2017 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Elite Road Test

You can be forgiven for not knowing much about Acura’s flagship RLX luxury sedan. It’s been around for a while, but its numbers
2017 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Elite
You’d never know how quick and capable the RLX Sport Hybrid was by looking at its handsome albeit conservative styling. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
haven’t reached the critical mass necessary to put it on most luxury buyers’ radar. Either that, or they’ve seen it and opted to shop elsewhere. Likely it’s a bit of both, but I’ve personally met a number of RLX owners who chose it over everything else on the market. Before delving into why, here’s a little background info about this little known Acura.

The car grew out of fertile Acura Legend roots, which was a four-door sedan created off the back of the Honda Accord for Acura’s initial offering in 1986. It sold very well, reaching a peak of 70,770 units in the U.S. in 1988 (sorry I don’t have Canadian sales info going that far back, but as a rule it’s generally about 10 percent), and helped the brand earn early respect in the luxury sector.

2017 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Elite
The RLX rear design is more stately than sporty. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
Legend was replaced by the larger and more upscale RL in 1995, but in an attempt to appeal to more traditional luxury buyers its conservative styling and sedate driving dynamics didn’t strike a chord with Honda faithful looking to move upmarket, and wasn’t able conquest many luxury buyers either, so unlike the RL was a relative sales flop with its best year of 1997 only resulting in 16,004 U.S. deliveries.

Acura countered the initial RL failure with a totally reimagined car that focused much more on performance and enhanced interior refinement, but its small cabin and limited trunk space made it less practical than the much more popular TL sedan and therefore sales continued to languish, its best U.S. sales results being 2005
2017 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Elite
Stunning standard Jewel-Eye LED headlamps make a bright visual statement. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
when Acura was able to move 17,572 units, although following years found unprecedented lows culminating in just 379 deliveries in 2012, its final full year of availability before this current RLX was introduced in 2013. Canadian sales stats are available for this version of the RL, by the way, our best year also 2005 when 475 were delivered, while the years that followed included 231 units in 2006, 158 in 2007, and dwindling down to just 29 units in 2012.

When Acura changed the RL name to RLX, most thought it had added all-wheel drive, which would’ve made sense being that its front-wheel drive layout had long been considered a drawback when compared to competitors offering more sporting rear-drive and all-wheel drive designs, but the initial car only wore its “X” by name, continuing forward with FWD.

2017 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Elite
LED fog lamps join standard 19-inch alloys. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
design combined some of the sportier second-generation RL styling elements with the more practical upright nature of the first-gen RL, while adding Acura’s now trademark Jewel-Eye LED headlamps, incorporating the shield grille introduced on the MDX, and also providing then-new active safety technologies such as autonomous braking. It was a highly advanced flagship model that showcased many Acura/Honda technologies, but unfortunately its styling remained too conservative to compel would-be buyers to give it a try, so when the much more capable Sport Hybrid version arrived, which included an electrified form of all-wheel drive, the car had already lost momentum on the sales charts.

To say that it ever had any real momentum was paying it more respect than deserved, as its best U.S. sales year was 2013 when it found just 5,053 buyers, followed
2017 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Elite
LED taillights are bright and react quickly to brake input. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
by 3,413 deliveries in 2014, 2,195 in 2015, and only 1,478 last year. Canadian sales numbers have been much worse per capita, with just 185 sales during the last half of 2013 (it was introduced in June), 243 in 2014, 182 in 2015, and just 107 last year. As of April 30, 2017 Acura’s sold just 27 units, which means that its handful of buyers enjoy the type of exclusivity normally only provided by Bentley and Rolls-Royce ownership.

While I’ve been calling it a flagship luxury model, to be clear it’s no larger than Mercedes-Benz’ E-Class sedan, which is the most popular luxury model in the mid-size premium segment. By comparison Merc sells about 28 Es to every single RLX, but Acura isn’t the only brand that gets beaten up by the three-pointed star in this category.

2017 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Elite
You won’t be disappointed with the RLX cabin. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
sells almost a third more Es than BMW purveys 5s, while it outpaces Audi’s A6 by approximately 3.5 to 1, Jaguar’s XF by about 5.5 to 1, Lexus’ GS by more than 7 to 1, Infiniti’s Q70 by 19 to 1, and so on. The only car in the segment to outsell it is Chrysler’s 300 that’s ironically based on much older E-Class architecture, and to be fair to Mercedes the near premium 300 is priced much lower and therefore isn’t really targeting the same luxury audience. So it’s an uphill battle for the RLX and many of its peers, but that didn’t stop Acura from investing thousands of Bordens (my Canadian twist on Benjamins, although I probably should have called them Fukuzawas being that we’re talking yen) into this innovative car.

