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Video: 2014 Acura RLX faces a tough challenge

Video: 2014 Acura RLX faces a tough challenge

Acura's redesigned RLX sedan is a rolling example of the challenges faced by Honda's luxury brand. We drove an RLX press car to get a first impression.

Like most other Acuras, the RLX aims to give you a lot for your money. (The compact ILX is a notable exception to this rule.) Compared to the midsized luxury sedan competition, such as the Audi A6 or Mercedes-Benz E-Class, the RLX is positively spacious inside. Generous rear leg room answers one of our biggest complaints of the RLX's predecessor, the RL.

Acura also aimed to make the car easy and approachable to drive. A big part of that: relatively simple controls for a luxury marque.

Honda being Honda, efficiency plays a big role here, too. Even though the RLX has only six forward gears in its automatic transmission, compared to the economy-benefitting eight in many rivals, Acura claims best-in-class fuel economy. The upcoming hybrid all-wheel-drive version should be an interesting mix of power, traction, and economy.

All of this sounds good—solid, upstanding citizen-type of stuff. But there's a reason why most luxury car brands strive to emulate rapidly-growing Audi, who manages to build appealing sedans that are entertaining-to-drive, comfortable, stylish, and look very contemporary and "now."

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Acura is struggling to find that panache, and it's hard to say that the RLX will provide it. Styling is rather conservative. While it thankfully lacks the craziness of some recent Acura flights of fancy (i.e., giant chrome grilles that look like predator bird beaks, the ZDX), the RLX also fails to stand out.

First impressions? The driving experience doesn't yank at our heartstrings. For its faults, the outgoing RL was an engaging car to drive, with communicative steering. The RLX doesn't provide that, despite the hyped P-AWS four-wheel-steering system.

Don't get me wrong - not all cars need to be sporty, Nürburgring-tuned sports sedans. That said, the RLX's ride doesn't have the composure and isolation you'd want from a $55,000 luxury sedan. You can blend entertaining-but-not-edgy dynamics and a comfortable ride; even the much-lower-priced 2013 Lincoln MKZ I drove this past weekend achieved that.

The RLX also faces a big challenge from cars like the Chrysler 300, Hyundai Azera, Hyundai Genesis, and Toyota Avalon. If you skip the Acura's optional high-tech features, like its impressive Krell audio system and the active safety equipment, the RLX doesn't offer much more than those $40,000 sedans. The RLX lacks some increasingly commonplace luxury features like a heated steering wheel, or it forces you to buy the top $60,000 version to get ventilated seats—something you can get on a $28,000 Kia Optima.

Sure, you could make a similar argument about dollar-for-value with an A6, BMW 5 Series, E-Class, or Lexus GS. But these cars manage to feel more special, which is important for helping buyers part with such a sizable wad of cash. They also offer all-wheel-drive, nearly ubiquitous on upscale cars in snowy regions like the Northeast, for not much more money. The RLX will force you to buy the hybrid version—the equivalent of rivals' V8 models—to get four driven wheels.

According to Bloomberg, Honda is investing one billion dollars to bring Acura up to speed. That sounds like a lot of money, but given that Ford spent $3 billion to develop the 1986 Taurus, it really isn't. (Ford will probably spend quite a bit more than a billion to rebuild the Lincoln brand.)

Maybe Honda, an efficient company, can pull it off. We'll see. But it's telling that the highest-scoring Acura currently in our Ratings is the MDX sport-utility-vehicle—a design introduced for 2007 whose replacement will be revealed at the New York auto show next month.

Brand-image issues aside, we'll find how the RLX scores in the cold, hard numbers of Consumer Reports' test program soon. The RLX goes on sale March 15, and we'll be purchasing one of our own to test here at our track.

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