2015 Acura RLX Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
June 24, 2015

The 2015 Acura RLX is an understated luxury full-sizer that puts emphasis on unique technical solutions instead of all-out style and flair.

The 2015 RLX is a polite, well-composed premium sedan, a contender in the ring with the Cadillac XTS and Lincoln MKS—without being overtly stylish or brash. That's despite new safety gear, and a superb handling and all-wheel-drive package that make it a nimble performer.

The RLX is Acura's flagship sedan; but it's not the sort of car that screams for attention and recognition. It doesn't feel like a car for extroverts, even though its performance is impressive and satisfying. It's one of the more subtle luxury cars, with an understated design and an interior that's relatively free of gimmickry—and that altogether, we think, makes the RLX an intriguing outlier in the market.

The RLX is a polite, well-composed premium sedan, a contender in the ring with the Cadillac XTS and Lincoln MKS—but it's not taking any risks, nor is it shining enough to run any blue hairs from the VIP list. That's despite some clever looks that hide its front-drive running gear and handling tricks to make us think otherwise.

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There isn't much to get jazzed about in the understated sedan either. The design borrows heavily from the BMW 5-Series and adds a softer Acura touch to the chrome on the front end—there's even a hint of muscle on its front fenders. The LED headlights and taillights aren't adventurous, much like the cabin is handsome. Put simply, the sedan is orchestrated, but not inspired. The interior materials are better than any Acura we've found: the leathers and grains are top notch, they could just use a hint of alchemy.

After all, "RLX" is temptingly close to "relax" and that's a sign of how the big Acura handles the road. The engine has been boosted by 10 horsepower, but that's not hugely impressive considering that the Lincoln MKS has 365 hp, and the Hyundai Genesis powers down the road with 429 hp. Acura's own estimates peg the RLX with the best gas mileage in the class, and we agree. There's plenty of steady acceleration, but it suddenly awakes at 3,000 rpm with some satisfying intake snarls that we would love to hear remixed in the upcoming NSX.

The base front-drive RLX skips adaptive suspension that has become common for the class and instead goes with a base setup of coils, links, and digressive dampers. The base suspension doesn't tell a lie: it wants to be mild—not wild—with only a hint of road feedback. The RLX's electric steering is unusual for that reason: it has rear-wheel steering, an effect that stabilizes the RLX on the highway, but sounds like the wrong application for a comfortable cruiser. That's exotic car stuff.

For those with a taste for stronger performance, the Sport Hybird SH-AWD model could be their calling. We've driven it, but Acura doesn't have it listed for sale yet due to an unnamed technical glitch. We didn't notice any hiccups, but Acura doesn't hesitate withholding something from sale until it's ready for prime time.

The Sport Hybrid system, whenever it does go on sale, is a pretty ingenious setup. A hybridized V-6 drives the front wheels, while an all-electric rear differential with two motors sends torque to the rear wheels, recreating digitally the all-wheel-drive wonder that Acura has for so long been able to create with its mechanical Super Handling All-Wheel Drive system. The engineering smarts extend to the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission up front, which uses the rear electric motors to get things going from a stop, which avoids the tendency of dual-clutches to step off in a jerky, unluxurious way. The result of all this is refinement and superb handling, with all-electric torque vectoring at the rear to keep the car stable and aid turn-in. While performance is the priority over fuel efficiency with this hybrid system, it still boosts mileage—to 28 mpg city and 32 highway.

Acura's changes to the RLX might sway shoppers looking for more interior room. Although the RLX is roughly the same size as the outgoing RL sedan, its overhang has been shortened and the wheelbase has been stretched by 2 inches, which means more passenger space inside. The front seats are supportive and soft, trimmed in nice leather, but rear head room will be an issue for tall back seat riders and the truck space is only average.

