One of the bigger challenges facing automakers in recent years has been making usable and safe interfaces for navigation, stereo, and hands-free phone systems. With the 2014 RLX, Acura shows off its latest attempt at tackling the interface challenge, but ends up with a kludgey design that will leave drivers frustrated.
The RLX replaces the company's RL model as its flagship sedan, and incorporates enough changes to warrant a different model name. It successfully ups Acura's luxury quotient through the use of more quality interior materials and new technologies, yet still does not quite feel up to the big luxury of a Mercedes-Benz S-class or a.
However, it is not as pricey as those models, either, putting it in a near-luxury class with new contenders such as the.
Per Acura marketing strategy, the RLX does not have factory options so much as different trim levels. This new model can be had in a base trim or with a succession of packages, each adding features to the previous. The first upgrade adds navigation and the next brings in various technology features. An amazing Krell audio system comes in at the next level, and the top package, which the car I reviewed had, adds advanced driver assistance features.
An interface too far?
The RLX sets itself up as the most technologically advanced Acura yet with a direct-injection 3.5-liter V-6 engine and standard LED headlights; that latter feature is found in very few other cars. The headlights, trademarked by Acura as Jewel Eyes, not only use less energy and last longer than standard lamps, but they also throw a more well-defined pattern, with sharper edges and less bleed-over.
And while it's good to see new developments from Acura, which had grown stale in the technology department lately, its new cabin electronics interface is a mess. The RLX features a 7-inch touch screen above the console, within easy reach of the driver. Higher up and set into the dashboard sits an 8-inch LCD. Below the touch screen Acura includes a big jog dial and buttons that control content on the upper LCD.
The upper LCD shows the navigation system along with some music and phone functions, while the touch screen shows phone and stereo controls in a different format, but no navigation. Follow me so far?
Now here is where things really get messy. With a USB drive or iOS device plugged into the RLX's USB port, I could browse music sequentially by album or track on the touch screen, but I had to use the jog dial and refer to the upper LCD to browse the music library by artist, album, and genre, or file and folder when using a USB drive as my source.
On the touch screen, I was able to find a phone screen with a keypad and speed dial numbers. The upper LCD defaulted to a screen showing recent calls and the speed dial numbers. Pushing the Menu button, I was finally able to find my phone's contact list on the upper LCD, along with a keypad.
In short, between the two screens there is some duplication and some separation of controls, none of which makes any sense at all.
On the lowest-trim RLX without navigation, I imagine this interface becomes slightly simpler. However, as it's Acura's flagship model, the company should have just made navigation standard on the RLX. Given that automakers tend to replicate their newest cabin electronics across their lineups, expect to see this flawed system end up in more Acura models before someone has the sense to fix it.
One saving grace is that the touch screen and upper LCD both react quickly to inputs.
I found I could avoid much of the interface mess by using the RLX's voice command system, which let me enter destinations, initiate phone calls by a contact name, and even request music from an iOS device by saying an album or artist name. While fairly comprehensive, the voice command system still made me enter addresses one part at a time, as opposed to the way slicker systems accept an entire spoken address string.
Connected nav, mind-blowing sound
The RLX shows an improvement in Acura's navigation system, adding perspective view to the existing plan-view maps. The maps themselves look more refined than on previous Acura systems, with easily read street labels. The system uses traffic data to dynamically adjust routes so as to avoid traffic jams. It also reads out street names for upcoming turns and shows useful graphics with lane guidance for freeway junctions.
Acura offers many options for entering destinations, including searching a points-of-interest database and an online search option. One of my favorite features, a carryover from earlier Acura models, is a database of scenic drives for just about every one of the United States.
An intriguing means of finding restaurants or hotels is through the new AcuraLink Streams app, an Acura-branded app with Aha Radio services. Running the app on a smartphone, I could choose the Aha audio source, then choose stations listing restaurants or hotels. Aha found the nearest matching locations, showing them and reading the names of each out loud. I was able to choose the Navigate button on the upper LCD and have the location fed to the navigation system.
The real sweet spot in the cabin electronics is the Krell audio system. Krell has been building audiophile-ranked stereo equipment for a little over 30 years, and the RLX benefits greatly from its work.
The system uses 14 speakers, the woofers of which are covered with tasteful aluminum grilles, and deliver about the best dynamic range I have ever heard in a car stereo. Mostly listening to lossless digital recordings on an iPhone, I found the Krell system gave voice to the entire frequency range of each track. Bass notes dropped with a power that hit my entire body, while vocals were pristine and clear, and seemed to put the singer in the car with me on some well-produced tracks.
The higher-pitched notes and instruments invaded the cabin in a shimmering wave. However, at times they sounded shrill, which may have been more to do with the original recording and too-faithful reproduction by the Krell system.
Audio sources abounded in the RLX, although I could only seem to select which one I wanted to listen to on the lower touch screen, and not on the upper LCD.
With music on the car's own hard drive or on an iOS device plugged into the USB port, I had full access to the music library, with album, artist, and genre categories. When I plugged in a simple USB drive, the system only showed me music in a file-and-folder format. Bluetooth audio streaming also works, with its usual limited control capabilities.
