by Gabe Beita Kiser
The easiest way to get a laugh out of someone in the age of connectivity is to be snarky about everything, be it a person, politician, trend, or car. After all, there are two ways to make ourselves feel better about things. We either build ourselves up or tear others down. Not that criticism is strictly a bad thing, though. Many times it leads to growth, although it can be hard to distinguish whether criticism is being aimed at advancing an entity or destroying it. Not long ago we criticized Acura's flagship model, the RLX, in both constructive and destructive ways.
The automaker got a hold of that article and was obviously none too happy, so as a result we gained possession of an RLX Sport Hybrid on loan for two weeks. Essentially it was sent to us to see if we would eat our words after driving it. As those two weeks draw to a close, what do we think? Is it still a crusher-worthy vehicle or has it redeemed itself and forced us to dine on some crow? As a Honda product it's obviously good. Those cars have always carried out their duties with a degree of loyalty and honesty usually reserved for a best friend, the family dog, or the girl you bring home to mom. Deficiencies and demerits are few, but that wasn't the point we were trying to make with the RLX. In no way is it a failure as a car.
But the RLX is a failure to Acura. That's because when venturing into the luxury market, it's no longer enough to wield ample trunk space and no-nonsense practicality as top selling points. Customers spending $60,000 on a car expect more; they need a wow factor. Lexus has learned that and now is edging its way into the room with the big boy Germans. Even though it has its work cut out for it, Infiniti is slowly following suit, and whether or not it's successful the fact that it's making an effort shows. The lack of that is what's holding Acura back from meeting Lexus on the brighter side of the profit charts. It's not that Acura makes bad cars. It's that it hasn't managed to crack the luxury market. And nowhere is that reflected better than on its flagship sedan.
What's more is that Acura doesn't seem to be trying hard to raise the bar, which is fine if it doesn't mind catering to the niche segment of luxury buyers who don't care for a badge or standout design. But as a corporation with stockholders to answer to, we seriously doubt that's the case. In terms of price and size, the RLX is in the same class inhabited by the Mercedes E-Class, BMW 5 Series, and Audi A6, although Acura would rather we measure it against a Lexus or Infiniti. Fully loaded our tester cost $66,870. For that you get a 377-horsepower hybrid powertrain similar to the setup that powers the NSX, a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic (hooray for no CVT!), a 14-speaker Krell sound system, and heated seats all the way around.
Looking at the options list alone it's an attractive pick in comparison to the other cars in its segment. But in practice the result isn't so rosy. Passengers were unconvinced that the car was actually worth $66k, and that was even after explaining that it comes with semi-autonomous highway helpers. Sitting inside the RLX is like entering a brand new hotel room, albeit one in a mid-level hotel that's branded a tier above. It is certainly comfortable and everything looks to be in place, but there's nothing that grips the experience knob and cranks it from "comfortable" all the way to "pampered." (Where's our room service?!) Take Lexus for example: There is a clear separation from it and the ho-hum cars Toyota makes.
While a Lexus may share platforms, components, and even character with a Toyota, nobody but us car nerds would suspect such a thing. Honda's signature has always been a personality that exudes engineering excellence, as if the math gurus and logically gifted got a hold of it before the designers, architects, and interior decorators. Mistakenly so, Acura seems to use that same recipe for its cars. While the features and toys fit the definition of luxury by allowing the RLX to outdo a normal car in terms of capability and comfort, it feels a bit self-restrained. It's as if the Acura knew it could do more but held back to avoid offending the other cars. It isn't a cardinal offense, but we'd like to see more out of the brand.
More importantly, though, would we still crush it? No, not even if you paid us $66,000 to do it. But it wouldn't be the first car we bought for that money, or the second, or even the fifth. Right now it's the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world who buy Acuras. The Facebook founder owns one and he may have picked it out because it reflects his style as someone who has the means to live lavishly but chooses to wear a grey shirt every day instead. Unfortunately for Acura, those people are rare. People who spend $66,000 on a car want to show it off like a trophy and feel as if they are a part of an exclusive club. The RLX doesn't offer that, and that's why it went to the crusher in the first place. We'll spare it this time, but only because we saw its true potential.