2011 Acura RL Review

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Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
June 10, 2011

The 2011 Acura RL lives up to its flagship status in the Acura lineup with top-notch tech features and long-haul comfort, but charm comes up missing.

The 2011 Acura RL is an elegant, conservative sedan—at the large end of mid-size, powered by a strong, high-revving V-6 powertrain and sophisticated all-wheel drive system, and loaded with comfort, tech, and infotainment features. But simply put, the Acura RL falls short of its rivals.

To start, in a fickle luxury market, the RL's design is simply no longer fresh. While the RL has been given a modest refresh for 2011, in the form of a new front end, revised interior tech and entertainment features, and a number of mechanical changes including a new six-speed automatic transmission, most of the car is carried over (and is now more than five years on). For some seasoned luxury car buyers, the anonymity might be appreciated, but as Acura's left it for 2011 this sedan looks derivative and lost from the outside. Inside, it's better, with the familiar Acura instrument panel layout—still close to that used in the TL—which has held up well, even if it's a bit restrained.

Going by the specs panel, or even by instrumented-testing numbers, the performance credentials for the 2011 Acura RL look great: The powerful 300-hp V-6, a new six-speed automatic with paddle-shifters, and a sophisticated SH-AWD all-wheel drive system help put the power to the pavement (and smartly manage it from side to side) even on tight, roughly surfaced corners. But somehow, something's missing in the translation to the driver's seat. This year, a new six-speed automatic provides smoother, surer shifts, which helps make the powertrain more agreeable than ever, but numb, innocuous steering and all-around isolated feel keep you from pushing it hard. If you do, though, you'll find it's actually quite hard to fluster: Acura's SH-AWD system here simply delivers with composure and grip, whenever you need it.

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If you don't watch it, you'll probably end up pushing well past the speed limit; with its quiet, supremely isolated interior and a suspension that keeps body motion very much under wraps yet without giving up comfort, it's a go-fast touring machine for the sorts of trips where you want to cover hundreds of miles a day while catching up with your road-trip companions. Even on the most roughly surfaced, tightest backroads, you'll only hear, faintly, the most jarring impacts, while being able to glide around tight, choppy curves very quickly—though again, without much of the satisfaction or involvement that usually comes with a sport sedan.

The interior of the 2011 Acura RL, while one of the quietest and very comfortable for those in the front seat, is far from the roomiest and really only fit for four adults. Front seats are firm and fine, but the back seat is cramped for head room and foot space and the trunk isn't as capacious as other sedans. The RL's wheelhouse is a quiet cabin, thanks to an active noise cancellation system.

The feature list is strong, overall, with xenon headlamps with Active Front Lighting, adaptive cruise control, heated and ventilated seats, Bluetooth and USB features, and a great-sounding USB system all on offer, as well as a navigation system with real-time traffic and weather data. But the design is showing its age in a number of tech and feature details—especially in the overly sluggish, outdated navigation system, which compared to the latest systems in Lincoln and Audi vehicles feels a full decade behind.

Although Honda has yet to confirm a replacement, stay tuned in the Related News section; a fully redesigned RL might soon remedy that and provide Acura with a more competitive entry.

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2011 Acura RL

Styling

While the interior of the aging 2011 Acura RL is still reasonably stylish and well designed, the exterior feels too careful and conservative to be noticed in the crowd.

For some seasoned luxury car buyers, the anonymity might be appreciated, but as Acura's left it for 2011 this sedan looks derivative and lost from the outside. Stepping around the RL, it just feels flat-out dull for a supposedly glitzy luxury car. Acura calls the RL's exterior styling aggressive, but after hemming and hawing from various angles, we can't see it; it's a very conservative sedan. The snout had been its main talking point, but what replaces it this year is a revised, oddly conservative (and cheap-looking) grille treatment that looks less fluid and integrated than the original (of this generation) 2005 RL.

Inside, it's better, with the familiar Acura instrument panel layout closer to the TL, which has held up well, even if it's a bit restrained. While the overall look is good, including a horizontal line that wraps across the dash and doors, and functionally simple with center stack controls that are nicely arranged, the setup doesn't include a touchscreen for many functions, which places it behind some competitors. It's refreshingly simple, but also a little cluttered and dated.

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2011 Acura RL

Performance

The 2011 Acura RL is a well-rounded performer, but it's sorely lacking the thrill factor.

If you go by the specs panel, or even by instrumented-testing numbers, the performance credentials for the 2011 Acura RL look great: There's an eager-to-rev V-6, a new 6-speed automatic with paddle shifters, and a capable all-wheel-drive system, which Acura calls SH-AWD, to manage power front to back, and side to side. Despite that impressive resume, something is missing from its overall feel.

While the RL's 3.7-liter V-6, making 300 horsepower and 271 pound-feet, isn't the torquiest off the line, it builds to a sonorous and impressive power peak, for as quick of a super-legal two-laner semi pass as we could ever see laid back drivers wanting. And one longtime problem with all V-6 Honda and Acura cars—lumpy, almost harsh shifts on gentle acceleration—seems to have been completely solved here; Acura says that the six-speed automatic has a new multi-clutch torque converter, which aids fuel economy and probably has something to do with that smoothness.

