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2014 Acura RLX: Acura's Flagship Sedan is Reborn

Njuguna Kabugi | 3/6/2013, 1:43 p.m.

Acura, Honda's luxury nameplate, was at one time the standard by which Americans judged Japanese luxury automobiles. With models like the Legend, Integra and NSX, Acura set the bar for quality engineering, safety and luxury. But with mishaps - such as the baffling branding strategy that resulted in Acura abandoning well-known names in favor of less distinctive alphabet soup combinations such as TL, TSX, RL and ZDX, and more recently, the bizarre grille the automaker pasted on all of its offerings, Acura has lost much of its original distinctive sizzle.

The shift away from what many see as the foundation of the brand - making nimble, sporty cars that served as the showcase for Honda's most advanced technology, has left Acura in an awkward place. Today, Acura's best-selling model is not a sedan. That honor goes to the MDX SUV, which has been the best seller the last few years. Last year, close to one-third of all Acura sales were MDXs.

Acura's flagship sedan, the RL, has witnessed the biggest decline in sales ever since the company changed the car's name from the Legend. The RL's mediocre sales have bordered on embarrassment: last month it sold just 11 units. That's not a good place for a brand's flagship, which is why Honda is throwing almost everything it has into recapturing lost glory by introducing the RLX, the first reinvention of the premier sedan in more than a decade.

The 2014 RLX, which was launched in D.C.-area showrooms last week, is the most powerful, spacious, and technologically advanced sedan introduced by the luxury brand. Featuring an array of signature technologies, the RLX is conservatively styled but is far more elegantly executed than the RL. It is attractive enough to appeal to the practical, value-conscious buyer who gravitates toward Acura.

From our brief test drive, we were impressed with Acura's latest attempt to challenge higher luxury European and Japanese brands. The result is a sedan that is a mid-size on the outside but is almost full-size inside. While the rear seat is considerably more spacious than the cramped one on the RL, in terms of size and interior volume per liter, the RLX offers more leg room, shoulder room and head space than the BMW 5 series and Lexus GS350.

By using high-strength steel and aluminum in the body, Honda has trimmed the RLX by 275 pounds compared with the RL, bringing about a 20 percent improvement in fuel efficiency - which translates into a top-class EPA fuel economy rating of 20/31/24 mpg (city/highway/combined).

The RLX is powered by a version of Honda's 3.5-liter V-6 fitted with direct injection and cylinder deactivation technology (Variable Cylinder Management in Acura-speak) that produces 310 horsepower and 272 lb-ft of torque. The discontinued RL did not offer a hybrid version, but the RLX will. A new hybrid system that uses a gas engine to power the front wheels and electric motors to power the rear wheels will be introduced in fall 2013. Combined output will be 370 hp with estimated fuel economy of 30 mpg overall.

The new RLX reaches higher into the high-end luxury sedan market with an impressive array of advanced safety, driver-assistive, and information and media technologies. The car also comes with seven airbags (including a new driver's knee airbag).

Acura anticipates earning 5-star top-level safety ratings from the government later this year. From informal surveys we have conducted at several area dealerships, the RLX has been well received by Acura enthusiasts and may well increase the automaker's visibility. This endorsement, however, comes with a caveat - raising Acura's luxury profile will not be easy because its standing as the premier Asian luxury brand has been slipping in the car buyer's mind. According to industry sources, car shoppers seem more inclined to consider Toyotas and Hondas - not Audis and Infinitis - as the equivalent of Acuras. That's a tall chasm to close.

Prices start from just under $50,000, and the top RLX full of options retails for more than $61,000. We will detail features and option packages when we conduct a full test next month.