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In all frankness, Acura had been out of the loop for awhile when it came to building a top-notch luxury/performance car. In recent years, the company has come up with several vehicles that have been a kind of rebirth for the luxury division of Honda. The MDX sport-utility continues to be popular five years into its life cycle. The tired Integra was put to pasture and replaced by the quick and much more sophisticated RSX. More recently, the sporty and well-appointed TSX and TL came along, giving extra credibility to the notion that a reinventing of the Acura name could actually work. The 2004 model year is the last year for the current RL, so if you like that sort of 1990s-era luxury sedan, you'd better get one now. You'll probably get a really great deal on a 2004, because once the buying public gets a look at the new one, we suspect high demand for it will promote generous discounts on the outgoing model.

The outgoing RL was never a real contender in the luxury sedan world, as other cars always seemed to offer more luxury, style and performance. The one thing this car has always offered is impressive value, but we're not altogether sure that's the kind of thing that rings true with buyers in this segment who typically have flexible budgets.

So the old car is mediocre and the new one is really awesome. Sure, we've heard that story a thousand times if we've heard it once. Even so, the new version of the RL is truly new and has almost nothing in common with the old one. In fact, the new RL could be called overkill, as it offers features we never would have thought of let alone expected on a luxury performance sedan. Acura is well aware that the outgoing RL was not a contender against the likes of Audi, BMW, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz, and the company set out to fix the problem by designing a car that has the look and feel of a true luxury vehicle combined with the stunning performance of a German sport sedan.

Although the RL's engine still displaces 3.5 liters, it's not the same old motor. The new version has more in common with the Acura MDX's engine, but it's not a direct transplant. This V6 is now good for 300 horsepower, and it gets that number by using quite a few technological tricks and tweaks. The engine uses variable valve timing technology as well as a variable flow exhaust system, a new intake system and higher compression. Add this to a five-speed shiftable automatic transmission and the car already looks impressive on paper. With a 75-hp gain over the car it replaces, the RL now has something to brag about. This new engine gets nearly half of its power gain from exhaust and intake modifications alone.

This new V6 is the one and only engine available in the RL, and the acceleration it provides is more than adequate. However, it does lack the low-end grunt of a V8 — the six-cylinder delivers 260 pound-feet of torque, which is not terrible but is not on par with competing eight-cylinder engines. The RL's motor does offer class-leading torque when compared to other six-cylinder cars like the Lexus GS 300 and Audi A6 3.0. Still, cars like the Lexus GS, Audi A6, BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class are all available with either a six- or an eight-cylinder engine. This could hurt the RL's prestige factor in the long run. Now, we're not ones to knock a 300-hp engine, but the lack of an available V8 may be a problem in this luxury segment.

Even without the big engine, the car offers an interesting twist on all-wheel drive — all RLs now come with all-wheel drive as standard equipment. Using a system Acura calls SH-AWD or Super Handling All-Wheel Drive, the RL offers precise handling from a very sophisticated drivetrain. The all-wheel-drive configuration typically runs with 70 percent of the power going to the front wheels and the remaining 30 percent directed to the rear wheels. Under such circumstances as heavy acceleration or hard cornering, more power can be directed to the rear wheels — like the front wheels, the rear wheels can receive as much as 70 percent of the engine's power.

So far this is nothing new, as most all-wheel-drive cars can redirect the power between front and rear wheels. What is unusual is the RL's ability to split the power between the left and right rear wheels. If needed, the all-wheel-drive system can direct all of the rear wheel's available power (never more than 70-percent total) to just one wheel. Using sensors to determine the position of the car relative to a turn, the car will spin the outside rear wheel faster in order to more accurately point the front of the car in the direction the driver intends. The result is a car that seems to exhibit little or no understeer — that feeling you get when entering a turn too quickly and the car continues to go straight despite the fact that the front wheels are turned.

In the real world, this system has many distinct advantages. In emergency avoidance maneuvers, the car is more predictable and simply responds more precisely to what the driver tells it to do. The other advantage is from a performance standpoint. We had the opportunity to drive the RL on a closed road course along with an Audi A6, a BMW 530i and a Mercedes-Benz E320. Granted, this course was set up by Acura, but the RL handled noticeably better than the others and the SH-AWD system worked seamlessly. While we still think the BMW's steering feels quicker and more responsive, overall the Acura RL was more precise and able to get around the course faster. Plus, the RL has an almost spooky ability to go exactly where the driver points it. Even if you're no Michael Schumacher, this car makes you feel like a champ, as it makes the most of all available grip. The result is a car that handles precisely, feels predictable and is fun to drive all at the same time.