I say innovative because it’s the only car in its class available solely as a hybrid, and a performance-oriented hybrid at that (the front-drive gasoline-only model was
2017 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Elite
Optional Krell audio system provides these gorgeous metal speaker grilles. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
discontinued in Canada for 2016; it’s still available in the U.S.). Acura claims net output of 377 horsepower and 341 lb-ft of torque via a 3.5-litre V6 and three-motor electric/ lithium-ion battery combination. For a quick synopsis, the internal combustion engine (ICE) powers the front wheels in concert with an electric assist motor, similar to the Accord Hybrid. Call this default mode, the most fuel-efficient way to get around. If torque is needed at the rear due to increasing power, pushing hard through a corner, or experiencing inclement weather, an electrified version of Acura’s torque-vectoring Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) provides traction from all four standard 245/40R19 all-season tires via rear wheel-mounted dual electric motors. Heightening the RLX’ sporty nature, a seven-speed dual-clutch automated transmission provides quick shifts enhanced by steering wheel paddles and Acura’s innovative pushbutton gear selector,
2017 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Elite
RLX cockpit needs a bit more modern-day tech. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
complete with a very responsive Sport button, making it a lot more entertaining to drive than a number of its rivals that appear more like sport sedans.

As the saying goes, looks can be deceiving, and the RLX’ conservative clothing can be a benefit for sliding stealthily past radar. I’m not saying its folded bodywork can somehow confuse a radar/lidar gun like a stealth aircraft mixes up enemy signals, but its upright stance and noticeable lack of bling doesn’t attract unwanted attention from the constabulary like a bright red NSX. Strangely enough this lets you move faster through traffic and down the highway than cars that are technically quicker, and you’ll be a lot more comfortable while doing so too.

That’s the RLX trump card. Sure it’s quick off the line and plenty enjoyable through the curves, but its fully independent suspension, consisting of a lightweight double-wishbone setup with lower double
2017 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Elite
There’s a colour multi-info display at centre, but this class now requires fully configurable gauges in top-tier trim. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
joints up front and a multi-link design in back, with stabilizer bars and amplitude reactive dampers at both ends, is wonderfully compliant on most any type of road surface. The electric power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is tuned for better feedback than many of its luxury peers, while the aforementioned SH-AWD, 19-inch wheels and tires, plus Agile Handling Assist that uses active braking technology to slow the inside (or outside) wheel during high-speed cornering to minimize oversteer and understeer, makes for a very engaging sport sedan. The big disc brakes do a decent job of hauling the big car down from a fast pace quickly and in control too, even after repeated application. Really, the RLX needs to be experienced to be appreciated.

2017 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Elite
Dual-screen infotainment is an eye-full. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
say the same for the car’s nicely appointed, impressively refined cabin. First off it’s quiet inside, as one would expect from a car that’s more likely to attract an upwardly mobile Buick owner than anyone downgrading from an Audi A8. This in no way is meant to say that an A8 is particularly noisy or a Buick is not a worthy luxury car, but rather that the RLX manages to combine some of the sporty engine note of the German sedan with much of the vault-like silence of the American.

Along with standard acoustic glass and active noise cancellation, some of its sound deadening can be attributed to premium soft touch synthetic and natural surfaces applied just about everywhere. Beautiful French-stitched leathers cover much of the instrument panel, door inserts and armrests, as well as the seat upholstery,
2017 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Elite
Superb surround parking camera will keep the RLX’ paint scratch free. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
of course, the front seat inserts perforated to allow forced ventilation. Both front and rear seats are three-way heatable as well, while the former are power-adjustable in myriad ways. It’s a comfortable car, no argument.

The cabin pulls eyeballs too. Along with that stunning leatherwork, gorgeous high-gloss hardwood adorns the dash front, centre console and door panels, as does tastefully applied satin-finish aluminum and chromed metal trim. There’s no panoramic sunroof opening up the roof overhead, and the primary gauge cluster ahead of the driver isn’t a fully configurable TFT display like some in this segment,
2017 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Elite
Unorthodox gear selector becomes second nature quickly. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
nor is its fully colour multi-information display (MID) as large or as feature-filled as others, but Acura makes up for this with a head-up display projecting critical info on the windshield and its duopoly of displays atop the centre stack, the topmost one more of an MID and the lower touchscreen for infotainment purposes.

A set of controls, including a large rotating controller, prompt the former and your fingers do the walking over the latter, with all the usual premium features included such as a 360-degree surround overhead camera (that’s actually a split-screen simultaneously showing a backup camera with active guidelines), an accurate navigation system with excellent mapping, plenty of car info (especially hybrid details),
2017 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Elite
12-way powered seats are extremely comfortable. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
phone info, an HVAC display for the GPS-linked tri-zone automatic climate control, and lastly an audio display for the phenomenal Krell surround sound system. Additionally, all of the switchgear throughout the cabin is very good.

