Car Reviews First Drives

2018 Acura RLX Hybrid First Drive Review: Beakless and Better for It

A step in the right direction but not a true sport sedan

A step in the right direction but not a true sport sedan

Four years ago, Acura introduced the 2014 RLX as a completely redesigned flagship luxury sedan. It was longer and wider than the RL it replaced, giving potential buyers more of a reason to choose the RLX over the smaller TLX. Acura even offered an all-wheel-drive hybrid version that combined strong power with commendable fuel efficiency.

But despite being generally comfortable, spacious, reliable, and efficient, sales never really took off. In fact, at least in the North America, every single year since 2013 has been worse for RLX sales than the previous one. At the rate it’s currently selling here, Acura will be lucky to break 1,000 units for the year, far behind the next-worst seller, the Jaguar XF.

Instead of packing up its toys and going home, though, Acura has given the 2018 RLX a makeover. It’s not a full redesign, but considering how drastically the front end has been changed, a lot of people might be fooled into believing it has been.

Up front, the RLX gets Acura’s new corporate grille, restyled LED headlights and running lights, a more aggressive-looking hood, and chrome-trimmed air intakes. Out back, there are redesigned LED taillights connected by a chrome strip, as well as new chrome exhaust tips.

The design still isn’t what we’d call attractive, but at least it’s distinctive. Some people will love it and others will hate it, but at least they’ll have an opinion on it. Considering how crowded the midsize luxury sedan segment is these days, standing out is arguably more important than looking the best.

To help the RLX stand out, Acura is also doing its best to push the Sport Hybrid version. There’s still an entry-level front-wheel-drive version with all-wheel steering, but Acura didn’t even bring those to the press drive. Instead, it wants to focus on the all-wheel-drive hybrid version and its NSX connection.

The RLX Sport Hybrid doesn’t get the NSX’s exact powertrain, but Acura does say it’s “based on developments from the NSX.” A few of the parts used are even said to be the same, and both cars are powered by three electric motors and a V-6 engine. So even though it’s not quite a four-door NSX, the NSX connection isn’t pure PR fluff.

It comes with 377 hp and 341 lb-ft of torque, nothing to sneeze at, either. For comparison, the BMW 530e makes 248 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque, and the Lexus GS450h makes 338 hp and 257 lb-ft of torque. Only the Volvo S90 T8 has more power in the hybrid midsize luxury sedan segment, making 400 hp and 472 lb-ft of torque.

Unfortunately, the NSX connection and powerful hybrid powertrain still don’t mean the RLX is much fun to drive. If you floor it, it will take off quickly (Acura hasn’t published 0-60 times yet). It has plenty of passing power for highway driving, but it’s not a car you want to go canyon carving in.

Sportier tires might help, but the bigger issue is body roll. Even in the car’s sportiest setting, it discourages aggressive driving. It’s far from the only midsize luxury sedan to come up short in the fun-to-drive category, especially if you include non-hybrid models, but with the word “sport” in the name, you expect more.

Where the RLX Sport Hybrid really shines, though, is on the highway and in slow-moving traffic. Acura didn’t change much in the cabin, but it didn’t need to. The RLX is a quiet, comfortable car that’s perfectly suited for both road trips and daily commutes. Plus, considering how much space there is in the back seat, you could bring three friends along with no complaints.

The materials might not out-lux the E-Class, but the leather especially feels high-end. And although the split-screen infotainment system isn’t necessarily the easiest one to use, it is nice to be able to keep the navigation system on one screen while changing the radio station. Unfortunately, what it doesn’t offer is Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. I’m told those features might be offered in a year or two, but it would have been great to see both offered at the launch.

Acura also offers what it calls Traffic Jam Assist on the RLX. Basically, it combines active lane keep assist with adaptive cruise control and low-speed follow to take most of the work out of driving in stop-and-go traffic. In practice, the system isn’t perfect—there’s definitely room for improvement with the lane keep assist feature—but especially at lower speeds, the system did a pretty good job at taking the stress out of driving in heavy traffic.

The hybrid system should also save owners a good bit of money at the gas pump, especially if they do a lot of around-town driving. The non-hybrid RLX is EPA rated at 20/29/23 mpg (11.8/8.1/10.2 L/100km) (city/highway/combined), but the RLX Sport Hybrid is rated at 28/29/28 mpg (8.4/8.1/8.4 L/100km) . That’s not quite as good as the GS450h’s 29/34/31-mpg (8.1/6.9/7.6 L/100km) rating, but it’s still solid. Plus, the Lexus is more expensive. The GS450h starts at $64,630 USD, and the RLX Sport Hybrid comes in at $62,865 USD. Meanwhile, the non-hybrid RLX starts at $55,865 USD.

Ultimately, I’m not sure this update will be enough to ignite RLX sales. Acura will probably still struggle to sell more than a few hundred of them a month. But Acura seems to have recognized a few areas where the original RLX fell short, and it’s tried to fix them.

And after talking with the product planner, it does sound like the team is working to give Acuras more character and an identity of their own. But we’ll probably have to wait for the next generation of Acura products to hit dealer lots before we start to see that happen.

The look might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and the handling might not be as impressive as all the NSX talk and “Sport Hybrid” trim might suggest, but what Acura has done is at least a step in the right direction. Pushing the all-wheel-drive hybrid version helps give the RLX more of an identity and gives buyers more of a reason to pick it over some of the competition.

If you’re looking for the sportiest or most luxurious midsize luxury sedan you can buy, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere. But if you want a comfortable hybrid that doesn’t make you sacrifice power in the name of efficiency, go ahead and give the 2018 Acura RLX a look.

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