mercedes sells half as many more Es than BMW purveys 5s, while it outpaces Audi’s A6 by almost 3 to 1, Cadillac’s CTS by 3.2 to 1, Lexus’ GS by almost than 3.5 to 1, Jaguar’s XF by about 7.5 to 1, Infiniti’s Q70 by almost 9 to 1, and so on. The only car in the segment to outsell it is Chrysler’s 300 that’s ironically based on much older E-Class architecture, and to be fair to Mercedes the near premium 300 is priced much lower and therefore isn’t really targeting the same luxury audience. So it’s an uphill battle for the RLX and many of its peers, but that didn’t stop Acura from investing thousands of Benjamins (although I probably should have called them Fukuzawas being that we’re talking yen) into this innovative car.
I say innovative because it’s one of few cars in its class available as a hybrid, and a performance-oriented hybrid at that. Acura claims net output of 377 horsepower and 341 lb-ft of torque via a 3.5-liter V6 and three-motor electric/ lithium-ion battery combination. For a quick synopsis, the internal combustion engine (ICE) powers the front wheels in concert with an electric assist motor, similar to the Accord Hybrid. Call this default mode, the most fuel-efficient way to get around. If torque is needed at the rear due to increasing power, pushing hard through a corner, or experiencing inclement weather, an electrified version of Acura’s torque-vectoring Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) provides traction from all four standard 245/40R19 all-season tires via rear wheel-mounted dual electric motors. Heightening the RLX Sport Hybrid’s performance-oriented nature, a seven-speed dual-clutch automated transmission provides quick shifts enhanced by steering wheel paddles and Acura’s innovative pushbutton gear selector, complete with a very responsive Sport button, making it a lot more entertaining to drive than a number of its rivals that appear more like sport sedans.
As the saying goes, looks can be deceiving, and the RLX’ conservative clothing can be a benefit for sliding stealthily past radar. I’m not saying its folded bodywork can somehow confuse a radar/lidar gun like a stealth aircraft mixes up enemy signals, but its upright stance and noticeable lack of bling doesn’t attract unwanted attention from the constabulary like a bright red NSX. Strangely enough this lets you move faster through traffic and down the highway than cars that are technically quicker, and you’ll be a lot more comfortable while doing so too.
That’s the RLX trump card. Sure it’s quick off the line and plenty enjoyable through the curves, but its fully independent suspension, consisting of a lightweight double-wishbone setup with lower double joints up front and a multi-link design in back, with stabilizer bars and amplitude reactive dampers at both ends, is wonderfully compliant on most any type of road surface. The electric power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is tuned for better feedback than many of its luxury peers, while the aforementioned SH-AWD,
19-inch wheels and tires, plus Agile Handling Assist that uses active braking technology to slow the inside (or outside) wheel during high-speed cornering to minimize oversteer and understeer, makes for a very engaging sport sedan. The big disc brakes do a decent job of hauling the big car down from a fast pace quickly and in control too, even after repeated application. Really, the RLX needs to be experienced to be appreciated.
I’d say the same for the car’s nicely appointed, impressively refined cabin. First off it’s quiet inside, as one would expect from a car that’s more likely to attract an upwardly mobile Buick owner than anyone downgrading from an Audi A8. This in no way is meant to say that an A8 is particularly noisy or a Buick is not a worthy luxury car, but rather that the RLX manages to combine some of the sporty engine note of the German sedan with much of the vault-like silence of the American.
Along with standard acoustic glass and active noise cancellation, some of its sound deadening can be attributed to premium soft touch synthetic and natural surfaces applied just about everywhere. Beautiful French-stitched leathers cover much of the instrument panel, door inserts and armrests, as well as the seat upholstery, of course, the front seat inserts perforated to allow forced ventilation. Both front and rear seats are three-way heatable as well, while the former are power-adjustable in myriad ways. It’s a comfortable car, no argument.
The cabin pulls eyeballs too. Along with that stunning leatherwork, gorgeous high-gloss hardwood adorns the dash front, center console and door panels, as does tastefully applied satin-finish aluminum and chromed metal trim. There’s no panoramic sunroof opening up the roof overhead, and the primary gauge cluster ahead of the driver isn’t a fully configurable TFT display like some in this segment, nor is its fully color multi-information display (MID) as large or as feature-filled as others, but Acura makes up for this with a head-up display projecting critical info on the windshield and its duopoly of displays atop the center stack, the topmost one more of an MID and the lower touchscreen for infotainment purposes.
