The 2007 Acura RL occupies an odd place among its competitors. As the top of Acura's model line-up, it should be the best the brand has to offer. But the cabin isn't particularly luxurious, the body style unremarkable, and the performance mediocre. However, it comes loaded with more technology than most, and feels like a solid, practical car.
Although it has a few nice touches on the interior and exterior styling, the RL doesn't look like an expensive car. Its profile is especially bland, similar to a Honda Accord. The way the front-end dips down gives it a little swagger, reminiscent of the Mercedes-Benz SL550. The similarity carries over to the tightly framed, trapezoidal grille. The cabin feels well-built, with decent leather and some good-looking wood trim, but it lacks the luxury feel found in the less-expensive Lexus IS 350.
We were very impressed with the tech in the 2005 version of the Acura RL, but its small updates haven't kept it up with the competition in some key areas. Live traffic reporting isn't novel any more, its superior voice command is now spread throughout lower-end Acura and Honda models, and its Bluetooth cell phone integration is almost primitive. But Acura continues to push tech boundaries in other areas, most notably with this car's Collision Mitigation Braking System, an advanced safety feature which compares well with those found on much more expensive cars.
Test the tech: Crashing the Dalek
The specification sheet for our review car included some strange letters alongside the model name: CMBS and PAX. The latter refers to the Michelin PAX System run-flat tires, which let you drive the car for 125 miles with no air pressure in the tires. CMBS is an acronym for the Collision Mitigation Braking System, mentioned above. We experienced CMBS in normal driving conditions a few times, and decided to test it by running the car into a soft object--specifically an 4-foot high, inflatable "Dalek," the evil creatures that appear in the Dr. Who television series.
Using the car's forward-facing radar, CMBS performs a number of actions if it detects an imminent collision. First, it will flash a visual warning on the instrument cluster display, admonishing the driver to brake. If the driver doesn't take action, it buzzes to get the driver's attention. Finally, the system will tighten up the seat belts and hit the brakes. Acura warns that the system can't hit the brakes hard enough to avoid a collision; just enough to lessen the damage in case the driver has taken no action.
With our "Dalek" in place, we get ready to run it over in a test of the car's CMBS.
During our general testing of the RL, we found many occasions when the brake warning would light up on the instrument cluster. These incidents occurred on the freeway and on city streets, at speeds of anywhere from 20mph to 70mph. In each case, we didn't feel like we were about to have a collision. For example, it lit up when we accelerated to change lanes on the freeway, thinking we were going to hit the car in the lane we were leaving. Every time we got it to activate during normal driving, it only got as far as its visual message stage--we never got it to buzz at us, or hit the brakes.
To see if we could make CMBS show us its full range of reactions, we put our inflatable Dalek down in a parking lot, then drove the Acura RL into it at around 20mph. The front bumper of the RL struck the Dalek, which went skittering away across the pavement, but we didn't get any reaction from the CMBS. We tried again, this time starting out slow, then accelerating a little as we closed on our Dalek, but still no word from CMBS. After more attempts at different speeds and starting from further away, we concluded that CMBS wouldn't react to what we thought was a substantial object. On consulting the car's manual, it points out that CMBS won't brake for pedestrians, but might react to metal objects it sees, such as train tracks. The experiment might have failed, but we did find out a little more about the system.
In the cabin
We mentioned above how the cabin of the RL isn't particularly luxurious. It uses nice materials, and everything is well put-together, but it doesn't feel like it is leaps and bounds above a Honda Accord. As a tech car, it earns high marks for its cabin gadgets. It has navigation with live traffic reporting, a stereo that can handle digital audio, and Bluetooth cell phone integration.
Acura offers multiple ways to control all of the RL's gadgets, including a central knob/joystick, voice command, and steering wheel buttons. We've complained about the confusion of buttons on the steering wheel in reviews of earlier RL models, but Acura cleans it up for the 2007 model year. It still has the same number of buttons, 14 in all, but they are better integrated. We would still like to see Acura consolidate its voice command system with the Bluetooth cell phone integration, which would eliminate two buttons. Further, the car information buttons, which sit between the right-hand spokes, don't need to be quite so large and could move to the dashboard.
This help screen shows voice commands for the stereo system.
In a recent column, we critiqued car interface systems from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi. Those car makers could learn a lot from Acura. All four companies use similar hardware to control cabin gadgets, but Acura's knob/joystick works the best, which shows that the software is to blame for these other companies' interface problems. We found it very easy to enter city and street names letter by letter, or select music using the interface in the RL. Likewise, Acura's voice command is the best in the business. It uses fairly intuitive commands, does a good job of recognizing spoken commands, and offers good feedback on its LCD.
The RL's navigation system handles basic tasks well. Its route guidance uses graphics and audio cues in good time to inform the driver of upcoming turns. But it doesn't have full text-to-speech functionality, and so won't read out the names of streets. We find this omission strange, as the voice system will read out loud the names of folders on MP3 CDs, among other things.