The RLX has a safety-first mission. Acura's first application of active lane control is available, and all RLX sedans include forward collision and lane departure warning systems. The 2015 RLX features a standard complement of safety features and airbags, and it features a driver's front knee bag. Acura says they expect top five-star scores from federal testers, although results aren't yet available. The IIHS has named the sedan a Top Safety Pick+, with top ratings in every category. Adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist work together to become a useful follower in stop-and-go traffic. The system isn't as well calibrated as it is in other vehicles, though; its closest setting is still too far away for tight traffic, letting others cut in front which then sets it off into aggressive braking to keep the distance.

The non-hybrid RLX is offered in five trim levels for 2015: RLX, RLX with Navigation, RLX with Technology package, RLX with Krell Audio package, and RLX with Advance package. All are well-equipped with dual screens for infotainment functions, and top trims get the AcuraLink connectivity package that includes Aha streaming internet radio and an expanded suite of features based on smartphone integration. Acura's navigation system includes real-time traffic information, stolen vehicle tracking, emergency services notification, remote locking/unlocking, and concierge services.

Front-drive 2015 RLX models start from just under $50,000, while the top Advance crests the $60,000 mark. Pricing for the Sport Hybrid model hasn't yet been announced.

7

2015 Acura RLX

Styling

The design of the 2015 RLX is graceful rather than bold -- which won't turn heads but gives it more universal appeal.

The RLX's design is handsome in a nondescript sort of way. Inoffensive but forgettable. There isn't much to attract the eye, and nothing to turn it away either. The biggest risk Acura took was with the jeweled headlights, which don't do much to spruce up the otherwise bland front end.

The design game of many cars in this price category has been stepped up lately. Take, for example, the Audi A7 or Jaguar XF. Even Cadillac's XTS, a big front-drive-based sedan like the RLX, has a look all its own.

That doesn't mean it'll appear on any runway. The RLX has the right stance and proportions, and even the BMW-inspired roofline is different enough to avoid being called a copycat. The rest is subtle and graceful, from the LED headlights and curves stamped over the front wheels, to the LED taillights in back. The RLX's smooth roofline and somewhat aggressively stance are attractive, but not entirely groundbreaking.

The cabin is useful and handsome, but not entirely groundbreaking. It manages to have all the right stuff, but not in the same places as others. It's not handsomely modern like Audi cockpits, nor is it swathed in old-school luxury like Jaguar interiors. Cadillac is doing great things in interior design, and the RLX manages to hit all the right notes in interior materials. In that way, it's very refined, but lacks the drama found in the A7, XF, and XTS.

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2015 Acura RLX

Performance

The dynamic zeal offered in RLX Sport Hybrid models is unlike anything else in this class.

Unlike many of its competitors, the RLX doesn't take a high-horsepower approach to performance. Instead, it tries to use unique technological solutions to differentiate itself.

Even among the milder versions of the other sedans in its class, the RLX's 310 horsepower and 272 pound-feet of torque isn't going to entice many on paper. It's up 10 hp from the RL, but compared to outputs from the Lincoln MKS (365 hp) or the Hyundai Genesis (429 hp) the RLX isn't all that impressive.

We want a little more drama in the way the RLX speaks to us. The big Acura doesn't scream away from the line, it's far more relaxed. That's in contrast to the Lexus GS, which is on par with the RLX, but at leas whips up some drama in its performance.

The front-drive RLX's automatic transmission nets shift paddles and a sport shift mode, but it's still a six-speed like the RL used. Upshifts are very smooth, while downshifts can be less invisible. Competitors at the top of the category are already moving over to 8-speed automatics, as is the Chrysler 300. The ZF 8-speed used in other is a good example, and we think a tightly packed set of gear ratios could help the RLX run off the line faster.

As for the gas mileage benefits of more gears, the RLX doesn't need much help. It's estimated at 20/31 mpg, or 24 mpg combined with front-wheel drive, near the Chrysler's numbers with two fewer gears.

The front-drive model's handling benefits from the trick four-wheel-steering system, which uses electric actuators at the rear to add just a few degrees of steering. The system, called Precision All-Wheel Steer, or P-AWS, is enough to make the front-driver feel a little more solid in tight turns than most front-drive barges. While changing lanes, all four wheels move in the same direction. On a curvy road, the rear-wheel steering system can move the wheels up to 2 degrees in the opposite direction, effectively making turn-in sharper. It can be helpful in daily driving too, not just corner carving. In parking lots, the P-AWS system makes the RLX feel shorter than it is by making it more agile—just watch those curbs on the wheels.

