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2014 Acura RLX debuts with four-wheel steering, LED headlights

2014 Acura RLX

The RLX, Acura's new technology flagship, replaces the old RL model.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

For years Acura struggled with the fact that its biggest and best sedan was a far cry from the $100,000 luxury cruisers produced by the likes of Mercedes-Benz and Lexus. The 2014 RLX also does not punch in that uberweight class, but delivers a big luxury upgrade over its predecessor, the RL.

Although only slightly longer than the RL, the all-new RLX comes in at almost 2 inches wider, and the cabin feels much roomier. Acura rightly compares the RLX to the Lexus GS, BMW 5 Series, and Mercedes-Benz E-Class.

More than just an upgrade to the RL, Acura uses the RLX to showcase technology such as four-wheel steering, LED headlights, direct injection, and connected features. Most of these features may not be entirely new, but they are new to Acura.

During a one-day press preview organized by Acura, I tested the driving character and handling of the RLX, along with some of its driver assistance features and cabin electronics.

Direct-injected efficiency
Following Acura tradition, the engine sits laterally under the hood, signaling the RLX's front-wheel-drive platform. However, this new 3.5-liter V-6 adds direct injection to Acura standbys such as i-VTEC and cylinder deactivation, to produce 310 horsepower and 272 pound-feet of torque. That is 10 horsepower more than Acura's older 3.7-liter V-6.

2014 Acura RLX

Acura seats its new V-6 sideways to power the front wheels.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Acura said it was able to use lower gear ratios in the six-speed automatic transmission because of the engine's efficiency, which led to satisfying acceleration that squealed the front tires on a hard start from zero. Driving on the track, freeway, or a series of twisty roads, I never felt that the RLX lacked power.

With the RLX in Sport mode, impressive transmission programming became evident on the track. Acura thankfully activates all the car's sport settings at the touch of a single button, affecting throttle, transmission, and steering.

A glance down at the tachometer showed the transmission keeping the engine speed above 4,000rpm, even as I braked for a hard corner. An Acura representative told me the transmission programming takes into account steering angle, so it won't upshift right in the middle of a turn.

Turn technology
Acura's signature handling technology on the RLX is something it calls P-AWS, or Precision All-Wheel Steering. This cute acronym indicates four-wheel steering, something that crops up now and again in production cars. On the RLX, the front wheels use an electrically boosted power-steering system, tuned for precise but easy steering-wheel input. Actuators at the rear wheels add about 2 degrees of steering angle in response to the front wheel angle and other factors.

To improve cornering, the rear wheels point to the outside of a turn, reducing lateral forces on the tires and making them less likely to break grip. During braking, the rear wheels can both point in, going a bit pigeon-toed, to enhance stability and keep the RLX from fishtailing.

2014 Acura RLX

The RLX leans a little in this slalom, but P-AWS helps it negotiate quick turns.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The effect was subtle on broad turns, but made itself felt when I took sharp corners at speed. Hammering the RLX down a zig-zagging section of road, I found that it handled like a smaller car, and I had to remind myself that it was well over 16 feet long and close to 4,000 pounds. A few 90-degree corners on the track required hard initial braking followed by a snap of the steering wheel, to which the RLX responded with impressive stability.

A broad turn happened to be wet that day, making for minimal traction, which caused at least one driver to go off the track. I came into the turn a little more carefully, but still got to feel a moment of traction loss followed by the car's electronic road-holding setting me back to rights. Put that one down more to traction and stability control than P-AWS, but it boded well for the RLX's ability to handle slick roads.

The fixed suspension, tuned for a compromise between sport and comfort, did not keep the car entirely flat in the turns. The body leaned out noticeably, reminding me that the RLX is not really designed for the sporting set. Cruising along the highway, the suspension did not smooth over rough patches as well as a softer suspension would have.

Although P-AWS proved to be interesting and effective technology, I think a better mix would have been the same torque-vectoring all-wheel drive and active suspension used in the current MDX. Acura's SUV handles remarkably well, especially considering its center of gravity. Torque-vectoring all-wheel drive would give most of the benefits of P-AWS, while the magnetic suspension technology would actively adjust the ride quality depending on driving conditions.

