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2014 Acura RLX: The upstart grows up

by: AMERICAN HONDA MOTOR COMPANY, INC. - The 2014 Acura RLX has carries all of the company's styling cues onto a larger package.It's frequently hard to know what the letters used by some manufacturers to designate their vehicles actually stand for. Take Acura, for example. It's new compact sedan is the ILX. It's redesigned compact crossover is the RDX. Which is not to be confused with the ZDX, the awkwardly styled crossover being discontinued after this year.

But there's little doubt what the RL in the all new RLX stand for — Really Large. Although technically a midsize luxury sedan, the 2014 RLX looks and drives like a much bigger car. The angular styling is pure Acura, but the mass ensures double takes.

Which is not a bad thing. The RLX is intended to make a statement. It is Acura's flagship car, replacing last year's RL, which was slightly smaller. The increase in size — including interior room, especially in the rear seats — sends the not-so-subtle message that the RXL is intended to compete against such serious people haulers as the the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, Cadillac XTS, Lexus GS 350 and Mercedes-Benz E350.

That's very serious competition and some automotive writers have questioned whether the RLX is out of its depth. It is still a front-wheel-drive car while most of the others are now rear-wheel-drive. It only comes with a V6 while most of the others offer one or more optional V8 engines. And the RLX is not yet available with all-wheel-drive, even those an AWD hybrid version will reportedly come out by the end of the year.

But such reviewers are underestimating what Acura's engineers have done with the RLX. It is actually two cars that appeal to different drivers, and they are frequently found in the same families. One likes a soft ride, like the former land yachts from Detroit used to provide. The other likes a firmer ride, like practically all manufacturers — including those from Detroit — offer today. Our top-of-the-line RLX offered both, selected a Sport button on the center console.

The ability to shift between rides is not new. But the differences with the RLX were more dramatic than most other systems. The normal setting is almost too soft, over-compensating on some stretches of bad pavement with a rocking horse ride. On the other hand, that's better than having your teeth rattled. And although the Sport setting is noticeably firmer, it does make you want to visit a chiropractor after a long ride. That's a step back from some manufacturers, who seem to think luxury car owners race them on weekends.

In either setting, the 3.5-liter V6 provides ample power through the smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmissions. The shifts are crisper in the Sport mode, giving the impression that the engine has somehow come up with more than its 310 rated horsepower. Although the steering wheel-mounted shift paddles provide even quicker acceleration, the engine will never be mistaken for a V8. But then again, Acura knows the RLX's owners aren't likely to be racing Mustangs at stop lights.

Regardless of which mode you select, the interior is a quiet, comfortable refuge from the outside world. Though classified as a midsize, the cabin had plenty of head and shoulder room. Our heated and cooled leather front bucket seats were somewhere between plush and firm. You'd need a limousine for more legroom in the back seats. The materials were all high quality, including leathers, soft plastic and tasteful trim pieces.

Acura has been one of those manufacturers criticized in the past for having so many different buttons on the dash to operate all the climate, entertainment and optical features. The RLX address this issue directly by replacing many of them with a second touch screen in the middle of the dash below the navigation/rear camera screen. Several functions have been relocated to it, reducing the number of conventional buttons. even though it takes a while to figure out how everything works, the result is a lot cleaner looking dash — a major step in the right direction.

Perhaps the most notable innovation on the 2014 Acura RLX is a system it calls Precision All-Wheel Steer. Not all-wheel-drive, but All-Wheel Steer, or P-AWS (get it?) as it says on the trunk lid. Similar to the all-wheel-steering system Honda introduced and discontinued many years ago, it turns the rear wheels slightly while cornering, allowing for slightly more precise steering and earlier parallel parking. Almost as important, it eliminates the front-wheel-drive bias, giving the RLX a very neutral feel on the road and helping to offset the alleged benefits of rear-wheel-drive in larger cars.

With a starting price of around $48,000, the RLX is undercut by some competitors but thousands of dollars cheaper than others. Our fully-equipped test model was a little more than $61,000, which is still less than some other similarly-optioned midsize luxury sedans. The hybrid AWD version will undoubtedly be more, but is also expected to produce 370 horsepower and average 30 miles per gallon, which once again should appeal to two different kinds of drivers.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: 2014 RLX.

• Manufacturer: Acura.

• Class: Midsize.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Styles: Four door sedan.

• Engines: 3.5-liter inline V6 (310 hp, 272 lbs-ft).

• Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual shift mode and steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

• EPA estimated city/highway/mileage: 20/31/24.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $49,000 ($61,345 as tested).