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2006 Acura RL
When we reviewed the 2005 Acura RL, it set the high-water mark among high-tech cars. Its sheer volume of technologies was vast and included some that no other car had at the time, particularly NavTraffic live traffic data incorporated into the navigation system. Since then, however, the market has become more competitive, with the Infiniti M35 and the Cadillac STS as interesting alternatives. So how does the 2006 Acura RL stack up against the competition? Let's start with a summary of the changes since we first drove it.
Weightiest is a new set of vehicle-control and collision-avoidance technologies called the Technology Package, an odd name on a car with this much technology to begin with. It includes the collision-mitigating braking system, which applies the car's brakes to avoid hitting obstacles sensed by its forward-looking radar. This system is integrated with adaptive cruise control and bundled with Michelin run-flat tires to justify the $3,800 additional cost.
Also new for 2006 is Acura Music Link, an intelligent iPod adapter that plays, powers, and controls iPods through the in-dash factory audio system, which already plays just about every other source of sound known to man. Music Link is a dealer-installed piece with a list price of $214.
Engine power appears to be down at first glance, but this reduction is due to Acura following the new SAE J1349 horsepower rating method when it published the specs on the 2006 car. As a result, the horsepower calculation drops from 300hp in 2005 to 290hp on the 2006 RL. The torque number is also revised down slightly under the new rules, from 260 pound-feet in 2005 to 256 pound-feet today. Also, Acura dropped the 3.5 from the car's name, although the RL is still powered by a 3.5-liter V-6.
Loaded with every tech option on the build sheet, the Acura RL comes in at about $55,000. People who prefer a high-tech premium coupe but need a sedan would find that the RL makes a good compromise. For 2006, it continues to be a--if not the--class leader in high-tech driving.
The 2006 Acura RL's navigation system is one of its biggest selling points. Along with the Cadillac STS, it remains one of the only cars that integrates NavTraffic live traffic data into its built-in GPS system. Unlike with the much cheaper STS, NavTraffic is standard on the RL. Since we first reviewed this car in 2005, NavTraffic coverage has expanded to 22 markets, and by the end of March 2006, it should be in 31 major metro areas. We're big fans of live traffic information and think it makes an otherwise pricey, occasionally used luxury a lot easier to rationalize.
The yellow line on one side of Interstate 80 means slow traffic, while the green line on the other side means a clear road.
NavTraffic conditions are displayed clearly as color-coded roads and icons on the map, and the car can be set to read traffic alerts aloud. This service comes at a cost, of course. After a new RL's complimentary 12-month XM Radio subscription expires, NavTraffic costs $9.99 a month on its own or $16.94 a month bundled with XM Radio. XM Radio normally costs $12.95 a month, so the bundle with traffic represents a no-brainer savings.
The Acura RL's 8-inch LCD is still big and bright, but it's starting to look a little dated; its resolution is no longer the best in the business, and it doesn't offer a bird's-eye-view mode. It doesn't have touch-screen capability either, which is becoming more common, although the RL's screen is too far back in the dash for this to be simply added without repositioning the display closer to the driver.
Getting turn-by-turn directions from the RL remains a good experience, thanks to the viewing layout that puts an overview map on the left-hand 60 percent of the screen, while turn-by-turn directions occupy the right-hand 40 percent. We like that the RL doesn't treat the driver like a child and lock out destination entry while you're underway. And being able to use the internal Zagat guide to plot a course to a good meal is a boon to the foodies among us.
The RL's unique onscreen menu interface for navigation, audio, climate, and other settings bugged us in 2005, and it bugs us now. It still seems a bit nonintuitive--unlike any PC, cell phone, or ATM machine on earth. Fortunately, the voice-command system, which understands 560 instructions, works well as an alternative.
Every spoke on the Acura RL's steering wheel has buttons controlling various techie features.
The Acura RL's Bluetooth hands-free system was easy to set up with a Cingular Treo 650, and the call quality seemed excellent with the test calls we placed. Call status is shown in a bright electrofluorescent display nestled at the bottom of the speedometer, rather than interrupting what's on the main LCD. The RL's hands-free system needs some updating in the phone-book department, as it can't copy over contacts from a cell phone. Its 50-entry phone book must be manually populated using voice commands and voice commands only.
When we reviewed the 2005 Acura RL, its audio system was quite remarkable in its support for DVD-Audio discs. The 2006 model remains exceptional in that aspect--not a good report card for the progress of DVD-Audio in cars, but that's another issue. The RL's standard-issue Bose audio system uses Cabin Surround and Center Point technologies to create very accurate imaging when playing any disc, but with their 5.1 surround-sound coding, DVD-Audio discs especially stand out. There are 10 speakers onboard, driven by a 280-watt, 6-channel amp.
