If there's such a thing as a starter luxury car -- one you can experiment with before deciding whether to blow huge bucks on something truly extravagant -- the Acura RL is a perfect candidate. The top-of-the-line sedan sold by Honda's (HMC) luxury division, the RL lists for just under $50,000 ('06 prices will be announced in mid-October, when the new model comes out, but any increase is likely to be small). Yet the RL comes loaded with features and technology, so you get a real taste of the gizmos -- and complexities -- that are typical of far more expensive cars.
A few examples:
• The RL, like most cars in its class, has an automatic transmission that can be switched to manual mode, so you can shift by hand if you prefer, even though it has no clutch. Like Maseratis and Ferraris, however, the RL also has a race-car-style paddle-shifting system, so you can up- and downshift by squeezing little levers on the left and right of the steering wheel. If you're into performance driving, this is a great feature.
• It has a keyless entry and starter system similar to the one on the Chevy Corvette. You can leave the key fob in your pocket or purse, and it automatically alerts the car of your presence so you can open the doors and trunk without unlocking them, and you can start the car by turning a switch. This seemingly frivolous innovation turned out to be really convenient.
• The RL is already rated one of the safest cars on the road, and the '06 model will improve on that record by offering a sophisticated new radar-based crash-avoidance system. It monitors the car's distance from vehicles ahead and closing rate, and it sounds alarms if danger looms. If an accident seems inevitable, the system automatically tightens front-seat safety belts and applies the brakes.
It's part of an option package that also includes adaptive cruise control -- which automatically varies the car's speed according to traffic conditions and can be set to maintain a certain distance behind the car ahead. My guess is the package will add $4,000 or more to the RL's sticker, however.
The RL is crammed with other tech goodies, too. The navigation system, which comes standard, includes everything from Zagat restaurant ratings to real-time traffic alerts delivered via satellite radio -- and can be operated by voice command. The fancy all-wheel-drive system (also standard) shifts power to the rear wheels during fast acceleration and sends more power to the left or right rear wheel as needed to improve handling during hard cornering. Noise cancellation technology is used to blot out tire and wind noise.
Buyers seem to like the combination of high tech and low price. Since the totallly redesigned RL was introduced last year, sales have soared, hitting 11,894 through Aug. 31, up 252% vs. the first eight months of last year.
So what's the RL like to drive? For starters, getting behind its wheel is quite pleasant. The leather upholstery is immaculate, and the front seats are supportive and have good lumbar support. The glove compartment, cup holders, and such are all solidly built. The Bose sound system is excellent.
One nice touch: When you enter the car at night, the under-dash area is bathed in blue light, which matches touches of blue in the instrument panel. One negative, for me at least: The maple trim across the dash seems like an afterthought -- it doesn't give you the lasting impression of beauty and elegance you get from the wood trim in, say, a Mercedes S-Class sedan.
Considering all the things they do, the RL's controls are fairly simple to use. You can operate the radio and a cell phone and do things like activate the voice-command system via buttons on the steering wheel. Most other functions can be activated via touch-screen controls and old fashioned buttons and knobs clustered around the navigation system video screen mounted on the dash to the driver's right. But even I -- no technogeek -- was able to use the voice commands without much trouble
Driving the RL is fun but not truly exciting. The paddle shifters are a blast, and the powerful six-cylinder VTEC engine delivers upwards of 300 horsepower, about the same as the V8 in a Lexus LS 430. The car corners well for an all-wheel-drive vehicle. But the RL doesn't have nearly the quickness of the Lexus. It also feels a bit cramped. Legroom in the rear seats is really limited, and the trunk is small by luxury-car standards.
It's hard to tell how well some of the high-tech gizmos really work. The noise-cancellation feature is a case in point. Tire noise on the highway was considerable. I also heard some weird whistling sounds at times that I can't imagine a Mercedes or Lexus making. Were the noises real, or was the cancellation system on the fritz? I have no idea.
The nav system is wonderful on major roads. But read the fine print in the owner's manual and you discover that information about roads and restaurants and attractions is incomplete in many areas. I tested it after dark one evening by trying to find an address I chose at random -- Rosebud Lane in Clark's Summit, Pa., which I picked because I liked its associations with the movie Citizen Kane.
When I got close, the system kept telling me I was in an "unverified area" and to follow the dotted line on the map, which proved problematic. I ran into a "No Outlet" impasse, a street closed for roadwork, and at one point got caught in nav-system hell when the thing kept telling me to "make a U-turn if possible" and then "make a U-turn if possible" when I did. In the end, finding tiny Rosebud Lane took far longer than the 40-minute drive it would have been with a paper map.
Of course, the nav systems in far more expensive cars suffer similar glitches. And given Honda's track record of continuous improvement, I would guess any problems will be fixed over time.
Given all the value packed into the RL, I would also guess that many people who buy it as their first luxury car will wind up buying another RL instead of plunking down 80 or 100 grand for something more extravagant. It's a lot of car for the money.