The star of the Acura RL is its GPS navigation system with NavTraffic live traffic data in 20 major U.S. metro areas. Instead of showing you the same route you probably travel all the time, the RL displays accidents, road repair, and other impediments ahead live on the nav screen, making this navigator much more compelling than systems that just show you a map. Versions of this system that will actively reroute around traffic problems are still in the offing, but at least know why you're stuck in traffic. Given the fact that consumer uptake of conventional GPS nav systems in cars has been pretty abysmal, we think this could be what consumers are waiting for to make GPS a must-have.
The RL's navigation screen layout typically shows an overview map on the left 60 percent of the display and turn-by-turn directions on the right-hand 40 percent. Especially nice are "bird's-eye" animations of your next turn, merge, or exit. The system also gives you the usual verbal prompts. The NavTraffic data service is included for one year with a new RL; after that, you can either add it to an XM Radio subscription for $3.99 per month or get NavTraffic alone, without XM service, for $9.99 per month. The first year of XM satellite radio is also included with the purchase of a new RL.
The RL's LCD is a bright, eight-inch unit, mounted vertically and recessed slightly at the top end of the center console. This placement seems to keep the display from washing out in sunlight or under bright lights, and it keeps glare to a minimum. Image quality is very good, with fewer jaggies and less pixelation than we've seen in other cars of this class.
Unfortunately, the RL's unique--and uniquely frustrating--user interface mars its otherwise appealing tech package. Six buttons and a multifunction knob on the console guide you through the RL's menus. With those controls, you navigate an onscreen interface unlike anything found on computers, cell phones, or even ATMs, and that isn't a good thing. We spent three days with this car and never felt comfortable clicking around. It might help if the LCD were a touch screen, but it sits too far back in the dash for that to be ergonomically practical.
One antidote to this Achilles' heel is the RL's pervasive voice-recognition system, which lets the driver control navigation, climate, audio, and other settings by voice. In our tests, the system generally performed well and became our preferred method of inputting map destinations.
The Acura RL's Bluetooth setup for hands-free calling is straightforward, but oddly, you can perform the setup via voice command only. As with all Bluetooth-equipped cars, we recommend you talk to the dealership service department to check compatibility with your specific wireless phone before buying the car. Once paired to the car, your phone will show various status messages on a minidisplay embedded below the speedometer, rather than interrupting the main LCD information. This is a smart interface choice by Acura. In fact, that same ergonomic idea is seen in the small helper display above the main LCD, which shows useful information such as the time, the radio frequency, and the thermostat setting, all without having to interrupt the main LCD, which is probably busy with navigation information.
The 2005 Acura RL's audio system embraces the new DVD-Audio trend in car audio. Incorporating Bose CenterPoint technology, the system lets you play 5.1 DVD surround sound with excellent spatial positioning. There are 10 speakers onboard, driven by a 280-watt, six-channel amp.
In the invisible tech department, Acura's active noise-cancellation system is particularly intriguing. The RL samples road noise via two headliner-mounted microphones, then uses the sound system to cancel the same frequencies. This system works the same way noise-canceling headphones do, and Acura says that the system allowed it to the cut back on the amount of heavy, bulky sound deadening material the company had to stuff into the doors and the body panels of the RL.
Acura has taken a high-tech approach to maintenance and customer support via a system called AcuraLink. Using the same XM satellites that deliver audio and traffic data, your RL can receive diagnostic support, intelligent maintenance reminders, and on-demand tutorials to help you learn the car's various systems. Since AcuraLink is integrated with the car's Bluetooth hands-free system, the driver can respond to service prompts and messages with one-touch dialing either to reach an Acura dealer to schedule service or to get Acura roadside assistance--providing they've set up a Bluetooth phone with the car.
On top of AcuraLink, the RL also comes standard with OnStar telematics and a one-year complementary subscription to its Safe & Sound service, which includes remote door unlocking, air bag deployment notification, stolen vehicle locator assistance, and emergency roadside assistance. The RL's bumper-to-bumper and power train warranties both cover four years/50,000 miles--somewhat skimpy coverage compared to the power train warranties on competing Lexus and Infiniti vehicles.