NOTE: The impressions and opinions contained within are based upon a limited driving experience. We will have a full feature road test with our final conclusions at a later time.
The wait is finally over. The highly anticipated 2005 Acura RL will be arriving in showrooms this week and their lucky owners will finally get to experience the thrill of SH-AWD in operation.
Last week I took advantage of an opportunity to get my first wheel time in a 2005 RL and spent several hours familiarizing myself with it and snapping some of the photos you see here. I came away very pleased with the overall experience.
The new RL excels in the areas of luxury, performance, and technology, combining the three at a level that's never before been delivered by any Honda or Acura vehicle to date.
Earlier this year Acura broke the news of their innovative SH-AWD system and there's been a lot of talk about how it's going to change the landscape of the marketplace. While we'll have to drive the car on our usual twisty roads to fully gauge the abilities of the system, my first impressions were quite favorable. From an acceleration standpoint, grip seems nearly infinite, with nary a hint of wheelspin and a complete lack of any sort of drivewheel related feedback through the steering wheel, even as you accelerate hard over varying surfaces. If you're inclined to do so, you can toggle through the display on the MID and see a realtime graphical display of torque distribution to each of the drive wheels (see video clip). Most of the time you won't have a clue where the torque is being distributed, but the first time you pitch it into a hard turn and stay on the throttle, you will most certainly feel the effects of the left/right rear active torque distribution, and it's quite a gratifying sensation. I was trying to sense if I could get any hints of the front wheels' motivational force through the steering, but there was absolutely none. Speaking of the steering, it's pretty light in feel, and wheeling it through a parking lot it seemed to have a bit of a slow ratio, but on the road the ratio felt okay. One more thing I noticed was that SH-AWD is not only a "power-on" system, it actually distributes engine braking forces properly to help rotate the car in a trailbraking situation.
The new 3.5L 300hp is Acura's most powerful motor to date, but it's been burdened with nearly 2 tons of hardware to haul. Overall, the J35 does a pretty good job, yet as with the TSX, I can't help but think that power-hungry buyers may be left wanting for a bit more. It sure would be nice to try the car with a 6-speed manual transmission, but for now the only choice is a smooth shifting 5-speed automatic. The entire package offers supreme refinement - power delivery is quite linear and relatively drama free. As expected in this luxury class, the transmission is designed to minimize shock between shifts, which means there's a bit of lag as the spark is momentarily cut during gearchange. The engine sounds are well muted, but you can still hear the signature change in pitch when the intake camshaft kicks over to the longer duration/high lift profile at around 4500 rpms. From a seat of the pants perspective, the RL's straight-line acceleration didn't quite provide the punch I was hoping for, but perhaps the utter lack of drama during full throttle launches dulls the sense of how quickly the car is actually moving. I managed to perform a few timed 0-60 runs using a Race Technology AP-22 performance meter, but the resulting figures left me wondering about the calibration of the device. We will perform proper dragstrip testing at a later date. There are reports of other publications showing 0-60 times in the 6.0-6.5 second range, but according to the AP-22 and my own impression, those figures seem a bit optimistic. Though I had less than an ideal testing location, I was seeing times in the 7.4-7.6 second range, which caused a bit of concern. I was hesitant to even share the numbers, but based upon the way the car felt, they didn't seem to be too far off. In any case, these are preliminary numbers and should be treated that way. Overall I'm a bit concerned that this drivetrain will have some critics renewing their calls for V-8 power, though many will find it to be more than adequate.
The chassis feels extremely solid, allowing the suspension to perform at a high level while delivering a very comfortable ride. On the road, the ride is very composed and does an admirable job of absorbing road imperfections, while keeping ride motions well in check. Body roll, squat and dive characteristics all seem quite good considering the ride quality. The steering feels pretty good, though I would like to see a slightly quicker ratio and perhaps a bit more weight.
From a luxury standpoint, this car isn't about all-out, over the top luxury, but it certainly delivers a very high level of comfort, starting with the excellent seats and continuing through the general high-quality selection of materials and handsome instrument panel and dashboard design. There are nice touches everywhere, starting with soft touch rubber coated control stalks and continuing with other niceties such as auto up/down power windows for all 4 positions, power rear sunshade, manual sunshades for the windows of the rear doors, and a 5.1 Channel DVD-A BOSE stereo system that may help restore some status to the BOSE name. Unfortunately I forgot to bring any of my DVD-A test material, so I was only able to audition the system with XM and FM radio content, but generally it sounded pretty accurate and linear with clear imaging and a well controlled, solid low frequency response. As for the sounds you don't wish to hear, according to the SPL meter, even at full throttle in first and second gear, the interior noise levels never exceeded 67-68dBA. On the open road, at 80mph, the interior sound levels remained in the 68dBA range, which is quite good. I was a little surprised at that low figure, but only because the largest component of the cabin noise seemed to come from the tires. From a relative standpoint, the tires are pretty much all you will hear besides perhaps a few whispers of wind noise if you catch a crosswind just right. Otherwise, the Active Noise Control system does a good job of silencing any driveline related noises and any sort of chassis rumble or boom from the cabin. ANC systems are best suited at reducing low frequency noises, so I would imagine a spectrum analysis of the interior noise would reflect the majority of the sound energy being concentrated in the higher frequency range, which is almost entirely related to the tires' contribution. One other (somewhat peculiar) thing that you might notice while driving the vehicle is that due to your own serene environment, you tend to hear more sounds from other vehicles surrounding you than you might normally sense.
I spent a little time checking out the navi system's new AcuraLink realtime traffic display, and though it relies on a simple 3-color scheme indicating three traffic flow ranges, I could immediately see the value of having something like this in Atlanta and other large metro areas. It appeared to have coverage of all the major highways in the Atlanta metro area (I definitely noticed coverage for GA400, I-75, I-85, I-285, and I-20) and it was pretty neat to see it updating every minute (accident notifications update at 5 minute intervals). The user interface of Acura's navi system continues to improve (by the way, it's no longer touch screen sensitive), and Acura's "i-drive" like system seems to work fairly intuitively, though there were a few little things that I found mildly irritating. Unfortunately this pre-production car didn't have an owner's manual for reference, so it's possible I was missing something that could have been cleared up by the manual.
I will reiterate that these first impressions are based upon a rather limited (less than 100 miles) experience with the car, but at this point it seems that Acura has another winner on their hands. It's hard to imagine another vehicle providing the RL's driving dynamics and levels of comfort in equal measures. The fact that the RL is such a capable handler, in spite of its mass, modest tires, and comfort-oriented suspension calibrations really makes a strong case for the merits of the SH-AWD system. The transparency of the system allows the RL to address dual markets - strictly luxury oriented drivers will appreciate the security and confidence inspired by the all-wheel-drive system, yet they will appreciate the truly luxurious driving feel. Performance oriented drivers will be amazed by what the car can do when push comes to shove. It really seems to combine the best of both worlds without upsetting either side of the equation.
As an enthusiast, it's hard not to imagine finding the SH-AWD system in a super high performance application at some point down the road. We have a fairly strong suspicion that the day for that will come, but at this point we don't know when it might happen.