Cars like the Acura RLX Hybrid exist because of places like California – it’s not so much the hybrid thing as it is that people really like their Hondas here.
It’s only in California where I see Honda Passports on a regular basis. You can absolutely get lost in a sea of silver Accords in a mall parking lot. It’s a way of life.
Thirty years ago, the Acura Legend emerged as the ultimate Accord, which naturally attracted the attention of the Honda faithful. The Legend and its RL-badged successors were always good cars, sometimes great ones. But in the badge-obsessed luxury car world, the big Acuras have been left in the sales dust by German-branded rivals that tend to offer more of that something people want in expensive sedans.
The Acura RLX is a bigger, plusher Accord and there’s nothing wrong with that in most situations.
Honda’s penchant for revvy, happy engines is present here. Beneath the thick glass and other sound deadening, there’s an enormously lively engine under the hood of the RLX, whose singing occasionally comes through. And then strapping three electric motors to the 3.5-liter V6 makes a combined 377 horsepower with a huge rush of torque. The two motors powering the rear wheels also make the RLX Hybrid all-wheel drive.
The RLX Hybrid may have performance, but it isn’t a sports sedan. The steering and suspension, while competent, are set up for long highway trips rather than enthusiastic cornering. But even in the twisties, the Super Handling All-Wheel Drive lives up to its name.
Push hard and you can feel the rear wheels shuffling the power around for the best grip. There’s good steering feel, but it’s still overboosted to the point your confidence gets the best of you when the front of the car starts to feel a little too light.
That’s not the point of this car, though, and this Acura is happiest when you set the adaptive cruise control and waft along. It is really good at it, too, with the aforementioned sound deadening allowing for a mostly quiet interior. The seats are large and recliner-like, but with more support. They’re befitting of a car that is long and wide and has this front-drive American luxury theme about it. I mean that in the best way, Acura.
That waft-o-matic trait of the RLX Hybrid makes it easy to get the most efficiency out of it. Push it hard and you’ll burn fuel just like any other 377 horsepower sedan. But let the driver assistance radars and sensors do their thing in stop-and-go Los Angeles traffic and upwards of 30 mpg isn’t out of the question. It’s one of the best cars I’ve been stuck in traffic with. Loyal California Acura lovers will think it’s made for them.
It’s in traffic where the RLX Hybrid makes a lot of sense as a luxury sedan, a quiet cocoon comfortably blocking out a chaotic world. The hybrid system is largely a case of having your cake and eating it too. As someone who often cries out for a calm place to be, the RLX Hybrid spoke to me.
But is it the best way to spend $67,000? [Long pause]
The kind of luxury Acura majors in is enough, not extravagance. For a total of $66,890, the top Advance model gets heated front and rear seats, heated steering wheel, cooled front seats, parking sensors and a pretty stellar Krell 14-speaker audio system – but all for $6,000 more than the standard RLX Hybrid. And even that isn’t exactly brimming with features or materials or an ambiance that’s much different from the $36,000 TLX four-cylinder I drove last year. It doesn’t help, either, that the RLX looks so much like the TLX, which both look a lot like an Accord. That’s bad when you’re driving something that costs nearly twice as much as an Accord V6.
The technology aspect is also muddled. While the engine and electric motors are slick, the 7-speed dual-clutch transmission doesn’t have the smoothness of some of the torque converter autos used by the Germans. It’s also operated by the push-button Acura shifter I’ll never get used to. You also have to contend with the frustratingly dated radio/navigation interface Acura keeps pushing. And on more than one occasion, the whole system gave up and I sat in silence until I had an opportunity to restart the car.
When you can buy a Hyundai Genesis V6 – which admittedly lacks the stellar economy of this Acura but feels far more special to drive – for around $50,000, the case for buying an RLX Hybrid becomes comically irrational. The sort of person who would buy an RLX Hybrid would be someone who loves Accords but wants more stuff, power and likes the idea of a sedan that easily seats five adults and still gets 30 mpg in stop and go traffic. These sort of people are well-to-do Hondaists who are almost exclusively residents of the Golden State. And consider Acura has shifted fewer than 500 RLX Hybrids since they first appeared in 2014, they are indeed exclusive customers.
Acura’s hybrid system is promising and with a new 3.0-liter V6-derived version soon to appear in the 2017 MDX, the powertrain will get the mass appeal it needs. But remember this bit of fascinating Honda engineering debuted here, in what is bound to be one hell of a used car find 15 years from now.
Photos Zac Estrada/Carscoops