On a race track or tight back road, the system can require some recalibration of your driving style. The rear-wheel-drive steering system is unlike many other cars, and is a quick way around a track, albeit disarming for a car that has no track pretensions.

Extra performance is available in the form of the RLX's Sport Hybrid SH-AWD model, which packs a special new three-motor hybrid system. It's a novel concept, and what has us most interested is that a version of this setup will make its way into the future NSX supercar. The basis is a 3.5-liter V-6 mated to a new seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual gearbox that has a 35-kW motor built in. All-wheel drive, and the real handling genius, lies in the two-motor electric rear differential, which performs torque vectoring while also helping power the car and move it away from a stop smoothly. Instead of using a traditional first gear in the dual-clutch, the car instead relies on the motors for initial propulsion, thus avoiding the jerkiness that can come from the transmission's automated clutch take-up. The rear motors each put out 27 kW of power, and can act to regenerate power for the battery. The Sport Hybrid SH-AWD hybrid system makes 377 horsepower and 377 pound-feet of torque.

Both RLX models have a conventional suspension tuned for comfort first, with a bit of lively feel dialed in via electric power steering and either the actuators at the rear wheels or the trick electric differential. The steering is light at low speeds, which is what engineers were looking for, before transitioning to more heft at higher speeds. The feel is less obvious at speed, where the rear-wheel steering becomes the RLX's main selling point for new hardware.

The base RLX is sprung to absorb bad roads without fuss, and it leans into corners without drama. If you're looking to own apexes, the RLX's mono-spec layout doesn't make promises. It's meant to be a mile-eater, not a corner carver, and competitors with adjustable dampers do that kind of dancing much better.

The Sport Hybrid is the sleeper pick with surprisingly good driving feel. Head into a corner a little too hot and the RLX counters with torque vectoring to nudge you back into the right line. It's a little unnerving at first because the steering comes in the driver's seat, but not the steering wheel.

That novelty doesn't get old either: We can see the RLX's good steering becoming useful for safety reasons all the same as we found them entertaining on back-road jaunts.

We found the Sport Hybrid to be responsive to stabs at the gas pedal, with plenty of acceleration from the electric motors and the electrons filling in for whenever the dual-clutch gearbox is reaching for another cog. It's an entirely different sensation than the front-drive RLX and it's a little unexpected considering the car's plain clothes look.

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2015 Acura RLX

Comfort & Quality

Rear-seat headroom is lacking; otherwise the 2015 Acura RLX cabin is spacious and well-fitted.

The Acura RLX has some well-designed, if not overly big, shoes to fill when it comes to the interior. The RL sedan it replaces was very comfortable up front, although the rear seats were tight and interior storage was lacking. The RLX is mostly an improvement, although we're still coming up short (or tall) on rear-seat head room.Another sacrifice to the design gods, apparently.

The RLX is fractionally longer than the RL with a 2.0-inch wheelbase stretch, and it sits 1.8 inches wider. Those size differences instantly register, not so much from the RLX's stance, though that's certainly chunkier and broader, but when you get inside.

And when you open the door, the RLX keys up, emits a little musical jingle (yes, a jingle), and shimmers its screens in an emotional display we're not used to from the practical Japanese luxury brand. The interior reads big and it's not all smoke and jingles—even though clever designers have boxed out the door panels and the central tunnel to make the car a modern architectural example, rather than a car.

True to the RL's legacy, the front seats fit like broad-backed executive desk chairs. They have 12-way adjustment and standard heating, with ventilation an option. The center console is wide, but it manages to avoid cutting into space for people. Head room is adequate for tall folks, even without having to lean back in those comfortable thrones.

