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The 2007 Acura RL occupies an odd place among its competitors. As the top of Acura's model line-up, it should be the best the brand has to offer. But the cabin isn't particularly luxurious, the body style unremarkable, and the performance mediocre. However, it comes loaded with more technology than most, and feels like a solid, practical car.
Although it has a few nice touches on the interior and exterior styling, the RL doesn't look like an expensive car. Its profile is especially bland, similar to a Honda Accord. The way the front-end dips down gives it a little swagger, reminiscent of the Mercedes-Benz SL550. The similarity carries over to the tightly framed, trapezoidal grille. The cabin feels well-built, with decent leather and some good-looking wood trim, but it lacks the luxury feel found in the less-expensive Lexus IS 350.
We were very impressed with the tech in the 2005 version of the Acura RL, but its small updates haven't kept it up with the competition in some key areas. Live traffic reporting isn't novel any more, its superior voice command is now spread throughout lower-end Acura and Honda models, and its Bluetooth cell phone integration is almost primitive. But Acura continues to push tech boundaries in other areas, most notably with this car's Collision Mitigation Braking System, an advanced safety feature which compares well with those found on much more expensive cars.
Test the tech: Crashing the Dalek
The specification sheet for our review car included some strange letters alongside the model name: CMBS and PAX. The latter refers to the Michelin PAX System run-flat tires, which let you drive the car for 125 miles with no air pressure in the tires. CMBS is an acronym for the Collision Mitigation Braking System, mentioned above. We experienced CMBS in normal driving conditions a few times, and decided to test it by running the car into a soft object--specifically an 4-foot high, inflatable "Dalek," the evil creatures that appear in the Dr. Who television series.
Using the car's forward-facing radar, CMBS performs a number of actions if it detects an imminent collision. First, it will flash a visual warning on the instrument cluster display, admonishing the driver to brake. If the driver doesn't take action, it buzzes to get the driver's attention. Finally, the system will tighten up the seat belts and hit the brakes. Acura warns that the system can't hit the brakes hard enough to avoid a collision; just enough to lessen the damage in case the driver has taken no action.
During our general testing of the RL, we found many occasions when the brake warning would light up on the instrument cluster. These incidents occurred on the freeway and on city streets, at speeds of anywhere from 20mph to 70mph. In each case, we didn't feel like we were about to have a collision. For example, it lit up when we accelerated to change lanes on the freeway, thinking we were going to hit the car in the lane we were leaving. Every time we got it to activate during normal driving, it only got as far as its visual message stage--we never got it to buzz at us, or hit the brakes.
To see if we could make CMBS show us its full range of reactions, we put our inflatable Dalek down in a parking lot, then drove the Acura RL into it at around 20mph. The front bumper of the RL struck the Dalek, which went skittering away across the pavement, but we didn't get any reaction from the CMBS. We tried again, this time starting out slow, then accelerating a little as we closed on our Dalek, but still no word from CMBS. After more attempts at different speeds and starting from further away, we concluded that CMBS wouldn't react to what we thought was a substantial object. On consulting the car's manual, it points out that CMBS won't brake for pedestrians, but might react to metal objects it sees, such as train tracks. The experiment might have failed, but we did find out a little more about the system.
In the cabin
We mentioned above how the cabin of the RL isn't particularly luxurious. It uses nice materials, and everything is well put-together, but it doesn't feel like it is leaps and bounds above a Honda Accord. As a tech car, it earns high marks for its cabin gadgets. It has navigation with live traffic reporting, a stereo that can handle digital audio, and Bluetooth cell phone integration.
Acura offers multiple ways to control all of the RL's gadgets, including a central knob/joystick, voice command, and steering wheel buttons. We've complained about the confusion of buttons on the steering wheel in reviews of earlier RL models, but Acura cleans it up for the 2007 model year. It still has the same number of buttons, 14 in all, but they are better integrated. We would still like to see Acura consolidate its voice command system with the Bluetooth cell phone integration, which would eliminate two buttons. Further, the car information buttons, which sit between the right-hand spokes, don't need to be quite so large and could move to the dashboard.
In a recent column, we critiqued car interface systems from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi. Those car makers could learn a lot from Acura. All four companies use similar hardware to control cabin gadgets, but Acura's knob/joystick works the best, which shows that the software is to blame for these other companies' interface problems. We found it very easy to enter city and street names letter by letter, or select music using the interface in the RL. Likewise, Acura's voice command is the best in the business. It uses fairly intuitive commands, does a good job of recognizing spoken commands, and offers good feedback on its LCD.
The RL's navigation system handles basic tasks well. Its route guidance uses graphics and audio cues in good time to inform the driver of upcoming turns. But it doesn't have full text-to-speech functionality, and so won't read out the names of streets. We find this omission strange, as the voice system will read out loud the names of folders on MP3 CDs, among other things.