2009 Acura RL
The 2009 Acura RL is an evolved version of the generation of Acura's flagship that first entered the market in 2005. The main changes to the car's exterior styling are bolder chrome flashes across the revised fascia and rear decklid, as well as the usual nips, tucks, and lens reshaping. Under the hood, a larger V-6 delivers the oomph the previous RL lacked.
Inside, things are mostly familiar, with some nice trim upgrades and a subtler palette than in our previous test cars. The much-lauded voice-control system has expanded its vocabulary to 700 commands, joining a few other such additions to an already-impressive array of cabin tech.
The RL was an Editors' Choice pick in its 2005 debut, when its features put it in a tech class of its own. Needless to say, the rest of the world caught up and then some since then, but the RL fights back with a few new features, such as weather reporting and automatic route recalculation around traffic.
Test the tech: Another Acura road trip It seems as though every time an Acura is assigned for our evaluation, the calendar coincidentally beckons with a previously planned road trip. Most recently, we ran the 2008 MDX a couple hours south to this year's Monterey Historic Automobile Races. This time, we'd see how that SUV's same 3.7-liter motor would fare in the RL with some sustained Interstate 5 cruising. Destination: Los Angeles, for one and (as it turned out) only one game of good, old, accursed play-off baseball. But no need to dwell on that here.
The updated RL now features automatic rerouting around traffic incidents.
The most noteworthy addition to the 2009 RL's tech roster is destination rerouting based on real-time traffic information. Typically, the only time on the entire trip that we could have really, and we mean really, used the feature was unfortunately just before we activated route guidance to our destination.
Happening upon unexpectedly slowing traffic on Interstate 580 between San Francisco and I-5 south, we activated guidance about one minute too late. A "police action" on an overpass had closed the four-lane artery in both directions, with all traffic being sent down an off-ramp and onto surface streets to the next freeway entrance. Sure enough, the navigation system's recalculated route would have gotten us off the freeway one exit earlier and potentially saved us almost two hours of stop and go crawling. We still made it south in plenty of time to watch our doomed heroes largely phone it in while being good-naturedly mocked by Dodger fans, but, again, no need to dwell on that here. Lesson learned: even if you know where you're going, let the RL know, too.
To make up that lost time, it was clearly necessary to see how the RL handled some mile-munching in the light traffic and dead-straight visibility of I-5. Despite having only a five-speed automatic, the RL turns about 3,000rpm at the century mark and feels very solid and composed. Wind and road noise are deadened electronically, and we found that making Bluetooth-connected calls at speed and with the sunroof tilted open was possible without having to yell.
We found the Bluetooth-streaming audio convenient; we used it with our paired Sony Ericsson phone.
As we neared LA, the reported traffic alerts were predictably numerous, although with mostly the normal slowdowns and nothing approaching the sort of blockage we'd seen earlier. Although the navigation system did offer an alternate route based on traffic, this time we decided the RL's route was too complicated to be better than our plan and so we stuck to the freeway. The auto-rerouting feature can be turned off for those who always know better.
We made few concessions to conservation on this trip, driving rapidly and usually with the air conditioning blowing at a low fan speed. Over the course of our two-day mission, the RL's trip odometer showed an average fuel economy of just over 20 mpg, against our calculated 20.7 mpg.
In the cabin
As mentioned previously, the interior of the 2009 Acura RL is mostly unchanged from last year's version. A few buttons are shaped differently, the now-linear automatic shift gate looks much better with a leather boot and knob, and the steering wheel gets an imitation-wood treatment over the top and bottom arcs. Overall, small things have made a difference in the RL, although top-flight interiors from competing European sedans still have the upper hand.
Although these buttons work just fine, you can do a lot with the car's voice-command system.
As far as technology goes, however, the RL still makes its mark. We do wish the blocky interfaces on the touch screen looked a little nicer, although rectangles make nice targets. Increasingly, Acura seems to be stuffing incremental improvements into an aging system due for a redesign. Functionally, all of the tech works well, if without much elegance.
Traffic reporting is expected in a good navigation system at this point, so Acura brought the traffic-sensitive rerouting feature to the table along with less vital, but useful, weather reports along the route and elsewhere. Alerts can be scrolled through manually, or (as already noted) used to allow the system to calculate a new route based on known slow points.
The Bose-branded 10-speaker sound system is powerful and can play DVD-audio, streaming Bluetooth, and devices plugged into a USB port, in addition to the usual sources. XM satellite radio is standard and now includes a "Note" function, which stores a 10-second clip of up to 30 songs along with their artist/title/channel information. Speed-adjustable volume worked very well with the Active Sound Control to keep the music and talk at steady levels. MP3 discs and files show track name information.
Acura improved the RL's Bluetooth-phone system by letting it download cell phone contact lists.
