The 2018 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid has a tough job to do. It must compete in the premium midsize sedan class with such world-renowned cars as the BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Up until now, it hasn’t had much impact, so this mid-cycle revamp sees Acura (and Honda, its parent company) hoping that this is the right amount of improvement at the right time — rather than too little, too late.
When the RLX debuted in 2013, it looked like it was designed by a committee of accountants. It was straighter than a laser beam. That kind of thing does not go down well with buyers who also have Audi and Jaguar among their options.
This time around, there’s a bit of flair. Everything forward of the A-pillar has been changed. The new 5-sided grille gives the impression that Acura’s stylists are still in the process of refining an approach introduced with the 2017 MDX. But at least they have an approach. At the rear, everything is new from the LED taillights down.
In between, function triumphs over decoration at every point, which is no bad thing. There is a little homage to BMW at the rear side windows, though.
Anyone looking specifically for a premium midsize sedan from a Japanese marque (the RLX is also built in Japan, as opposed to one of Honda’s American facilities) — but finds the Infiniti Q70 too old and the "spindle" grille of the Lexus GS too weird — should find the RLX an interesting alternative. See the 2018 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid models for sale near you
The cabin’s materials have been upgraded, especially at those points where humans come into contact with them, like armrests and seats. The front seats in particular are supportively sporty, with plenty of cushioning to keep the upper torso in place when attacking corners with some attitude. Yet they’re comfortable as well.
A sweet detail is that the headliner and steering wheel are the same color. It’s subtle, but brings more cohesion to the decor and adds to the classiness.
Spaciousness is another string point, with plenty of room for passengers. And a smaller lithium-ion battery than before means trunk space has grown from 11.6 to 12.4 cu ft., enough for at least two sets of golf clubs.
Acoustic treatment for all the glass joins extra sound deadening to help bring a profound hush to the cabin. Even the alloy wheels have been designed to produce less noise.
Notice that Acura calls this a "sport hybrid" rather than merely a hybrid. And it adds "super handling" to the name of its all-wheel drive system. This is not all wishful marketing.
A gasoline-sipping 3.5-liter V6 is augmented by one electric motor up front and a twin electric motor setup at the rear. These motors receive their energy from a lithium-ion battery. The whole system produces 377 hp and 341 lb-ft of torque. That’s a considerable amount of energy, but the RLX deals with it in an efficient and composed manner.
One method is how it copes with fast changes of direction. On a snaking road, the front end doesn’t give up and wash wide into dull-and-predictable understeer like lesser vehicles. Instead, it holds a cornering line with a tenacity bordering on heroic. Then when the driver steers into another curve, the RLX does the whole thing again, time after time.
If there is any gripe — and this is more perception than technical fact — there’s a sense that the active suspension and torque vectoring system (where power going to individual wheels is subtly attenuated to keep the car on the intended line) are all working hard to produce this effect. With some rivals, German cars in particular, it feels like less effort is expended to obtain the same result, like they have the basics down so comprehensively that they don’t need a lot of technological assistance.
The automatic transmission has seven forward gears. Acura hasn’t provided any acceleration times yet, but there’s more than enough thrust for reaching freeway speeds and taking the stress out of overtaking. On the other side of the performance/efficiency equation, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates fuel consumption at a fairly impressive 28 miles per gallon city, 29 mpg highway and 28 mpg combined.
The 2018 RLX represents a refresh, not a whole new generation, and we’re reminded of this when using the infotainment system. The navigation function’s graphics look kind of dated now. And when we used a voice command to "find classical music," a message came up on the display saying that an iPod was not connected. An iPod. That’s almost quaint.
Another little issue is that Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone integration is not available. Considering Honda can put it in the Fit, it’s not unreasonable to expect it in the company’s luxury marque.
Acura usually includes a lot of equipment in the price, which gives it an edge. To have the same level of kit in a German rival would mean hitting the options list with a devil-may-care attitude. The 2018 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid starts at $62,865. This is the top model of the RLX’s 2-car range. There’s also the front-drive/regular-engined RLX P-AWS (Precision All-Wheel Steer).
Standard equipment for the Sport Hybrid includes 19-inch alloy wheels, leather upholstery, full LED lighting, 360-degree camera system, parking sensors at both ends, navigation, head-up display, top-notch Krell 14-speaker audio system and a whole raft of advanced safety systems that include a new-for-2018 Traffic Jam Assist.
Here is an intriguing car with plenty of power but no consumption penalty, along with a mix of decent equipment, luxury appointments, composed handling and superb build quality. The canny buyer whose tastes run beyond the European offerings would do well to check this one out.
To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle’s manufacturer.