For years, the RL cruised along as Acura's flagship sedan. But its standing was that of an also-ran.
There was nothing intrinsically wrong with the car. In fact, it has always enjoyed high ratings for style, reliability and durability. It just didn't sell.
The rap was that it couldn't compete with other luxury cars because it didn't offer a V8 engine. Its V6 engine, though plenty powerful, didn't have the cachet of eight cylinders. The fact that the current model came standard with sophisticated all-wheel drive didn't help.
Another argument was size and price. It was virtually the same size, but more expensive, than Acura's lower-priced sport sedan, the midsize TL.
All of this conspired to tamp down the RL's customer appeal, to the point where nationwide sales in 2012 totaled an embarrassing 379. It was the sort of thing that could cause a company to order a public execution.
But Acura has benefited from a shift in public opinion, along with a new two-prong strategy to distinguish the car, now called the RLX, from the rest of the Acura pack as well as from other luxury cars.
It's still a midsize, close in dimensions to the TL, which remains a sports sedan and less expensive. But the interior space has been boosted to provide nearly Lincoln Town Car backseat head and knee room. The RLX also competes handily with other midsize luxury sedans like the Audi A6, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, BMW 5-series, Lexus GS and Infiniti's new Q50.
Though it still offers only six-cylinder power, it benefits from the seismic shift from bigger engines to smaller power plants with fewer cylinders.
It can be seen across the automotive spectrum. Cars that once carried V8 and V6 engines now are motivated by V6 and four-cylinder engines and even, in some cases, by tiny motors with three cylinders.
It's all about fuel economy and computers. The smaller engines deliver improved fuel economy. And with computer wizardry and turbo charging, they provide power and performance as good or better than their predecessors. One prime example: the much-praised BMW 328i, which now has a turbo four-banger instead of the previous model's in-line six-cylinder.
The 2014 Acura RLX is no slouch, either. Though it doesn't have a turbo, it punches out 310 horsepower from an all-new V6 with 3.5 liters of displacement. That's as much or more than most customers will need or want. A minor downside is the six-speed automatic transmission, which competes against seven- and eight-speed automatics. For enthusiastic motoring, it does offer manual shifting via paddles mounted on the steering wheel.
But the killer app is on the first prong of Acura's strategy to make the RLX into a new contender: front drive with four-wheel steering.
Sound familiar? It should. Back in the 1980s, Honda offered its Prelude coupe with the same concept. It was a mechanical setup that steered the rear wheels opposite the fronts at low speeds to enhance parking and other maneuvers.
As the speed crept up, the rear wheels would switch and turn the same way as the fronts to enhance lane changes and hustling around curves. Mazda had a similar system on its 626 model, though it was hydraulic.
The four-wheel steering on the 2014 RLX works roughly the same. But it now is computer controlled, with each rear wheel operating independently. Sensors determine exactly how much each rear wheel needs to turn to maximize handling in a given situation.
It works as advertised. Flog the RLX around an autocross course and it changes directions, even on a 180-degree switchback, with little fuss. The rear wheels simply track behind the fronts. In automotive parlance, the rear-wheel steering nearly cancels out under-steer -- that prejudice of front drive cars to hurtle straight ahead in turns.
Acura is not done yet. Later in the model year, it will introduce the new version of the RLX with all-wheel drive. This has become an imperative among luxury cars, whether they start out with rear or front drive.
In addition to the nifty performance, the 2014 RLX nails the luxury car aspects with full safety and technology equipment, including the new Acura Link system, which integrates navigation and smartphone technology to, among other things, provide the driver with instant reports on urban and suburban traffic, as well as that on freeways.
The tested RLX had a starting price of $49,435. With options maximized, it had a competitive sticker of $61,345.
Model: 2014 Acura RLX four-door sedan.
Engine: 3.5-liter V6, 310 horsepower.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual shift mode.
Overall length: 16 feet 4 inches.
EPA passenger/trunk volume: 102/15 cubic feet.
Weight: 3,997 pounds.
EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 20/31/24 mpg.
Base price, including destination charge: $49,345.
Price as tested: $61,345.