Jimmy Durante was born of humble circumstances on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the dark days of the 1890s, but went on to become one of the most well-respected and highest grossing stars of the Jazz era. Yet however great was his regard, when he was eventually enshrined in pop music by Cole Porter with “You’re the Top,” Durante was memorialized solely for his signature sniffer. To quote: You’re a rose/You’re Inferno’s Dante/You’re the nose/On the great Durante.
Similarly, though it began as the offspring of workaday Japanese automaker Honda in the dark days of the 1980s, Acura went on to become one of the most well respected and best-selling car brands of the post-Malaise era, producing immortal and beloved hits like the Integra, the first generation Legend, and the original TSX. Yet when reviewers write about the brand today, they’re always certain to lead with a reference to the straked and argent beak Acura designers stuck on their models in the late aughts. To quote: You’re an axe/You’re Charles Barkley’s razor/You’re a shield/That could block Spock’s phaser.
This snooty reaction isn’t limited to the snoot. Neither is it solely the fault of the AutoCAD wielders in Tokyo and Torrance, Calif. Somewhere along the way, just as Durante lost his radio mojo to TV, Acura lost its keel to complacency, crossover dependency, the rear-wheel drive revival and an institutional sight-lowering that Honda once fought with innovations like CVCC instead of caving to catalytic converters, but has grown to accept in this century.
Which brings us to the brand’s new flagship, which, despite Acura’s marketing tagline for it — "Luxury Defined by You" — is not called the UL, but rather RLX. As in, Frankie say.
Sit down in its cushy captain’s chair, start up the actively noise-cancelled engine, roll up the insulating laminated windows, and begin coasting along on resonator-equipped frequency-reducing wheels, and you’ll see what we mean. As if there were any doubts about the car’s intent, at the launch, an Acura executive described it as providing the kind of “relaxed driving situation” wherein one could pilot it with one hand lightly touching the wheel, making it an ideal competitor for that 1978 Lincoln you were cross-shopping.
The new RLX is actually slightly sportier than that, with an iVTEC V-6 that's smaller but more potent than the powerplant it replaces. The downsized 3.5 liter unit’s 10 hp bump to 310 hp is accomplished through Acura’s first use of direct injection, and when combined with a 76-lb steelectomy, should translate to slightly better acceleration than the old RL. Fuel economy rises as it must, from 17/24 mpg in the RL to 20/31 mpg. So to does the acronym count, with the requisite collision, lane departure, lane keeping, adaptive cruise, and low-speed following systems, all of which work appropriately well if you turn them on, which we mostly didn’t because, well, we’re generally in favor of being the ones to drive the cars when we’re driving them.
The most relevant acronym here though is PAWS, which stands not for Prow All Wreathed in Silver (sorry), but Precision All Wheel Steering, a trick system that uses a pair of electronic actuators to provide unique toe-in or toe-out angles to each rear wheel. If this sounds like something Honda might have invented in the '80s, it is, kind of. But it’s much more sophisticated and computerized and magical than the four-wheel-steering setup on the 3rd-generation Prelude. In a wet slaloming comparison with a Mercedes E-Class and BMW 5-Series, we found PAWS to be seamless yet evident, providing the RLX with a more balanced feel than one would expect of a cushy, nose-heavy front driver.
Speaking of heavy noses, the Acura still suffers from the aforementioned familial endowment, though its prominence has been dissipated by the distracting presence of its new Signature Jewel Eye headlights. These definitely look …distinctive, though the unique toe-in and toe-out angles applied to each of the lamp’s five sets of LED nodules give them the appearance of a pair of stacked engagement rings lumpily crafted by Jared after a few trips to the champagne fountain.
Our own engagement with the RLX over a variety of roadkill-littered Northern California roads was sadly similar: gemlike, yet misaligned. The cabin is finely crafted, with clean lines and smart materials, and hosts a surprisingly roomy rear bench — the result of a two-inch wheelbase stretch back there. But the space feels '90s austere, lacking the flourishes of color and handcrafted richness one now expects in the category. The dual LCD screens—the lower one controlling ventilation and media, the upper dedicated to the nav and multifarious AcuraLink features that this car’s aging buyers will never use — nicely split functions you’d want to access simultaneously, but are no more user-friendly or less distracting than they’d be on one screen. (Whom do we have to bribe to get some knurled knobs up in here?) And the 6-speed automatic transmission couples well with the engine, but lacks the bandwith, sharpness, and efficiency of the 7- and 8-speeds in its competitors.
Overall, we kept thinking: this is a very nice car. But at $60,450 for the fully equipped models we were driving, we had to ask, is it twice as nice as Honda’s lovely $30,000 Accord V-6, or once as nice as a similarly kitted-out Audi A6? The answer was always no.
Perhaps our minds will be changed by the addition of 60 hp and two more drive wheels when the range-topping Super Handling All Wheel Drive version arrives later this year. We hope so. With the enticing NSX 2.0 Concept it just displayed at Detroit, Acura has shown that it can sniff out its moxie, so it’s not impossible to imagine the brand blowing past its current limitations. It worked for the Schnozolla. As no less than Frank Sinatra sang in his 1955 revision to Burton Lane’s “How About You?” I’m mad about good books/Can’t get my fill/And James Durante’s looks/Give me a thrill. Thrill us, Acura. Please.