2004 Acura RL

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2003 Acura RL

This 2003 review is representative of model years 2002 to 2004.
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Rating: 7

Bottom Line:

Acura flagship sedan offers a lot but needs sharper styling and a V8.
Pros:
  • Refined
  • Agile
  • Smooth ride
Cons:
  • No V8
  • Plain styling
  • Average highway performance

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.

Missing V8
What's missing with the $43,150 3.5 RL? For one thing, it has a V6 instead of a V8 engine offered by rivals, and those V8s have more power that the 3.5 RL's engine. The 3.5 RL has the largest engine to ever power an Acura sedan, but it still needs two additional cylinders despite a sophisticated design.

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.

Average Performance
The 3.5 RL's 24-valve overhead-camshaft V6 is plenty sophisticated, but the car isn't very fast off the line and lacks strong mid-range V8 punch on highways. The 3.5 RL isn't slow, with a 0-60 time of 8.5 seconds, but it isn't especially fast, either, for an expensive foreign sedan.

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.

Bland Styling
Bland styling is another problem with the 3.5 RL. Reclusive multimillionaire Howard Hughes might have loved this car because its styling will never jump out at you in a parking lot, or anywhere else, for that matter. The grille is rather bold, but that's not enough.

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.

Very Well-Equipped
However, as always, the 3.5 RL is so well-equipped that it comes only as a $43,150 model. The sole option is an above-average touch-screen navigation system, which raises the price to $45,150.

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.

Sure-Footed
While it's not a sports sedan, the 3.5 RL has sure-footed handling with its double-wishbone all-independent suspension. Braking is strong, although the pedal is rather soft. The speed-sensitive variable-assist steering has an artificial feel, but is responsive. The chassis is taut and the ride is comfortable.

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
The front bucket seats are comfortable even on long drives, controls are nicely sized and the backlit gauges can be easily read, even in bright sunlight. There's plenty of room for four tall adults. And the roomy, nicely shaped trunk has a low, wide opening for easy loading.

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.

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BB04 - 9/17/2014 4:52:26 AM