Driving around traffic in the Washington DC area, the car was very smooth and quiet as expected. For those who criticized the '04 TL for being too firm, the RL will be right up your alley. It has a slightly softer initial compression feel, but still has enough rebound to control the car. Tire noise was minimal which made me recognize a tiny bit of wind noise coming from the driver's side; possibly due to a pre-production fit issue. Brake pedal feel was solid and the car stopped straight. I was able to get comfortable in the seats quicker than in my own '04 TL. The steering was well weighted with a good amount of feedback while the chassis soaked up any bumps with aplomb. All in all, the RL was a very efficient cruiser.
The Jefferson Circuit at Summit Point Raceway is a short 1.1 mile track with elevation changes, off-camber turns, decreasing/increasing radius turns, and double apex turns. Chicanes were set up in the middle of the front and back straight in an effort to prevent overzealous journalists from igniting brake pads. The S-turn and the chicane cones on each straight tested the transient response and turn-in feel of a car. The big decreasing radius turn onto the back straight tested the traction and balance of the car on throttle.
Acura provided several cars for us to sample and compare to the new RL. They included an Audi A6 3.0 Tiptronic Quattro, Mercedes E320 4Matic, BMW 530i (non-Sports package) as well as the current '04 Acura 3.5RL.
I jumped into the first available car, the Audi A6 Quattro. Since it was my first time on an unfamiliar track, I drove at a moderate pace. Immediately, I noticed huge amounts of understeer as the car drove like a nose-heavy front wheel drive car. Getting on the throttle in the middle of a turn resulted in instant understeer, easily overworking the front tires. This car requires that it be driven like it's a front wheel drive car with a small rear anti-sway bar. I even had a hard time getting the car to rotate with trail braking. The suspension was too soft for the quick steering wheel inputs required to negotiate the chicane. The Audi A6 Quattro really felt out of it element and is definitely not suited for track driving. A fellow journalist concurred by summarizing to me that the Audi handles fine at 7/10th on the streets, but performs very poorly at the limit.
The new RL was next. I purposely left the VSA on to get a feel for the car in this mode. The brakes were firmer and stronger approaching the first turn. Driving through the first S-turn under small amounts of constant throttle, I could feel the car's weight but the car remained fairly neutral. Now that I had a feel of what the car felt at slower speeds, I started to slowly accelerate in the increasing radius turn and found myself with plenty of grip to spare. Next lap around, I got on the throttle even earlier and harder and the car just clawed its way around the turn in perfect balance. Very impressive. Next time around, I decided to take it as if I was going for a good lap time and the car pivoted just like it was a rear wheel drive car, yet it remained absolutely stable. There was no hint of pending sudden oversteer and no hint of any wheels slipping as the car pivoted. The RL just rocketed through the turn and onto the back straight. The VSA had not even kicked in.
Exiting out of the RL back in the car staging area, I was instantly greeted by several Japanese engineers including the Lead Project engineer. They were eager to hear my feedback on the car. I communicated to them what I just experienced and they simply smiled and nodded.
The Mercedes E320 4Matic chassis felt very solid and stiff. It was relatively neutral under throttle as you accelerated out of a corner. The car exhibited a decent amount of grip in steady state cornering. However, its downfall was transient maneuvers. Soft shocks and a slow steering ratio contributed to lethargic Queen Mary type response.
Hopping back into the RL, I decided to do some experimentation with the car. I purposely coasted into a turn and cranked on the steering wheel. This induced a very reasonable, safe amount of understeer given what I was doing. Continuing with my experiments to see how the SH-AWD acts under real world conditions, I purposely lifted the throttle suddenly in a middle of a turn and the car went from neutral to very slight understeer Under these common driving mistakes, the RL still exhibited very benign traits. In addition, the RL rewards drivers will a well balanced car that will willingly rotate when the driver WANTS it to.
Next victim, I mean, RL competitor, was the BMW 530i (without Sport package). I explicitly mention this because this BMW's handling was quite bland. Maybe the engine was so weak that I simply could not affect the car's behavior with the throttle. The BMW's steering feel was also a notch lower than the new RL's feel which is a revelation. BMW had it right with their previous generation 5 series in terms of steering feel and weight. If it was not for the RL, the BMW would be the king of the hill between all these cars. However, the RL simply outshines the BMW in handling dynamics.
The 2004 3.5RL actually surprised me a bit. Sure, its default handling trait is constant understeer, but I was able to get it to rotate somewhat with more aggressive trail braking.
Receiving permission from the track marshals, I stayed out with the new RL for quite a bit longer than the normal 3 laps at a time they wanted us to do. I really began to get aggressive with the car. I enabled the MID display to show the SH-AWD torque distribution in action. Getting on the throttle as I initiated a right hand turn, I could see the bar graph on the rear left tire grow very long. You can really sense the rear left tire working harder to rotate the car, which admittedly felt very alien to me at first. How could a 4000 lb. luxury car rotate like this?! After getting accustomed to it and learning to take advantage of it, the RL simply felt like a car that was much lighter on its feet, but only under throttle. You do have to be fairly aggressive with the throttle before you'll be able to fully take advantage of the SH-AWD's enhanced handling benefits. Just as a check, I did use the Tire Pressure Monitoring System to confirm the tire pressures. All 4 tires were set to 28psi, yet the track performance was impeccable.
To rate these cars from just this particular track driving experience, I would place them in this order:
- 2005 Acura RL
- BMW 530i
- Mercedes E320 4Matic
- 2004 Acura 3.5RL
- Audi A6 Quattro
Just as the track session ended, it started to rain! I agonized over the missed opportunity to drive the RL in the rain on the track, but the PR guys may have just cut our track time short anyway. Regardless, I was able to drive the car in the pouring rain on the winding country roads leaving Summit Point. The rain was coming down very heavily and visibility was severely affected at some points. There were deep puddles on the uneven roads, but the RL handled them with great confidence. Only on one occasion did the car experience a sight touch of hydroplaning, but neither the steering wheel nor the car flinched; an impressive feat considering the amount of water present, my speed, and the fat 245 tires. Approaching a red light and with the rain abated, I decided to experiment a little bit more. I gave my driving partner a quick warning, and then I proceeded to floor the accelerator when the light turned green. I proceeded straight forward for a few feet but then with the throttle pedal buried in the carpet, I initiated a left hand turn. The RL smoothly and QUICKLY negotiated the turn without much drama. Wonderful!
My impressions of these cars are under track conditions which 95% of owners will never see. Many owners will never take advantage of the enhanced handling provided by the SH-AWD, and instead will only appreciate the high margin of safety afford by the SH-AWD mechanism. The additional weight and cost of the mechanism will limit it to the luxury sedan market, so don't expect to see an S2000 or NSX with SH-AWD anytime soon. I did learn from the "father of SH-AWD" that he had been working on this technology for over 14 years. I'm glad to say that it has been well worth the wait. SH-AWD is a groundbreaking technology in the automotive industry and I look forward to experiencing it in future Honda/Acura sedans.