The Bluetooth set-up in Hondas and Acuras is very familiar to us by now, and we admire its simplicity, although, like most cars, it won't pair a phone to the vehicle while moving. It is now capable of downloading and PIN-protecting a paired phone's contacts list, which is searchable via the joystick controller. We took advantage of this feature, as well as our Sony Ericsson k790's A2DP streaming, to play MP3 files from the phone.
All these systems and the dual zone climate control are controllable through the improved voice-command feature, which was already the best of its kind. As Antuan Goodwin noted when reviewing the Honda CR-V recently, the system now understands enough commands and combinations that you can get most things to work without having to know the specific words first. With radio presets, it works especially quickly, although we still felt more comfortable programming our destinations using the knob.
On the comfort side, the front seats are heated, cooled, and 10-way adjustable, including lumbar. Materials are mostly up to snuff, with nicer metal accents and real wood dashboard trim as part of the top options package. The automatic climate-control system takes GPS data into account and adjusts for the position of the sun relative to each passenger. We're not sure if this is jumping the tech shark, but we like it. Another interesting touch is the capability to let the car schedule service appointments for you via AcuraLink, which communicates maintenance information to authorized dealers at the driver's discretion.
Rear-seat room has increased slightly, and passengers reported adequate leg and head room. The trunk is deep, with a light aluminum lid and a lockable rear-armrest pass-through. The aux-audio input, USB cord, and a power outlet are all wisely located in the deep center armrest, which also has a flatter covered-storage space in its lid. There are power-lowering rear headrests, a power-rear window shade, and manual rear-side window shades. A previous shortcoming, the lack of a rear-view camera, has been remedied, albeit with a rudimentary implementation.
Under the hood
The big news on the performance front is the new 3.7-liter engine, now putting out 300 horsepower and better sub-3,000rpm torque than the heavier engine it replaces. Most luxury flagships sport eight-cylinder engines, but Acura touts the V-6's packaging and weight-saving benefits over comparably powerful V-8s. In any case, the engine sports VTEC valve timing on both the intake and exhaust sides, a first for a single, overhead, cam engine.
Acura bumped up displacement for the RL's engine, putting it on par with its competitors.
Also a bit of a luxury let-down is the five-speed transmission. This was targeted as the reason for the lackluster performance of the previous RL we tested, a 2007 model. It's been strengthened and remapped for 2009 and can now be paddle-shifted whether in Drive mode or manual. As noted earlier, a sixth gear on the highway might have increased gas mileage, but the top gear still provided relaxed engine speeds while cruising.
We also felt the transmission responded better to spirited around-town and curvy-road driving, not noticing any of the delays and hunting mentioned in our earlier review. Also certainly contributing to the enjoyment is the revised SH-AWD torque-apportioning system. It is noteworthy because it is capable of transferring power not only fore and aft, but also individually to the rear wheels, either of which might get all of the power coming to the rear axle (never more than 70 percent of the total) under extreme conditions. The outer rear wheel is also made to spin faster than the inner one during aggressive cornering, reducing the under-steer effect at the front.
The RL's five-speed transmission delivered good performance, making the car feel sporty.
Along with the expected traction control and stability-enhancing electronic-driving aids, the RL again offers the Collision Mitigation Braking System with the top options package. Under certain conditions based on comparative vehicle speeds, the RL will warn of a possible impending collision, also pretensioning the seatbelts with a noticeable yank and actually applying the brakes if necessary, but not enough to stop the car entirely. We found the system a little too sensitive in city traffic and never activated it on the highway, except when pulling out to pass slower traffic. The same radar-based system is used for active cruise control, a feature we didn't try this time, but which proved useful in our previous tests of the RL. CMBS can be easily switched off, as can an active headlight-pivoting feature.
The EPA rates the 2009 RL at 16 mpg in the city and 22 on the highway, which jibes with our observed, mostly highway-derived, figures mentioned earlier. The RL earns meets the California Air Resources Board's ULEV-2 emissions standard.
The 2009 Acura RL, with navigation and the CMBS crash mitigation and adaptive cruise control, comes in at a price of $53,700, putting it at the top of Acura's line-up and clear into the sport-luxury territory of competitors. Although cabin tech hasn't improved enough to keep up with the field, its best tech is now in the drivetrain, which has improved performance markedly. But it's time for a revamped infotainment interface to keep pace with the car's new power and look, along with features Acura is rolling out in the new TL.
Sales of the RL have been in decline for some time, and the revamped RL probably won't reverse that trend in the face of competition, like the perennial favorite and recent Editors' Choice winner, the BMW 5-series, the Lexus GS, and even the cheaper Cadillac CTS, also a recent Editors' Choice winner. The RL still offers a reasonably refined collection of tech, but no longer offers much to separate it from the pack. Our ratings reflect that the RL has basically stood still since our last test, while the competition has caught up. The comfort score has come down a peg, as little of the RL's tech is groundbreaking now, while the performance score has notched up one point for its new engine and enhanced all-wheel-drive package.