Test Drive: 2018 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid AWD

The world seems to revolve around software updates these days, for better or for worse. On the upside, glitches on high-tech devices can often be quickly fixed by users with a simple download. But sometimes a good situation can be made worse (just ask anyone who has suffered the programmed redundancy built into their iPhone). It also means that products become hopelessly out of date (or at least out of fashion) quicker than ever before.

The trouble is, despite the unique technology, the RLX isn’t as engaging to drive as its competitors, nor is it all that fuel-efficient.

Technology is no longer trickling down from the most expensive machines, as it is flowing in a torrent.

And while programmed redundancy doesn’t seem to be afflicting cars just yet, it is happening where machines that only a few years ago were state of the art, are quickly forgotten dinosaurs. Nowhere is this more evident than in the mid- and full-size luxury sedan segments where machines are expected to be rolling showcases of a manufacturer’s most advanced feats.

Acura’s RLX Sport Hybrid is the marque’s largest and most luxurious sedan, and just a few years ago, stood out for its remarkable application of hybrid technology. Now, despite a (largely cosmetic) update for 2018, it feels like it’s struggling to keep up in the race.

Introduced for the 2014 model year, Acura’s RLX Sport Hybrid held promise of being the practical, four-door version of the highly anticipated return of the NSX supercar. Both employ a V6 engine, bolstered by three individual electric motors. Unfortunately, the conceptual similarities and electric control unit were about all the two models shared. So, while the sports car translates all the benefit of four driven wheels and active torque vectoring to its performance and driving engagement, the RLX ends up feeling like the accountant’s version.

Let’s be fair, the RLX Sport Hybrid is a lovely machine: happiest when on the freeway, and providing its passengers with a smooth, comfortable ride, acres of interior space, and a powerful Krell sound system that delivers excellent sound. The trouble is, despite the unique technology, the RLX isn’t as engaging to drive as its competitors, nor is it all that fuel-efficient.

By comparison, the Lexus GS 450h – perhaps the RLX’s most direct competitor – puts its hybrid technology to better economic use, delivering notably better average consumption figures for both city and highway driving than the Acura. Even Volvo’s S90 is rated for an average highway consumption figure of 7.6 L/100 km versus the RLX’s 8.4, and the Swedish car isn’t even a hybrid. And of course, there are full-EVs like the Tesla Model S that use no fuel whatsoever.

When harnessing all the power from the engine and the three motors (a combined 377 hp), the RLX is properly quick, delivering especially robust midrange acceleration. Pulling away from a standstill, though, if the engine isn’t already lit, there’s a serious lag while the electric motors carry the full burden of motivating the nearly 2,000 kg of luxury sedan, resulting in a rubber-band sensation. At least when it is on active duty, the V6 offers a great, ripping snarl.

Acura fits paddle shifters to the RLX’s steering wheel, but it’s typically slow – and occasionally downright disobedient – to inputs, making it more frustrating to use than rewarding. When left to its own devices, it sorts things out reasonably well on the sporting front, and for normal, daily driving, is seamless and unnoticed, as it should be.

The brakes, due to their battery-regeneration properties, are very grabby, making it challenging to slow down gently, and making passengers wonder if the driver is having leg spasms.

Handling is the RLX Sport Hybrid’s most redeeming performance characteristic, but only if aggressively sought. In most situations, the big sedan delivers the creamy ride desired in a large luxury sedan, but with considerable body roll. With the Sport Hybrid system employing a single motor at each of the rear wheels, and the V6 engine and a third motor powering the fronts, the computers actively distribute power and torque where it’s best applied to help the car propel out of corners.

This means that despite its size and softness, the big Acura has impressive grip and can be hustled at a surprising rate when the road gets curvy, especially with the drive mode set to Sport, providing livelier throttle response as well. Steering remains aloof and numb regardless of what setting the car is in.

The RLX is more convincing as a luxury cruiser than it is a sport sedan anyway, and its spacious interior reinforces that point. The rear seat provides abundant leg-, head-, and shoulder room, and without a dramatically raked roofline or window cut-outs, it feels bright and roomy, too. Up front, the buckets are also very comfy, offering heating and cooling, but no massage functions. The materials are generally top-shelf, and the build quality throughout the cabin is exacting, too.

For those looking for a cross-continent cruiser, they had better pack light if taking an RLX Sport Hybrid, since the battery pack eats up a large portion of the trunk, and provides no foldable rear seats, nor ski pass-through; a hindrance I discovered when trying to head to the slopes one day.

Ergonomically, the RLX shows a few hiccups and its age. The primary gauges are crisp and legible with traditional white digits on round, black dials, but these days, elaborate, crisp TFT screen gauges are de rigueur and afford more driver customization. The push-button gear selector can be tedious, but, with a bit of practice becomes second nature.

The dual-screen infotainment system, however, feels even older than the four-plus years that Acura has been peddling it. It’s cumbersome to navigate and painfully slow to react, requiring far too much time and concentration to manipulate on the fly. Plus, the graphics themselves look dated, if we’re really nit-picking. I did, however, find the power-distribution graphic to be mesmerizing.

These days safety is a big beneficiary of automotive technology and the RLX employs the AcuraWatch suite that includes adaptive cruise control, collision mitigation, and lane-keeping assist among other elements. However, even these systems have been fine- tuned in other machines, making them more intuitive in their operation. In the RLX, the hyper-active collision warnings and adaptive cruise control act like a nervous mother-in-law, threatening fits over every movement of the traffic around it.

Acura’s forthcoming RDX compact crossover promises a dramatic leap forward in both interior design and styling for the brand, giving hope to the next generation of Acura’s lineup. The styling updates for 2018 are a notable improvement, particularly from the front with the new corporate grille (that looks to me like a black spider web with a giant logo), and updated LED headlights that could possibly be powerful enough to see through the car ahead, or even time itself. It’s a handsome car that has more gravitas in person than its photos show, though nobody is likely to call it a stand-out design.

Updated styling, however, is simply not enough to keep pace in a crowded segment very well endowed with technology and driving enjoyment. For that, Acura is going to have to update the interior and make a more engaging car for a shot at competing again with the most compelling sedans in the segment.

2018 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Elite
Engine Displacement: 3.5L
Engine Cylinders: V6
Peak Horsepower: 310 hp; 377 hp combined hybrid
Peak Torque: 273 lb-ft
Fuel Economy: 8.4/8.2/8.4 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space: 339 L
articles_PricingType 2018 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid Elite
Base Price $69,990
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $2,145
Price as Tested $72,135
Optional Equipment None
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 7.4
7 Styling
8 Powertrain
8 Quality
8 Comfort
8 Practicality
7 Drivability
6 Usability/Ergonomics
8 Fuel Economy
8 Features
6 Value