The power plant under the creased hood of the RLX is the special part of this car.
Acura and Honda have been on quite a roll lately. Nameplates like the Civic, Accord, and CR-V are all red hot sellers for the Honda brand, and Acura’s RDX and MDX luxury crossovers continue to generate most of the momentum for Acura. Like most luxury automakers, the bread-and-butter doesn’t necessarily come from the flagship, but rather the more affordable and high-function products in the lineup. What the flagship does, is set the tone for the rest of the brand, and give brand-loyal customers something to aspire to.
Acura’s top-of-the-line offering has been the RLX, which dates back to the 2014 model year. Powered by exclusively six-cylinder engines, with all-wheel drive availability, the RLX is crammed full of high-tech hardware, most of which is deep under its fairly conservative skin. Acura Canada sent us an updated 2018 RLX SH-AWD Elite, painted in “Lunar Silver Metallic”, for a week-long evaluation.
What’s new in the 2018 Acura RLX? It’s not a ground-up redesign, but Acura has sought to change up some major exterior details, namely the front and rear-end lighting clusters. The new jewel-like full-LED headlights feature ten projectors for a very distinctive look, and joins a very large “Signature Diamond Pentagon” grille, which is also seen on the updated TLX. The updated taillights feature some intricate LED light pipes that look quite distinctive at night. One particular item: the updated hood design features a number of creases and folds in it – some of which are actually visible from the driver’s seat.
Overall, the RLX doesn’t change up the formula too much – it’s more of an effort to keep its styling up to Acura’s most recent design language. I don’t think I can call it the most attractive design in its class – but it manages to be inoffensive and bold at the same time, if that was possible. Either way, the most attractive part of the RLX is what’s under the skin – more on this later.
While the RLX receives a fairly comprehensive refresh on the outside, there are some items on the inside that carry over to the 2018 model year, for better or for worse. Up front and centre, is the same iteration of Acura’s infotainment interface they’ve been using for a good number of years. What perplexes us is that the updated Acura TLX gets an updated version – complete with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration. The RLX soldiers on with the same resistive touchscreen and low-resolution graphics. In the era of large capacitive (smartphone style) touchscreens, the RLX struggles to keep up.
Looking down, the RLX continues on with Acura’s push-button shifter configuration. It is a quirky interface, but muscle memory gets accustomed to its operation fairly quickly. The more fashionable method of today seems to be to utilize a mono-stable gear selector, which springs back to a “neutral” position after you’ve selected Drive or Reverse. The implementations elsewhere in the industry also allow for them to double as a good hand-rest, something that Acura has essentially eliminated with their push-button selectors. In the driver’s seat, a mostly analog instrument cluster provides real-time data on the essentials, with a small digital LCD that can be configured to display fuel efficiency or the status of that trick Super-Handling all-wheel drive system.
What hasn’t changed is the available 14-speaker Krell audio system in the RLX, if you opt for the Elite package. It’s a fairly low-key system, skipping the huge speaker counts and fancy designer speaker grilles, but it delivers with excellent accuracy and minimal distortion. The compressed audio formats that are Bluetooth streaming audio and SiriusXM satellite radio are not ideal for sound quality – so plug in your phone into the auxiliary audio input, or stream off a USB device for the best results. This is an underrated audio system that does a fantastic job, within the confines of a less-than-ideal soundstage (read: any car).
The power plant under the creased hood of the RLX is the special part of this car. Offered only in hybrid form (the front-drive “P-AWS” model is dropped in Canada for the 2018 model year), the RLX Sport Hybrid chases big horsepower, high efficiency, and strong value. It’s important to know that this sort of hybrid system doesn’t quite chase Honda Insight-like fuel efficiency numbers, but it offers high-tech assistance to the gasoline engine. Displacing 3.5L, this V6 (still from the Honda J-series engine family) produces 310 horsepower on its own, at 6500rpm, and 273lb-ft. of torque at 4700rpm. The engine is paired to a seven-speed dual-clutch transaxle, and two electric motors, powering the rear wheels. When you put it all together, the total system horsepower is rated at 377 horsepower, and 341lb-ft. of torque.