Of course, all-wheel drive usually takes a toll on fuel economy. I was very impressed that, after a few hours of back-road and highway driving, the RLX's trip computer had recorded an average of 26.5 mpg.

The hybrid version of the RLX that Acura plans on releasing later this year will not have P-AWS, but will have torque-vectoring all-wheel drive courtesy of two electric motors at the rear wheels. The initial specs Acura has thrown out for that version of the car give it 370 horsepower and somewhere around 30 mpg.

Automatic collision avoidance
In addition to these road-holding technologies, the RLX I drove bore a whole raft of driver assistance features. The car featured camera-based collision and lane departure warnings, the latter feature so hyperactive that I had to turn it off, as it beeped every time I brushed against a lane line when cornering. Other systems on the RLX are adaptive cruise control, lane drift prevention, which uses the electric power steering to nudge the car back into its lane, and blind-spot monitors.

2014 Acura RLX

These LED headlights are a standard feature on the RLX.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The RLX's headlights stand out as a solid step into the future. Acura calls its LED headlight technology Jewel Eye, with each casing holding 10 LED projectors. Not only do these LED headlights consume less power and last longer than current projectors, Acura says the throw is longer yet less blinding for oncoming traffic. That sounds like wins all around.

The cabin tech that stood out the most for me was the Krell audio system. Krell is one of those high-end home stereo manufacturers that you do not generally hear about unless you like to spend thousands of dollars for individual stereo components. My listening was limited to just a couple of albums on my iPhone, "Ceremonials" by Florence and the Machine and Muddy Waters' "Folk Singer," but both sounded exceptionally good through the Krell amp and speakers. With the volume relatively low, the music came through with pleasing detail. Vocals gave an impression of closeness that showed big dynamic range from the system.

However, I was not as crazy about Acura's electronics interface in the car, which featured some confusing duplicated controls. The car had two LCDs in the center dashboard, the one at the top being a non-touch-sensitive screen showing navigation and audio selections. Another LCD, this one a haptic-response touch screen, sat lower down on the stack, within easy reach of the driver. It gave limited control over music selection and the Bluetooth phone system. And below that screen were a large dial and buttons controlling the color LCD at the top of the stack.

2014 Acura RLX

Acura's cabin tech interface is a bit clumsy, saddled with two screens and duplicated controls.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The reason for this odd controller configuration is that Acura makes navigation optional on the RLX. Get the car without navigation and the touch screen becomes the main cabin tech interface, while the dial and the color LCD either go away or get replaced by equipment with reduced functionality. As the RLX is its top sedan, Acura should really just make navigation standard and consolidate the interface.

I was also disappointed to find that voice command did not seem to let me request music from my iPhone when it was plugged into the car's USB port. It did, however, let me request music from the car's own hard drive. This voice command test was limited by the short nature of the press event, and Acura says the car retains the Song By Voice feature of its current models. When CNET gets the car in for a full review, I will investigate further.

Other cabin tech features look pretty full-featured. The navigation system includes perspective-view maps, something Acura has not had in the past. Traffic data comes into the car through a dedicated cellular data connection, rather than satellite radio, and includes surface streets in addition to highways and freeways. The destination input screens look similar to those currently used by Acura.

Online in the RLX
That cellular connection also works for the AcuraLink telematics service. AcuraLink includes concierge and emergency services, carryovers from current Acura models, but will also offer smartphone-accessible features. With the system's smartphone app you can view the car's fuel level and some diagnostic information, schedule maintenance appointments, look up destinations and send them to the navigation system, and remotely lock and unlock the doors.

A separate AcuraLink Streams app incorporates the Aha service, which lets you listen to a wide range of Internet content, such as music, social networks, and podcasts. It includes destination search services based on Yelp, which lists the nearest restaurants and coffee shops. The RLX also features Pandora integration. Both AcuraLink and Pandora require the apps to be loaded on a phone paired with the car through Bluetooth.

The 2014 RLX looks and feels worthier of being Acura's flagship sedan than the outgoing RL, and things will get a lot more interesting when the hybrid version comes out. The RLX still does not equal the top sedans from other luxury makers, but it also costs a lot less, remaining will within its midsize-luxury competitive set. The base-model RLX will go for about $50,000, while the fully loaded version, complete with Krell audio system and advanced driver assistance features, comes in at a little over $60,000.

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