Acura offers a couple of online options for music in the RLX, both running from a smartphone app. The car's interface fully integrated with Pandora, letting me select my custom stations and give songs a thumbs-up or thumbs-down using the touch screen. After installing the AcuraLink Streams app on my phone, I had access to the stations in my Aha Radio account through the car's interface, which included Slacker.
The RLX also features HD Radio as standard in the stereo.
Active cruise, hyperactive lane warning
The Advance trim level of the car I was testing included not only the delicious Krell stereo, but also a number of driver assistance features, from a blind-spot monitor to adaptive cruise control.
Activating cruise control, I set my speed and following distance, then took my foot off the pedal as the RLX used its forward-looking radar to gauge the speed of traffic ahead. The system delivered a somewhat rubber-bandlike feeling as it matched the changing speeds of cars ahead. A convenient graphic on the instrument cluster showed me when it had another car in its sights. At one point a car ahead on the freeway slowed down abruptly, and the RLX hit its brakes as well to match speeds. But as the other car switched lanes, clearing the way ahead, the RLX took too long to pick up speed back to my preset level, forcing me to get on the gas again to avoid pissing off the traffic that was coming up behind me.
The lane departure warning system beeped excitedly whenever I was about to cross a lane line without signaling, also showing a graphic on the cluster indicating which side I was about to cross. This system can be a little sensitive, so I switched it off when driving down particularly twisty roads.
Front-wheel drive, four-wheel steering
Acura tunes the electric power steering on the RLX so that it requires little effort to turn the wheel. However, to improve handling Acura makes the rear wheels turn as well. Acura calls this system on the front-wheel-drive RLX Precision All Wheel Steer (PAWS). The rear wheels only turn a few degrees, but it makes a big difference in helping the over 16-foot-long RLX come around a corner.
Working against the RLX is its suspension, which I found very unsatisfying.
The RLX's fixed suspension gave the car a floaty, rubbery ride, not uncommon for a luxury-oriented car. As such, it did not keep the car's body particularly flat when cornering at speed. But it also did not lead to a particularly comfortable ride. I felt like my butt was reading Braille whenever the road was less than smooth, with lots of uncomfortable bumps communicated to the cabin. The wheels, specially engineered for low noise, might have been to blame.
The RLX certainly delivered a quiet ride. Standing outside the car, I could hear the chattering of the 3.5-liter V-6 engine's injectors, but inside the cabin that noise was completely muted.
Acura proves the efficiency of direct injection with this engine. It cranks out 310 horsepower and 272 pound-feet of torque, much more than a typical 3.5-liter V-6, yet I saw fuel economy numbers in the mid-20s. Acura's EPA numbers show 20 mpg city and 31 mpg highway. I have seen equivalent cars without direct injection average below 20 mpg.
The engine did not feel especially powerful when I romped on the gas pedal, but the RLX accelerated smoothly and inexorably. It was fast enough for day-to-day driving, and could get up and go when needed.
A button labeled Sport near the shifter not only sharpened the throttle tuning, but also made the transmission downshift aggressively. I like the one-touch approach to the Sport mode, as opposed to some cars that require pushing a button or two and moving the shift lever to S.
Sport mode also let me put the RLX's transmission into manual mode. In normal driving, hitting one of the paddle shifters on the steering wheel let me shift the transmission sequentially, but left alone for a moment, the transmission would go back into automatic. With Sport mode activated, manual shift mode remained engaged after I used the paddle shifters.
Features and flaws
The 2014 Acura RLX feels like a big, roomy car, a definite improvement over the outgoing RL model. It drives easily, but it also features a mix of excellent features and serious flaws, and I am not sure the former make up for the latter.
The LED headlights cut a neat path through the night and the direct-injection engine gives it power and very good fuel economy. The Krell audio system also makes a compelling argument for the car, at least for music lovers.
However, the cabin interface is just so weird, so much a mess of disparate and duplicated functions that I hesitated whenever I wanted to choose music or make a phone call. And whenever the road got rough, the ride quality became abysmal.
Beyond those compliments and complaints, the RLX contains many solid features, a good collection of electronics and driving characteristics that help make the car a solid daily driver.
For those considering the RLX, another version coming out later this year may just feature even better handling and fuel economy. Acura will soon launch a hybrid RLX with all-wheel drive. Using an innovative hybrid drive system, this new RLX will not only have the direct-injection 3.5-liter V-6 turning the front wheels, but also gets two electric motors at the rear wheels providing power and putting additional torque down at the outside wheel in a turn. Although the hybrid RLX will not have the PAWS four-wheel-steering system, the torque vectoring might be even better.
Despite the drivetrain changes, Acura is not likely to change the interface for the RLX hybrid, and better fuel economy will not make it any less confusing.
|Model||2014 Acura RLX|
|Power train||Direct-injection 3.5-liter V-6, 6-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||20 mpg city/31 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||23.9 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional hard-drive-based with traffic data|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard with contact list integration|
|Digital audio sources||Onboard hard drive, Pandora, Aha Radio, iOS integration, USB drive, Bluetooth audio streaming, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||Krell 14-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, blind-spot monitor, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$61,345|