The back seat looks enormous, and mostly makes good on that visual promise. The rear door openings are cut large, making it easy to slide into the three-passenger space. The cushions are wide and long under the leg for great support; it's the vertical dimension that gives us problems. Because of the slope of the roof in back, taller folks will rub their heads on the ceiling, something we almost expect in smaller family sedans, but never encounter in something the size of an MKS or XTS. There's somewhat less shoulder room than expected, too. The rear seats can be optioned up to heating, but there is no massage function or any of the fancy reclining seats found in the big German sedans. That might be helpful for those with height problems, come to think of it.

In a nice about-face from the RL, Acura has fitted the RLX with plenty of small-item storage. The center console's the place to hide valuable objects; its clever lid opens from either side, or it can also slide a very luxurious damping toward the rear. The trunk has a somewhat scant 15.3 cubic feet of storage room—less if you get the top audio systems—and it's a flat floor, or a couple gym bags shorter than the MKS.

The interior materials are impressive in the RLX. Everything you can ouch feels as it should, a noticeable step up from Accords and even smaller Acuras. The prototypes we were allowed to drive didn't exhibit many signs of being unfinished, and we were pleasantly surprised by the engine noise. The RLX's hollow-core wheels were meant to address tire noise, but there's still some to be heard.

The ride is comfortable with either powertrain setup, with Acura once again aiming for bump suppression with a bit of a sporty edge. You feel the road when you're really leaning on it; otherwise, the RL's serenity comes through nicely.

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2015 Acura RLX

Safety

Safety technology is well-represented on the features list, and crash-test ratings don't get any better than this.

Only one of the two main safety agencies has rated the RLX's crash performance so far, to good results. The big Acura boasts new safety technologies along with Honda's recent advances in crash mitigation and prevention.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has given the RLX top 'good' ratings in all five of its categories, including the new small overlap front test, which earns it the Top Safety Pick+ rating. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn't yet tested the RLX, as it's still a relatively new model and is likely to sell in lower volumes.

Acura equips the RLX with the usual complement of airbags, stability control systems, and a driver-side knee airbag. The automaker also includes as standard Bluetooth connectivity and a rearview camera, two items we say are good equipment due to driver inattention. The rearview camera displays a 180-degree viewpoint for better visibility. It also helps that outward vision is very good thanks to thin pillars and large rear glass.

The RLX also offers blind-spot monitors, which we like and advanced safety tech such as adaptive cruise control, active lane control, and a collision avoidance system that sounds a chorus of chimes and warnings that can prevent low-speed accidents—even grant a degree of self driving. When active, the RLX will stop itself at lower speeds and the driver can resume by tapping a button on the steering wheel, or by tapping the gas pedal.

While self-steer and adaptive cruise are now showing up on more and more cars, the Acura versions could use some extra polish. The lane-keeping system has a tendency to ping-pong within the lane, while the cruise doesn't seem to be looking or thinking far enough ahead, allowing vehicles changing lanes in front of the RLX to startle it into rough braking followed by lazy acceleration back to the set speed. It doesn't help that the RLX's closest following distance practically invites other drivers to slot in ahead of you.

And ostensibly for safety reasons, the RLX not blocks touchscreen input while the car is in motion. The logic is sound for drivers, but what about passengers? We say the feature has become an annoyance, so it's best to connect up and dial up navigation before taking off, or the voice recognition becomes the new distraction while on the move.

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2015 Acura RLX

Features

The multiple screens and clunky interface aren't so delightful, but there's amazing Krell audio and good smartphone connectivity.

The RLX is available with plenty of features, but adding more equipment can quickly send the price a bit higher than is competitive; top models can breeze past $60,000, putting it in competition with the Cadillac XTS for the title of most expensive front-wheel-drive car on the market. Pricing and equipment haven't changed for 2015, likely because the 2014 model year was a short introductory one for the RLX. And since the Sport Hybrid model doesn't yet have an on-sale date, we also don't know how much it will cost or what's included.