As noted the rear outboard seats get three-way heatable elements controlled by switchgear on the backside of the front console, centered by a button for powering the rear window sunshade up and down. Side window sunshades are included too, but they’re manually operated. Rear seat finishings are as impressive as those up front, and roominess deserves the proverbial “limousine-like” commendation, with so much legroom it’s downright silly. It’s not to extended-wheelbase S-Class Pullman levels, but for a mid-size model the RLX delivers much more length and width than average.

2017 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Elite
Sunshades are part of the Elite package upgrade. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
when I positioned the driver’s seat to my five-foot-eight height, I had about 10 inches left over in front of my knees, another four inches above my head, five from my shoulders to the door, and about the same for my hips. Three abreast would be easy enough, although the outboard seats are deeply sculpted so the person in the middle sits fairly high, plus there’s a sizeable central tunnel to straddle. It’s best to lose the centre passenger and enjoy the comfortable armrest that folds down from the middle, complete with small cupholders that pop out from the front.

For a hybrid that uses much of its rear bulkhead for storing its battery, the squared out 328-litre (11.6 cubic-foot) trunk is quite accommodating. It can’t be expanded upon, but only those heading for the slopes with old-school (i.e. long) boards should have a problem with that. Its floor, seatbacks and sidewalls are nicely
2017 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Elite
Limousine-like legroom is standard, as are wonderfully comfortable rear seats. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
finished in premium carpets and chromed tie-down hooks are available for strapping in loose cargo, while surprisingly enough there’s a large two-compartment stowage area under the load floor for hiding valuables.

Now that we’re talking practicalities, Natural Resources Canada gives the RLX a fuel economy estimate of 8.2 L/100km in the city, 7.8 on the highway, and 8.1 combined, which is superb for its class. It should be noted that BMW now offers a plug-in hybrid 5 Series dubbed 530e, which strangely isn’t given an Le/100km rating, but rather is estimated to provide a comparatively lacklustre 10.5 L/100km city, 7.4 highway and 9.1 combined, while Lexus’ GS 450h is good for a claimed 8.1 city, 6.9 highway and combined, which they say is class-leading efficiency, from a 338 net horsepower power unit capable of catapulting the car to 100km/h in
2017 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Elite
A fairly large size for a hybrid sedan. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
5.6 seconds, no less. It’s not like this slight performance advantage woos any more Canadian buyers, the Lexus down in the lower end of three-digit sales territory as well (and the hybrid no doubt much scarcer than pure gasoline-powered variants), so I recommend taking both for a ride if you’re serious about either.

One thing is for sure, the RLX’ high level of standard features will impress no matter what. For just $65,490 plus freight and fees it comes with most everything already noted plus heatable power-folding side mirrors with driver recognition, reverse gear tilt-down, and integrated LED turn signals, LED fog lamps and taillights, ambient interior lighting, remote start, passive keyless access with pushbutton ignition, an electromechanical parking brake, a heatable leather-wrapped
2017 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Elite
A surprise hidden compartment below the cargo load floor. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
powered tilt and telescopic multifunction steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, adaptive cruise control with low-speed follow, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a garage door opener, a powered moonroof, a head-up display, AcuraLink infotainment with a multi-angle backup camera and navigation, voice recognition (with Siri), SMS text message and email reading and response capability, Bluetooth with streaming audio, 14-speaker surround-sound ELS audio with hard disc storage and satellite radio, 12-way powered front seats with driver’s side memory, heatable front and rear seats, Milano leather upholstery, capless fuel filling, and more.

Standard safety features are just as impressive, including all the usual active and passive gear as well as forward collision warning with autonomous collision mitigation
2017 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Elite
This is one of the more advanced hybrid systems on the market, awaiting more exciting new sheetmetal. (Photo: Karen Tuggay, Canadian Auto Press)
braking, blindspot monitoring and lane departure warning with lane keeping assist and road departure mitigation, plus rear cross-traffic alert. This earns the RLX an IIHS Top Safety Pick rating, a lack of auto-cornering auto high beam headlights keeping it from earning a best-possible “Plus” rating.

On top of this, my tester’s Elite package includes the previously noted surround view camera system, Krell audio upgrade, ventilated front seats, and rear sunshades, while also adding auto-dimming side mirrors, ambient rear passenger footwell lighting, plus front and rear parking sensors for $4,500, resulting in a new total of $69,990.

The RLX obviously needs an update, the next change most likely the adoption of Acura’s new larger, more angular Precision Concept-inspired grille so it can fight it out more aggressively with the aforementioned Lexus, at least before a complete redesign arrives. Most prognosticators are targeting the 2019 model year and a 2018 introduction for that all-new model. I’ve seen some fan renderings and they’re impressive, but who knows if Acura will finally get this car’s design right or somehow manage to miss the mark once again. Here’s hoping, because the current model is a superb car waiting for more visual presence.
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