All that performance is great but what about luxury? Despite the car's excellent handling characteristics, the RL still rides like a big luxury car on the open highway. The only complaint we had during our initial drive is that the car tends to feel a little too firm on uneven pavement — but the overall feeling is quite pleasant. The perforated leather seats are very comfortable and are covered in leather so soft it rivals Lexus upholstery. However, this doesn't even scratch the surface of the RL's luxurious accommodations. Like the powertrain, the RL's interior offers a seamless combination of technology and luxury. And in most instances, it's the advanced technology that's driving the luxury.

Inside, the car looks like a typical luxury sedan with plenty of wood trim and soft leather. The standard stereo is a Bose/DVD-A system with real 5.1 surround sound for DVD-A discs and software that mimics surround sound for traditional CDs. The stereo also uses noise canceling technology to filter out excess wind or road noise (of which there is very little to begin with), and this feature works whether or not the stereo is turned on.

The standard navigation system features an eight-inch screen that's very easy to read. Incorporated into that navigation system are real-time traffic updates powered by XM radio. The feature is called XM Nav Traffic and it "talks" to the navigation system and warns the driver of such conditions as slow traffic flow, road construction and accidents. While this feature is not available in all cities, it is offered in major metropolitan areas like Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington D.C. The information is communicated to the driver via icons that appear on the nav screen. The marked highways are bordered by certain colors which indicate how fast or slow traffic is moving in that area. For example, a red line next to a highway indicates that traffic is moving slowly in that area — now the driver can use the navigation system to reroute himself around the congestion. The same is true for road construction, weather conditions or reported car accidents. The completeness and the availability varies by city, so the system is only as good as the local reporting infrastructure — as you might expect, Los Angeles has the most comprehensive information on both traffic flow and incidents.

The display screen for the nav system is also used for the audio system, climate control and message center. The car receives messages with regard to recalls and scheduled maintenance, quick tips on vehicle operation and messages from the dealership. Most of these features are controlled via a knob and corresponding buttons on the center stack. Although many advanced features are housed in one control, the operation is clear and reasonably straightforward — have no fear, BMW owners, it is nothing like the infuriating iDrive.

But this is just the beginning of the dizzying array of electronics and technology found in this big Acura. In addition to the Acura Link navigation system, advanced audio system and ground-breaking all-wheel-drive system, the car also has Bluetooth capability for hands-free use of your mobile phone, OnStar, voice recognition software, a keyless access and startup feature (similar to that found on many Mercedes-Benz cars) and a GPS-linked, solar-sensing climate control system. How does a climate control system use GPS information, you may be asking. It's like this: ever notice how one side of the car gets hotter depending on where the sun is? Well, the Acura system uses GPS information from the navigation system and a solar sensor inside the car to determine where the sun is and adjusts air flow and temperature accordingly. Acura literature refers to this as "asymmetrical solar heating."

You would think that all of these features would drive the price of the RL up well past the mid-$40Ks price of its predecessor. Given the Acura Link nav system, Bose audio with noise canceling and DVD-A technology and all the other previously mentioned whiz-bang features, a price nearing $60,000 wouldn't be too far-fetched. But this car may turn out to be more affordable than you'd imagine. At the time of our introductory drive in the RL, Acura did not release final pricing and would only say that the new car would be priced "well below $50,000." If that turns out to be true, the new RL could also offer the only thing we really liked about the old car — value. It's kind of a dirty word in the "hey, look at me" luxury car world, but you have to figure that some of those rich folks got that way by making smart choices with their money.

This car is packed with so much advanced and complex technology, we can't help but think we should reserve final judgment until we spend more time driving it. Many of the advanced features mentioned here can only be properly evaluated over the course of a week or so, as it is the integration of that technology into a person's everyday life that determines its success or failure. Our preliminary impression is that the new Acura RL is an excellent car that now fits in with and boosts Acura's desired image as a builder of sporty and luxurious cars. Like the TL and TSX, the 2005 RL offers a performance edge normally reserved for such brands as Audi and BMW. The car combines tons of technology (both electronic and mechanical) into a package that is good-looking and fun to drive — it's the seamless integration of that technology plus real luxury that makes the new RL such an excellent sport sedan
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