At $49,345, the base RLX is equipped with the features you'd find on other competitors. The RLX comes standard with power windows, locks, and mirrors; a power sunroof; keyless ignition; leather upholstery; automatic climate control; 12-way power adjustable heated front seats; automatic headlights; 18-inch wheels; Bluetooth connectivity; a rearview camera; forward-collision and lane-departure warnings; an 8.0-inch upper LCD and 7.0-inch lower LCD touchscreen for infotainment, and 10 speaker audio with HD radio, USB port, and AUX connections.

The RLX with Navigation throws on, you guessed it, navigation with voice commands; AcuraLink, which we cover below; and an additional screen that sits between the primary gauges for $51,845. The RLX with Technology package adds Milano hides and 19-inch wheels, blind-spot monitors, quieter acoustic glass, and four more speakers for $55,345.

For $57,845, the RLX comes with a 14-speaker Krell audio system with reference-quality sound, one of the near-overkill systems usually found on ultra-premium brands, and also adds power sunshades. At the top of the lineup, the $61,345 RLX with Advance includes adaptive cruise control with follow ability; lane-keeping assist; front and rear parking sensors; ventilation for the front seats; and heated rear seats.

Based on these prices, we can expect Sport Hybrid models will be easily into the $60,000 range as well. If other hybrid models are any indication, the gas-electric RLX should come pretty well equipped, and it may only be offered in a few of the front-drive car's top trims. We'll update this section once we have pricing and feature availability for the all-wheel-drive Sport Hybrid model.

All RLX models carry Acura's standard warranty of four years or 50,000 miles.

We think the AcuraLink system and dual-screen setup for infotainment may take the most time to learn. The AcuraLink setup uses a smartphone app to be the gateway to dozens of other apps such as Facebook. With one link they're all available on the head unit, and new information such as points of interest are available without time-consuming app updates. Still, it's another way for drivers to be distracted—and something that simple or smartphone mirroring setups can do better. AcuraLink also offers paid concierge services with live operators, which we don't quite understand in the smartphone era.

Then there are the dual screens. It's a different take on the complexity of systems found in Lincoln or Cadillac competitors, but we're not sure about the overall effect. By splitting the functions, Acura looks to keep non-touch information on the bigger screen, while more vital tasks are placed closer to the driver on the smaller touchscreen. Confused yet? Some models sport a third screen between the gauges for more information.

As you might guess, the result is a little much. There's nothing fluid or intuitive about hunting from screen to screen for the information or settings you want, and it certainly doesn't reduce distraction while in motion. In fact, the touch screen's placement low on the center stack almost assures a few seconds' worth of eyes off the road. Unfortunately, this is another attempt that was so long in the making it still doesn't offer the simplicity of the glass boxes we all carry in our pockets. 

Let's hope Acura adopts something like Android Auto or Apple's CarPlay to replace the obsolete manufacturer-driven infotainment model. With smartphones evolving and adapting so quickly, the long lead times of vehicle manufacturing simply can't keep up, so maybe they'll stop trying.

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2015 Acura RLX

Fuel Economy

Front-wheel-drive RLX models get better mileage than non-hybrids in this class, while Sport Hybrid models definitely emphasize the 'sport' over high mpg.

The Acura RLX is more powerful than the RL sedan it replaces, but it's also more fuel-efficient. As expected, the Sport Hybrid model receives the better EPA ratings, while front-drive RLX sedans do fairly well, especially in highway testing.

Models with the all-new Sport Hybrid system will be the best-performing in the lineup, not only from a performance perspective—as the system has more power and all-wheel drive—but from a green one. EPA ratings for these jump to 28 mpg city, 32 highway, from the new three-electric-motor hybrid system and lithium-ion battery pack, in addition to the 3.5-liter V-6. That puts it up there with some of the diesel offerings from German competitors.

The front-drive, non-hybrid RLX is rated by the EPA at 20 mpg city, 30 highway, 24 combined. Among competitors, that's good stuff and nothing comes close without opting for Lexus GS or Infiniti M hybrid models. Cars like the Lincoln MKS can't compete, and the RLX's numbers are improved from the old RL's figures of 17/24/20 mpg.

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Styling 7
Performance 8
Comfort & Quality 8
Safety 10
Features 9
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