A set of controls, including a large rotating controller, prompt the former and your fingers do the walking over the latter, with all the usual premium features included such as a 360-degree surround overhead camera (that’s actually a split-screen simultaneously showing a backup camera with active guidelines), an accurate navigation system with excellent mapping, plenty of car info (especially hybrid details), phone info, an HVAC display for the GPS-linked tri-zone automatic climate control, and lastly an audio display for the phenomenal Krell surround sound system. Additionally, all of the switchgear throughout the cabin is very good.
As noted the rear outboard seats get three-way heatable elements controlled by switchgear on the backside of the front console, centered by a button for powering the rear window sunshade up and down. Side window sunshades are included too, but they’re manually operated. Rear seat finishings are as impressive as those up front, and roominess deserves the proverbial “limousine-like” commendation, with so much legroom it’s downright silly. It’s not to extended-wheelbase S-Class Pullman levels, but for a mid-size model the RLX delivers much more length and width than average.
Specifically, when I positioned the driver’s seat to my five-foot-eight height, I had about 10 inches left over in front of my knees, another four inches above my head, five from my shoulders to the door, and about the same for my hips. Three abreast would be easy enough, although the outboard seats are deeply sculpted so the person in the middle sits fairly high, plus there’s a sizable central tunnel to straddle. It’s best to lose the center passenger and enjoy the comfortable armrest that folds down from the middle, complete with small cupholders that pop out from the front.
For a hybrid that uses much of its rear bulkhead for storing its battery, the squared out 11.6 cubic-foot trunk is quite accommodating. It can’t be expanded upon, but only those heading for the slopes with old-school (i.e. long) boards should have a problem with that. Its floor, seatbacks and sidewalls are nicely finished in premium carpets and chromed tie-down hooks are available for strapping in loose cargo, while surprisingly enough there’s a large two-compartment stowage area under the load floor for hiding valuables.
Now that we’re talking practicalities, the EPA gives the RLX Sport Hybrid a fuel economy estimate of 29 mpg in the city, 30 on the highway, and 29 combined, which is superb for its class. It should be noted that BMW now offers a plug-in hybrid 5 Series dubbed 530e, but no fuel economy figures are yet available, while Lexus’ GS 450h is good for a claimed 29 city, 34 highway and 31 combined from a 338 net horsepower power unit capable of catapulting the car to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds, no less. It’s hard to say how many more buyers this performance advantage garners (the hybrid no doubt much scarcer than pure gasoline-powered GS models), so I recommend taking both for a ride if you’re serious about either.
One thing is for sure, the RLX’ high level of standard features will impress no matter what. For just $59,950 plus freight and fees it comes with most everything already noted plus heatable side mirrors with driver recognition, reverse gear tilt-down, and integrated LED turn signals, LED taillights, ambient interior lighting, passive keyless access with pushbutton ignition, an electromechanical parking brake, a leather-wrapped powered tilt and telescopic multifunction steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, adaptive cruise control with low-speed follow, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a garage door opener, a powered moonroof, a head-up display, AcuraLink infotainment with a multi-angle backup camera and navigation, voice recognition (with Siri), SMS text message and email reading and response capability, Bluetooth with streaming audio, 14-speaker surround-sound ELS audio with hard disc storage and satellite radio, 12-way powered and heated front seats with driver’s side memory, Milano leather upholstery, capless fuel filling, and more.
Standard safety features are just as impressive, including all the usual active and passive gear as well as forward collision warning with autonomous collision mitigation braking, blindspot monitoring and lane departure warning with lane keeping assist and road departure mitigation, plus rear cross-traffic alert. This earns the RLX an IIHS Top Safety Pick rating, a lack of auto-cornering auto high beam headlights keeping it from earning a best-possible “Plus” rating.
On top of this, my tester’s Advance package includes the previously noted surround view camera system, Krell audio upgrade, a heatable steering wheel, ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, and rear sunshades, while also adding LED fog lamps, auto-dimming power-folding side mirrors, remote start, ambient rear passenger footwell lighting, plus front and rear parking sensors for $6,000, resulting in a new total of $65,950.
The RLX obviously needs an update, the next change most likely the adoption of Acura’s new larger, more angular Precision Concept-inspired grille so it can fight it out more aggressively with the aforementioned Lexus, at least before a complete redesign arrives. Most prognosticators are targeting the 2019 model year and a 2018 introduction for that all-new model. I’ve seen some fan renderings and they’re impressive, but who knows if Acura will finally get this car’s design right or somehow manage to miss the mark once again. Here’s hoping, because the current model is a superb car waiting for more visual presence.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press