I Dream of Jeanne 

Acura's newest RL flagship redefines performance and sophistication

Acura's newest RL flagship redefines performance and sophistication

When the genie pops out of the bottle, there's no getting it back in again. No better evidence of that fact exists than the sheets of water that streamed out of the bottled-up weather system blithely labeled Hurricane Jeanne.

And to think that I'm talking about Jeanne's dowsing of Washington, D.C., some four days and 1,000 miles north of landfall near Ft. Pierce, Fla. Those ankle-deep inches of standing water flooding the Summit Point Raceway in northern West Virginia weren't going anywhere.

What a curious way to debut the new Acura RL flagship for 2005.

It was all stiff upper lips and shrugging shoulders among the Acura folks, of course. "Not much we can do about the weather," they'd concede, eyes averted downward towards puddles oozing over the carpet of our tented pavilion. Meantime, auto journalists from throughout the U.S. and Canada were having the times of their lives barreling along the raceway at crackpot speeds behind the wheels of Acura's tour de force RL sedan and a trio of German arch-rivals.

Acura had originally hoped that a few comparative hot laps around a dry Summit Point Raceway would highlight the technological sophistication of the RL in company of Mercedes-Benz's E320 4Matic, Audi's A6 Quattro and BMW's 530i. Save for the rear-drive BMW, each model boasted all-wheel-drive mated to V6 power. Even in the best of circumstances, there was no way Acura would have risked invidious comparisons of the RL with its rivals. Looking back, however, it's supernatural the way Hurricane Jeanne managed, uninvited, to stack the deck even further in Acura's favor.

Four important aspects of the redesigned Acura RL asserted themselves at the flooded raceway: Acura's most powerful production engine ever made is the RL's 300-horsepower V6, and it dominated the 220- to 225-hp efforts of its Teutonic rivals. The Acura's five-speed automatic transmission allowed crisp, almost instantaneous manual shifts using steering wheel "paddles"; and this allowed racer-like precision for entering and exiting corners at optimum speeds. By contrast, the Mercedes hadn't even managed to upshift on a straightaway before it was time to downshift again for the next corner.

Acura's all-independent suspension derives from Honda's Formula One experience and endows the RL with flat, stable handling without sacrificing ride comfort. Combined with computerized vehicle stability control, the RL managed to corner precisely even in corkscrew conditions whereas the Audi wallowed belly-aching through corners.

The technological climax, however, was Acura's stunning "Super Handling" all-wheel-drive (SH-AWD) powertrain. Able to apportion motive force independently between front and real wheels as well as between left and right rear wheels, SH-AWD ensures maximum traction for all road and weather conditions.

But that's not all. This exclusive, computerized system also has the ability to speed up the outer rear wheel when turning, vastly improving cornering precision. (Think of a styrofoam coffee cup rolling on its side; its wider open end helps the cup pivot briskly towards its narrower base.) Aficionados of the 1997-2001 Honda Prelude Type-SH will recognize the earlier, front-wheel-drive application of this technology.

In soggy circumstances at the raceway, Audi's Quattro system chuffed and labored; BMW's rear-drive layout stuttered under incessant traction control; and Mercedes' 4Matic system plowed. Only the RL seemed elated by the gauntlet Jeanne had thrown down.

It's worth making a fuss over this Acura's demonstrations of prowess; because for 2005, this re-engineered sedan is arguably the most technologically sophisticated near-luxury sedan available. It boasts V8 power from a V6. A two-microphone Active Noise Control system floods the cabin with sub-audible, noise-cancelling sound frequencies. Keyless access means never fumbling with a key.

A DVD-based satellite navigation system comes standard, as does a first free year of XM Satellite Radio. Together, moreover, these technologies "synergise" into the world's inaugural application of real-time visual traffic mapping. In other words, at one- and five-minute intervals, traffic alerts involving accidents, construction, road closures and slow-downs appear as "smart" icons on the navigation screen. Highlighting the icons reveals detailed descriptions nearby. For now, AcuraLink Real Time Traffic is active in the 20 largest commuter markets in the U.S., and a consortium led by XM is already planning expanded coverage.

The RL's Bose sound system features 5.1 Surround technology that plays DVD-Audio discs boasting exponentially greater fidelity and detail than CDs. Bluetooth circuitry integrates compatible cell phones wirelessly into the RL's powerful voice-recognition system. This system has evolved to the point of recognizing all 1.7 million street and place names incorporated into the navigation system database, so that map directions can now be requested more or less conversationally, as can most other cockpit functions involving climate control, the sound system and the telephone.

All of this technology is available standard in the new Acura RL. Indeed, there are simply no factory options offered for the car. Its price is $48,900—or $49,470 with the destination charge. This strikes right at the heart of the competition, and yet no other competitor offers anything close to such a full menu of technical credentials, gee-whiz gadgets, bells and whistles.

Yet the prediction is that Acura will be fighting uphill to conquer its rivals and to entice status-ravening consumers who generally remain in thrall to the Teutonic mystique. Perhaps this is even why the RL's new exterior resembles a mini-Maybach, in subliminal homage to Mercedes' $300,000-plus ultra-luxe sedans.

For those who delve beneath the covers of books and see beyond logos, however, the new Acura RL will have let the genie out of the bottle. It's hard to imagine another sedan with more superlatives at the fingertips for such a category-competitive price. Even when a hurricane rained on its parade, after all, the 2005 RL managed to shine.

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