The car also has Acura's active noise-cancellation system, which works whether or not the stereo is on. It samples and cancels low-frequency noise from the car's exhaust note, letting softer musical nuances be heard without cranking up the volume.
We believe the RL remains the only car with a climate system tied to its GPS navigation unit. By calculating the position of the sun, the car adjusts the two sides of the climate system to account for which side of the car is, assumedly, warmer. We've never been able to figure out how the car knows if it's driving in sunny weather or a downpour, however.
The 2006 Acura RL's 3.5-liter V-6 pulls well and seems to do so more seamlessly over the previous model year. We suspect transmission programming has been revised, rather than any change to engine's torque curve. We like the absence of numb-throttle syndrome felt in so many other cars today, where hitting the throttle kicks in a whole series of sensors and servos rather than making the car respond in a satisfying manner. The RL's drive-by-wire throttle still feels like there's a cable running to the engine, and that's good. That said, the V-6 utters a slightly cheap note when accelerating, a problem that a couple of extra cylinders would cure.
Steering wheel paddles let the driver manually shift the automatic transmission.
Just as the RL comes with only one engine choice, Acura offers just one transmission to go with it. Its five-speed automatic can be manually shifted by either stirring the gear lever within a dedicated portion of its gate or by the use of two small shift paddles mounted on the back of the steering wheel. The left paddle downshifts, while the right upshifts. None of this matters since the paddles follow the steering wheel as it spins around, making a grab for either of the paddles a complicated guessing game. The gear lever is a much better way to influence this transmission, though we find its gate needlessly labyrinthine.
The car can also be manually shifted with the stick.
Braking was sure and smooth, with good, solid pedal feel. The car's roadholding technologies include Acura's Super Handling all-wheel-drive system and the vehicle-stability-assist program. Both work well to inspire confidence during freeway driving, as well as urban-cut and thrust-traffic negotiation.
When underway, this car feels like it looks: a biggish coupe in sedan clothing. It's light on its feet and has clean, quick reflexes rather than overprocessed smoothness. And while not truly a performance attribute, the interior cabin styling communicates a message of sporting readiness more than stately travel.
EPA-rated mileage for the 2006 Acura RL remains at 18mpg and 26mpg, city and highway, respectively. In our mix of about 250 miles of city and highway test driving, the car calculated an 18mpg average with a speed of 30mph.
The newest feature on the 2006 Acura RL is its Technology Package, which bundles adaptive cruise control (ACC), a collision-mitigation-braking system (CMBS), and Michelin Pax run-flat tires.
Adaptive cruise control is not rare any more, but combined with CMBS, it gets interesting. The system uses a radar device mounted on the grille to determine its distance from obstacles. A button on the steering wheel lets the driver toggle between three levels of following distance: roughly 1, 1.5, and 2 seconds, respectively. If the gap between the car and traffic ahead dips below the set threshold, the system lifts off the gas and can even apply the brakes. The experience can be eerie--even alarming--when someone cuts in front of the car, since the CMBS is able to clamp on the brakes pretty aggressively, although it can't actually stop the car. The system is meant for highway use, not avoiding rear-end collisions around town, and doesn't even function below 25mph.
Even when ACC/CMBS is turned off, the RL's braking system is an active design. Electronic brake distribution (EBD) biases the braking pressure from front to rear wheels depending on the attitude of the car and how it's loaded. On top of that, brake assist electromechanically works the brakes in a panic stop, applying maximum force to haul the car down to a controlled stop as quickly as possible. Both of these technologies, while not unique to the RL, are standard on the car.
The Michelin Pax run-flat tires are more than just a special tire on any old rim. Pax is a complete tire-and-wheel system. Inside the tire, mounted around the circumference of the rim bed, is a sort of skinny, semipneumatic inner tire. It allows the wheel to be driven, even with a total flat, up to 125 miles at 55mph before needing repair. A special tire-bead technology is also employed; even in the event of blowout, the tire casing should stay put on the rim. It's a tough item to test, but combined with the tire pressure-monitoring system, it certainly speaks to the new age of tire inflation.
The RL continues into 2006 with its active front-lighting system, Acura's version of low-beam headlights that swivel up to 20 degrees based on steering wheel angle and vehicle speed. The system is quite noticeable in operation and definitely throws a little more light into places 100 feet or so around the car's nose.
Each new RL comes with a year of OnStar Safe and Sound coverage, which includes remote door unlocking, air-bag deployment notification, stolen-vehicle locator assistance, and roadside assistance. After that first year, OnStar charges $16.95 a month or $199 a year to continue coverage.
The 2006 Acura RL's warranty remains at four years/50,000 miles on the overall car and any high-tech accessories optioned on it, but power train coverage has been bumped up to six years/70,000 miles, which we think is an appropriate for a $50,000 car.