That said, there's something about the way the RL is tuned (and how well it's isolated, perhaps) that doesn't invite you to drive it hard, but it has no problem being driven fast. The numb, innocuous steering and all-around isolated feel keep you from pushing it hard, though if you do you'll find it's actually quite hard to fluster. Acura's SH-AWD system here simply delivers with composure and grip, whenever you need it. And as for sheer velocity, if you don't watch it, you'll probably exceed the speed limit. It's easy to see how: it's a quiet sedan with a well-composed suspension that keeps body motion at bay without giving up comfort and is the kind of cruiser worth taking on long road trips and chewing through the miles.

Even on the most roughly surfaced, tightest backroads, you'll only hear, faintly, the most jarring impacts, while being able to glide around tight, choppy curves very quickly—though again, without much of the satisfaction or involvement that usually comes with a sport sedan.

Aside from being able to order up a little more steering feel, the sport-sedan crowd would probably also like a little steadier brake feedback. The brakes have an initial, almost overboosted bite that seems to fade in longer stops; it can feel almost like fade, but add a little more pedal pressure and you'll find it isn't.

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2011 Acura RL

Comfort & Quality

The interior of the 2011 Acura RL is whisper-quiet and well assembled, but it's not all that roomy in the back seat or in the trunk.

The interior of the 2011 Acura RL, while one of the quietest and very comfortable for those in the front seat, is far from the roomiest and really only fit for four adults. The RL's front seats are firm and supportive, with ventilated leather (and heating and cooling) striking a good balance, even though they're missing extended thigh supports. In back there's enough room for adults, even with long-legged front seat riders. The roof has been carved out to provide more head room for tall passengers.

The trunk also feels minuscule for a vehicle in this segment, too; the decklid and opening are quite small, and toward the frontal portion the space tapers inward and upward.

The Acura RL's real strong suit is quietness in the cabin, thanks to thicker glass and more insulation than rivals, while high-quality materials, including glossy, rich wood and solid, pleasant-feeling plastics, provide a relaxed, premium feeling. An active noise cancellation system and excellent sealing from wind noise means that even on the highway, at super-legal speeds, you'll be able to carry on a quiet, relaxed conversation.

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2011 Acura RL

Safety

The safety package looks excellent for the 2011 Acura RL, but it's clouded a bit by a mediocre roof-strength score.

The 2011 Acura RL scores well in most assessments of safety—especially with respect to features and accident avoidance—but a few points keep it from being called one of the safest vehicles in this class. While the RL hasn't at all been tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the IIHS has put the car through its paces and gets to "Good" marks in front, side, rear impact tests, but fell down in the new roof-strength test. According to the IIHS, it had the worst results in the category of any model tested, and resulted in a higher-than-typical chance of injury during a rollover crash, which is a relatively rare occurrence in a low-slung sedan.

But all the standard safety features are here, and more. Six airbags are standard, plus active front headrests, electronic stability control, and anti-lock brakes, and radar-based cruise control and automatic curve-following headlights are available. Acura's Collision Mitigation Braking System also detects potential rear-end collisions from its location behind the front grille, warns the driver, then initiates automatic braking, using millimeter-wave radar technology to keep track of vehicles ahead. CMBS is bundled with adaptive cruise control (ACC), which adapts speed and distance to the vehicle in front.

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2011 Acura RL

Features

Many of the latest infotainment and tech features are on offer in the 2011 Acura RL, but it's pricey when ordered with them and the interface feels outdated and inelegant.

At first glance at all the potential features available in the 2011 Acura RL, it looks like a high-tech bonanza; xenon headlamps with Active Front Lighting, adaptive cruise, heated and ventilated seats, Bluetooth and USB interfaces, and a great-sounding Bose sound system.

Other features include a navigation system with real-time traffic and weather data, along with full XM satellite radio integration.The standard equipment list is impressive with a sunroof and xenon headlights included. Leather seating, power sunshades, and dual-zone climate control add to the experience. Unfortunately, many of the tech goodies are bundled up with each other and can drive up the overall price by thousands.

And while the feature list is strong, overall, the design is showing its age in some tech and feature details, like the little add-on stub on the steering column, to enable 'keyless' ignition, and the overly sluggish, outdated navigation system, which compared to the latest systems in Lincoln and Audi vehicles feels a full decade behind. The interface also feels somewhat clunky, with the central rotary knob more time-consuming for input than touch screens. The array of buttons surrounding the main knob are a little puzzling at times, too; for instance, why is the A/C button down with the nav controls rather than with climate controls?

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2011 Acura RL

Fuel Economy

The 2011 Acura RL is somewhat thirsty for its size, but respectable to other luxury models.

The 2011 Acura RL comes with fuel economy ratings (17 mpg city, 24 highway) that are about average relative to other large luxury sedans.

There are quite a few non-luxury sedans that offer the same space but much better fuel economy--upward of 30 mpg on the highway or better. Those cars include the Hyundai Sonata, Chevrolet Malibu, and Buick LaCrosse.

On a 250-mile test, which was a mix of suburban detail intermixed with highway drives, we managed 22 mpg combined, which was on par for the big V-6 and its EPA ratings of 17/24 mpg.

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Styling 6
Performance 7
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