The total system output is fairly impressive, but what’s more impressive is that the basic concept of how this hybrid electric powertrain works, is quite similar to how the Acura NSX supercar works. While the NSX features a twin-turbo mid-mounted V6, it also happens to be paired up to a dual-clutch transaxle, with electric motors at the opposite axle. Neither feature a driveshaft that runs longitudinally from front to rear, so while all four wheels can send power to the ground, it’s important to keep in mind that the electric motors powering the RLX’s rear wheels can’t deal with huge amounts of power. If you’re aggressive with the accelerator from a stop, you’ll still feel some torque steer tugging from the front wheels, while they struggle for traction and most of the acceleration.
Highway on-ramps are the best way to easily experience what makes this implementation of SH-AWD special. The first thing is to ensure you’ve got the real-time power distribution status screen displayed in the instrument cluster. Then, while you’ve got the steering wheel turned as you negotiate the onramp, applying power, you’ll see more torque get sent to the outboard wheel in the rear axle. The sensation of the car rotating through a turn is fairly unique, thanks to the strong torque vectoring effect, provided by the rear axle electric motors, but it takes a fairly unconventional driving technique (throttle early, before corner exit) in order to maximize the results.
The hybrid-electric drivetrain in the RLX really does prove to be effective in producing big horsepower, while maintaining very modest fuel consumption numbers. It is a parallel hybrid, so it is able to propel the car under electric power only, with the gasoline engine firing up quickly to provide assistance, on demand. Acura Canada rates the RLX Sport Hybrid at 8.4L/100km in the city, 8.2L/100km on the highway, and 8.4L/100km in a combined cycle. After one week of mixed city and highway driving, I ended up with an indicated average of 9.0L/100km.
The cold winter weather, increased heater use (which runs the gasoline engine more often), and winter tires were all factors that negatively affect the overall consumption ratings. The RLX Sport Hybrid can hold 57L of 91-octane premium fuel. Having to carry around batteries negatively affects the fuel tank’s capacity, as well as the overall trunk capacity. One “Easter egg” that has carried over from the pre-refresh RLX Sport Hybrid is the ability to charge the battery, whenever the traction control system is turned off.
The base Acura RLX Sport Hybrid with the Tech package starts at $65,490, which is already pretty well-equipped. The Elite package we’re testing bumps the price to an as-tested $69,990, and adds goodies such as the excellent Krell stereo system, power rear sunshade, manual side sunshades, 360-degree Surround View camera, and ventilated front seats.
The RLX finds itself, as usual, in the thick of a very crowded segment, all with their own unique attributes they bring to the table. One example is the Lexus GS450h which is a gasoline-electric hybrid that gives you Lexus’ edgy style and even better fuel efficiency estimates, but doesn’t offer all-wheel drive. Volvo’s hot new S90 sedan can be had in a plug-in hybrid format, and it really delivers with even more horsepower, and much more electric-only range if you’re able to plug it in. Its interior is one of the best in the business, too. BMW’s new 530e is in the same boat, though it offers less total system power and electric-only range.
On the other end of the same scale, you have products like the Genesis G80 (reviewed here), which goes after a more traditional look and feel, with twin-turbo V6 and even V8 power available if you want it. The fully-loaded G80 with the 5.0L V8 is a sweetheart, but you can expect almost double the fuel consumption in the real world. How much is that efficiency worth to you? Mercedes-Benz offers their E 300 (reviewed here), which is a fantastic mid-size luxury sedan, but there’s no electric option (yet), and the base 2.0L turbo-four is outclassed, in terms of power. One common theme: most competitors to the Acura RLX cost more.
The 2018 Acura RLX was a necessary update, to keep it within Acura’s evolving design language. The multi-projector LED headlights are certainly effective and striking to look at, though the big grille that they flank gets most of the attention, for better or for worse. The gasoline-electric hybrid drivetrain is flexible and stays out of your way, and does an excellent job of producing good overall power, while returning impressive efficiency numbers. However, as comfortable as the interior is, the RLX is let down by its dated infotainment interface. Considering that the TLX and pretty much the rest of the Honda lineup gets Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity, its omission on the RLX is hard to swallow. If you’re looking for something that’s a little unique, and prioritize having a seamless, powerful, and efficient powertrain, the Acura RLX might be worth looking into.