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New RL to rule?

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handout The new Acura RLX is festooned with neat trinkets such as its Adaptive Cruise Control and Lane Keeping Assist systems.

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2014 Acura RLX.

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CALISTOGA, Calif. -- Timing is everything. Standup comedians know it. Counter-punching boxers know it. And, I suspect, Acura's chief engineers now also have a better appreciation of the perfectly timed punch. Or punchline.

The specification list for Acura's current RL reads like the perfect Canadian luxury sedan. It's powered by a high-tech V6 that boasts its frugality as much as its performance, just like the rest of the luxury market where six-, and even four-cylinder engines now reign supreme. It also features an incredibly sophisticated all-wheel-drive system, important since well more than 80 per cent of the upper luxury sedan segments leave Canadian dealerships driving all four wheels.

The only problem is that Acura launched its high-tech marvel in 2005 and, in those pre-Great Recession days, fuel economy didn't matter a whit, at least not to those shopping luxury automobiles. Eight cylinders were what was needed to impress the fashionably well-to-do back then.

All-wheel-drive was also just something quirky little Audi was trying to foist on the market as its differentiator from BMW and Mercedes. Real luxury cars drove the rear wheels because sporty performance was more important than all-wheel-drive safety.

So, in 2005, the RL, which today would have been greeted with significant interest, landed with a thud. RLs are a rarity on the road (the carmaker didn't help by insisting on pricing the out-of-step sedan at $70,000, about the same as an eight-cylinder 2005 BMW 545i) with Acura selling fewer than 200 units per year.

So, this year sees a new, equally high-tech RL being launched as the RLX, and Acura hoping the new version has the timing of a Jay Leno punchline or a Floyd Mayweather counter left hook. And, just as in 2005, it will be Acura's timing and reading of the market that will determine whether the RLX is a success or not.

The first bit of good news is that Acura isn't making the same pricing mistake. Jerry Chenkin, Honda Canada's executive vice-president, promises a base model that will start at "under $50,000" and even if that means $49,999, it's $20,000 less than the car's base price in 2005.

The second bit of good news is that the new RLX is festooned with neat trinkets. Acura introduced something called Lane Keeping Assist system, which gently guides the RL back into a lane should you drift across the painted lines. It's especially appreciated if you hate those infernal Lane Departure Warnings (which the RLX also has) that beep incessantly every time you get even remotely close to a lane divider.

Acura is also proud of its Adaptive Cruise Control system, which, it says, not only maintains a safe distance to the car in front, but also can navigate traffic jams by itself since it continues to operate after the RLX has come to a complete stop.

Other interior detail touches impress, my favourite being the steering wheel-mounted rotary knob that controls the audio system's volume but also the radio's scanning function by sliding sideways.

It's also worth noting that the RLX's interior is huge. Acura boasts that while its exterior dimensions mimic a BMW 5 Series, the RLX's rear seat legroom is akin to the larger 750i and, for once, marketing bumf is more than just an idle boast.

The company is most proud, however, of its new AcuraLink cloud-based connected car system, which uses an embedded cellphone to allow owners to activate certain functions -- door closings, sound the horn and flash the lights when you've lost your car in a parking lot and even create a virtual dashboard so you can check your fuel range remotely -- via a smartphone. AcuraLink also offers thousands of news and entertainment feeds as well as airbag deployment notification to emergency services and a 24-hour personalized concierge service a la GM's OnStar.

The RLX's engine, yet another evolution of Honda's 3.5-litre V6 gains direct fuel injection. Maximum power is up to 310 hp, yet the overall fuel economy is increased to what Acura says is a class-leading 8.6 L/100 km. The result is a smooth, quiet engine with exemplary manners if not quite class-leading speed. If that sounds like faint praise, it's because the powertrain is the one aspect of the RL that doesn't stand out.

The RLX's driving dynamics, with the one not-quite-easily-dismissed caveat that the RL is only currently available with front-wheel-drive, is exemplary. The firmish suspension greatly enhances handling, but it is the big Acura's steering system that really shines.

The company has revamped its four-wheel-steering system (called Precision All Wheel Steer or P-AWS) to allow independent control of the rear wheels.

P-AWS can steer both wheels in the same direction as the front (for a quicker reaction time in lane-change manoeuvres), in the opposite direction to the front tires (for shorter turning radius at parking lot speeds) or even toe both wheels in toward the centre of the car (to improve stability when braking in a straight line).

Whatever the case, the 2014 RLX almost completely disguises its FWD roots -- especially in Sport mode (which stiffens the steering and quickens the response of the P-AWS system) -- and rails through California switchbacks like a much smaller car. If one is a fan of front-wheel-drive sedans, the new Acura is among the best.

This brings us back to the one caveat mentioned earlier. Currently, the RLX will be sold in three guises, all front-wheel-drive: Base, Technology and Elite. And while the base version will start at below $50,000, the Elite is likely to command upwards of $70,000, seriously testing what affluent Canadians will be willing to pay for a front-wheel-drive luxury sedan, no matter how fine-handling.

While I think the base model may have legs, Acura might have trouble moving the top-of-the-line trims -- $70,000 is a lot of money for a Japanese front-wheel-drive sedan.

Salvation is at hand, however. Later in the year, Acura will offer the awkwardly named but technically enticing Sport Hybrid Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive RLX. Two electric motors in the rear wheels (along with another, centrally mounted unit) add AWD to the RL's portfolio as well as more power (370 hp in all) and better fuel economy (as yet unstated).

I suspect that, if priced competitively with other AWD models in the segment, the Sport Hybrid may be the technology that gives the RLX lasting credibility. Priced wrong, however, and this RLX may be relegated to the backwaters of the luxury market, just like its predecessor. At the very least it will tell us if Acura's timing and reading of the market has got any better.

-- Postmedia News

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