While other automakers push the technological edge with their top sedans, Acura remains strangely resistant to change. The 2011 Acura RL shows some improvement in its drivetrain and driver assistance features, but the company installs more advanced cabin tech features in its TL and TSX models. And the RL falls far short of top sedans from European manufacturers.
Of course, the RL has never exuded the prestige of the Audi A8 or the Mercedes-Benz S-class. And it keeps a comparatively low price tag, suggesting Acura does not really want to compete in that big, executive sedan segment. The RL keeps its aspirations lower, offering reasonable comfort rather than plush luxury.
In the cabin, the RL sports as much plastic as it does wood trim, and thin strips of metal coexist with leather seats. Luxury tech touches include heated and cooled seats and a smart-key system that unlocks the doors with a touch of the handle. But instead of a push-button start, the RL uses a sort of fake key handle on the steering column, as if the company merely retrofitted a standard ignition lock.
Similarly, and a consistent problem with Acura, is the way some of the cabin tech features feel shoehorned into the car. With the Technology package, the RL gets a navigation system with an interface that does not feel well-integrated with the rest of the cabin electronics. And the voice command system for navigation and other car functions is grafted on, sitting side-by-side with a separate voice command system for the phone.
The RL's button-covered center stack will appeal more to tech aficionados than luxury buyers, with a functional but protruding primary control dial that also acts as a joystick. This controller manipulates an onscreen interface that is uniquely Acura, intuitively laid out but in need of a graphic makeover, saddled as it is with ugly gray buttons.
The car's navigation system only shows maps in 2D, but integrates traffic data, making it about average among the competition. Of course, the RL has had the same feature set for years, up to and including the Zagat restaurant listings in the points-of-interest database. The system includes weather forecast data, its most modern feature.
Standing out as a more up-to-date feature is the Bluetooth phone system, which easily downloads contact lists from paired phones to make them available on the car's LCD. The car includes a search function for those with overly full contact lists. The call quality is very good, aided by the active noise cancellation in the cabin.
Although Acura has installed its ELS audio system in just about every other model, the RL remains neglected in this regard, carrying on with its 10-speaker Bose system. This system produces good audio quality, but it doesn't shine with the kind of audiophile goodness found in other cars.
Acura has upgraded the audio sources with Bluetooth streaming audio and iPod integration, adding those on to the existing satellite radio and DVD changer. But unlike the TL and TSX models, there is no internal hard-drive storage for music, another instance where Acura's lesser models beat the RL in tech.
Browsing an iPod library on the car's main screen is a little slow, as it takes a moment to refresh artist, song, and album lists. Acura puts a pigtail with a USB port in the console, convenient for plugging in an iPod cable or USB drive. The console itself is a good place to hide an attached iPod.
The RL gets a couple of driver assistance features using its forward-facing radar, such as adaptive cruise control and what Acura calls its Collision Mitigation Braking System, or CMBS. The adaptive cruise control offers the usual three following distances, and worked without fault during highway testing.
CMBS works in a few different stages. When the car is rolling toward stopped traffic, it will first sound off an audible beep if the driver doesn't touch the brakes. If the brakes remain untouched it flashes a bright message on the instrument cluster reading, "Brake!" If these warnings have been given and the driver still hasn't touched the brakes, the car will initiate its own emergency braking. CMBS won't stop in time to prevent a collision, but its automatic braking should lessen the effects of an accident.
As a drivetrain improvement, Acura fits the 2011 RL with a six-speed automatic transmission, a long overdue update. This transmission offers sport and manual modes along with its standard drive mode. Paddles on the steering wheel make manual shifts easy, but this transmission shows the usual torque converter sluggishness during gear changes.
The sport mode for the transmission keeps the average engine speed high, around 3,000rpm, but it doesn't aggressively downshift during hard braking. It does its best work holding a low gear when you're giving it gas coming out of a turn.
But the RL isn't really a high-stepping sports car. Acura's 3.7-liter V-6 gives it 300 horsepower and 271 pound-feet of torque, numbers appropriate for the engine's variable valve timed tuning. But it lacks direct injection, engine technology rapidly coming into vogue as a way of improving efficiency. Transmission and engine do a good job of making the power available, offering easy acceleration and contributing to drivability.
The result of this engine tech is an EPA rating of 17 mpg city and 24 mpg highway. In our testing over mountain highways, freeways, and in city traffic, the 2011 RL turned in an average of 18 mpg. Those numbers are not particularly impressive.
Also to improve efficiency, Acura equips the RL with an electric power steering unit, one of the highlights of its performance tech. The steering feels responsive and offers decent road feedback.
Another of the car's advanced features is the all-wheel-drive system, Acura's Super Handling All Wheel Drive, or SH-AWD. This system actively distributes torque between the front and rear wheels and vectors it across the rear axle to aid in cornering. SH-AWD inspires handling confidence in the RL, letting you take corners at speed. However, the suspension is tuned more for comfort, allowing a lot of travel in the dampers. The car doesn't bounce over bumps, but you can feel it stretch when pulled through a fast corner.