There are many options for destination entry, but unlike the system on the Lincoln MKZ, you can't look for freeway entrances or exits. The RL has one of the best points-of-interest databases around, though, with complete listings for every kind of retail location. It also has Zagat ratings for restaurants, so you can actually get an idea of the price and quality of a listing when you are in unfamiliar territory. The navigation system's maps are nicely rendered, and it overlays them with traffic information received through XM satellite radio. But route guidance doesn't react to traffic incidents, unlike the Lexus LS 460L, which will suggest a detour if there's traffic along a route.
It's easy to enter letters using the knob/joystick on the center stack.
The RL gets a Bose surround sound audio system with 10 speakers, but not the premium ELS system found on other Acura models, including the RDX. We found the RL's system sounded generally good, although its bass was muffled and it could have been a little brighter overall. The in-dash, 6-disc changer reads MP3 and WMA CDs, as well as DVD audio. The RL also has XM satellite radio and an auxiliary jack in its center console, but no option for iPod integration. We were disappointed to find that the system didn't show any of the extra information available on the DVD-audio disc we played. MP3 and WMA track information is also limited. Both the manual interface and the voice command system work very well for controlling the stereo.
One feature where the RL falls far short of the competition is its Bluetooth cell phone integration. We easily paired it with our Samsung SGH-D807 phone, and found that call quality was fine. The voice command system recognized numbers we gave it without a hitch. But it has no ability to access phone books, forcing us to look up the actual numbers for people we wanted to call. The car has a phone book function, but you have to create each entry one at a time, using the voice system.
Under the hood
With Acura's Super Handling All Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) and a 290-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine with variable valve timing, you would think the RL has a sporting nature. Although it drives well in normal circumstances, any attempt to push its limits reveals serious shortcomings, most of which can be traced to the five-speed automatic transmission.
The RL's five-speed automatic kept us from exploiting the car's horsepower and handling.
The engine gives this car decent boost, but you won't really feel it due to the slushbox transmission. The transmission has paddle shifters on the steering wheel for its manual gear selection mode, but even these don't help the performance. When trying to power through a turn, we found the manual gear selection took crucial seconds to actually make the downshift we had requested. On a fast start, the car really lost it when we upshifted, giving us virtually no power from the throttle. And because the paddle shifters are attached to the wheel, they become useless in sharp turns. In full automatic mode, the transmission downshifts too slowly for any kind of sport driving.
We were more surprised at the amount of understeer, considering the car's SH-AWD system. Throwing the car into hard corners, we frequently found we had to hand-over-hand the wheel to get it turned far enough. On the plus side, we never broke traction in the many times we threw the car around. The RL has a pretty solid grip on the road, although the transmission kept us from really powering it through any corners.
This set of buttons turns off a bunch of acronyms related to the car's traction and safety systems.
On the high-tech side of things, we mentioned how CMBS works above. The RL also has adaptive cruise control. We found this feature worked well--we set our speed and the car reacted to slower traffic ahead by slowing down and keeping pace. Like most of these systems we've seen, the RL has three set following distances. For safety, the RL also has adaptive headlights, which swivel a few degrees when the wheels are turned.
Our biggest disappointment with the RL came from its fuel economy. During our mixed city and freeway driving, we had a tough time breaking an average of 16mpg. In its new testing procedures, the EPA gives the car 16mpg in the city and 24mpg on the highway. A sixth gear might have raised the RL's freeway numbers, giving it a better average. On the plus side, its California Air Resource Board emissions rating is ULEV II, a decent score.
The 2007 Acura RL comes in three trim levels: a base model for $46,280, the Technology package for $49,900, and the Technology package with CMBS and PAX for $53,700. When we first saw the Acura RL in 2005, we were blown away by all of the technology offerings. Unfortunately, cars have longer product cycles than electronics, and Acura will probably want to get four or five years out of the current RL configuration before making a major model upgrade. This fact lets other cars with more recent model upgrades adopt newer, more feature-rich electronics.
We would expect that a 2009 or 2010 model RL could be pretty mind-blowing, but for now, there are many good alternatives. For example, the Lexus IS 350 and BMW 335i offer better performance and almost as many cabin gadgets for similar money. Acura's own RDX has the same technology, a better-sounding stereo, and slightly better performance for less money. In a different direction, the Nissan Altima Hybrid has live traffic reporting, the same if not better cabin technology, and a hybrid power train for substantially less money. But the 2007 Acura RL fits a certain type of buyer, a person who finds themselves making more money than they ever expected, yet would feel uncomfortable in something ostentatiously luxurious or powerful. The RL fits well with IT professionals and technology executives with humble aspirations who still need to commute into work every day and aren't going to race around mountain roads on the weekends.