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.
Acura places the phone buttons between the wheel spokes, and an additional voice command button on the lower left spoke.
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.
iPod integration includes categories for album, artist, and song on the car's LCD.
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.