2003 Acura RL
This 2003 review is representative of model years 2002 to 2004.
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
The main problem with Acura's understated 3.5 RL flagship sedan is that the luxury market always has been about excess—not just competence.
While plenty competent, the 2003 3.5 RL from Honda's upscale vehicle division lacks excess—or pizzazz, if you will.
Not that we're talking about a marginal car here. Its quality, refinement and decent performance make it feel contemporary, although it's had few changes since arriving for 1996.
Acura was the first Japanese luxury car division in America, starting out in 1986 and thus getting a 4-year jump on Toyota's Lexus and Nissan's Infiniti upscale divisions. The 1986 top-line Acura Legend was stylish and fun to drive, but the 3.5 RL never has had that reputation. You can safely drive the 3.5 RL pretty fast, but it doesn't encourage such motoring.
The 3.5 RL succeeded the Legend in 1996, when Acura began its European-style alphanumeric model naming system, which confused a lot of people. Too bad the new system trashed the Legend name, which was one of the best in the industry—although by then the Lexus LS was the most desirable high-line Japanese sedan.
For many, a V8 is the price of admission to the $40,000-plux luxury car market, but Honda insists on not giving a car one more cylinder than it feels is necessary. No "excess," in other words.
However, highway cruising is relaxed, and estimated fuel economy is decent for a 3,869-pound luxury car: 18 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway, with premium gasoline called for.
But the engine should be hooked to a 5-speed automatic transmission, expected in a top-line luxury model—not the car's 4-speed automatic, which lacks the responsiveness and added fuel economy provided by the extra gear.
Last year's 3.5 RL became more "driver-oriented" with a stiffer suspension from the European version of the car, wider tires, improved braking and a horsepower boost to 225 from 210.
However, this Acura retains front-wheel drive, instead of the rear-drive setup found on most competitors. It thus has a nose-heavy 60-40 weight distribution, which makes itself known during fast cornering.
Acura is slow to change the 3.5 RL, so the 2003 model only gets small updates. They include a new taillight design, redesigned alloy wheels and three new colors.
The wood-and-leather interior has every comfort and convenience item most luxury car buyers would want, including heated leather seats, an upscale sound system and side airbags.
Advanced technical items include a Vehicle Stability Assist anti-skid system. And General Motors' OnStar emergency assistance service can be handy during an accident or if a driver accidentally locks keys in the car.
The quiet interior is nicely designed, although the audio system's on-off and volume control is a long reach for even long-arm drivers—as if Acura only wants the front passenger to comfortably work audio controls. Odd.
Roomy Interior and Trunk
Bottom line? The Acura 3.5 RL offers plenty of luxury, reliability, refinement and equipment for a fair price. Some people wouldn't ask for anything more.