What Went Wrong: 1996-Present Acura RL/RLX
Despite widespread appreciation, Honda went in an entirely new direction for the Acura Legend’s replacement. The 1996 3.5RL was Acura’s answer to the Infiniti Q and Lexus LS, although a different vehicle in numerous ways. It was formal and focused on luxury as they were, but it was on a FWD platform and offered a V-6 while the former two utilized RWD and a V-8. They were also larger and more expensive. Sales never really climbed to impressive numbers, and Honda took quite a bit of time to redesign the RL. Worse, they had replaced their vaunted Legend product right down to the name with a car that didn’t sell. The 2005 RL dumped the engine size designation in front of the “RL”, but the RL’s mission change was much more significant than that: its new class was the mid-size, mid-luxury sedan segment. Acura seemed to comprehend that competing with the LS was out of the question, but the BMW 5-Series might be within reach. The V-6 was brought up to V-8-like power, and the high-tech SH-AWD proved to be influential. Initial sales were agreeable too IIRC, but before long they were on a downward trend, slowing to distressing numbers. Honda again let the RL sit on the rack too long, and within a few years the competition’s 6-cylinder engines had caught up to or passed the RL’s output while continuing to offer V-8s that had since far eclipsed the RL’s output despite the RL’s enlarged V-6 added later on. Finally for 2014 Acura replaced the RL with the RLX, but it is strikingly similar to the formula applied to the 1996 3.5RL: FWD-only, emphasis on formal large comfortable cruising, and at a base price like the outgoing RL. There is only a lone V-6 available, but soon a hybrid AWD version of the car will arrive to dealers. Needless to say, the RLX has not been a sales champion initially, and it seems doubtful it will change with the arrival of the AWD hybrid. In a doom and gloom scenario, I think the sales at this point through the next year or so might have already peaked(!).
Give Honda credit where it was due. It was bold to take something successful and change it radically. Radical moves are not a way one would describe the Honda of today. But this particular decision seems peculiar, and of course hindsight bias is always a factor in such dialogues. Still, I believe I even recall seeing the new RLX and thinking that this was not going to reverse Honda’s fortunes in the mid-luxury realm. The comparison of Audi’s flagship ambitions and Honda’s (both the V8 Quattro, its A8 replacement, and the 3.5RL were all on a FWD platform) paint a grimly clear pictures of Honda’s errors.
A quick glance at the basic platform reveals the 3.5RL used a FWD platform with a longitudinal engine placement just like the Audi and most any RWD car on the road; a good start, then. But whereas Audi saw the need for a V-8 to compete with V-8 cars, Acura thought a V-6 would suffice. It didn’t. The C35 had nowhere near the power of the V-8s available in the Japanese and German “competition”, nor the FWD-only American competition from Cadillac and Lincoln. Putting that power to the ground necessitated the use of AWD, and Quattro-happy Audi was all to happy to comply. Acura’s car neither needed it (in the sense that its V-6 was not overly powerful) nor did Acura see fit to cover up the FWD origins of the car when competing with RWD cars. Although undoubtedly as polished and refined as it needed to be, plus built like any Honda, the interior space was not on par with these cars either. Alrighty, then. How about the midsize sedans with which the Acura more closely followed in terms of size, price, and their standard 6-cylinder engines. Well, it lacked the dynamic drive of the 5-Series, the solidity and prestige of the Mercedes, not to mention the functional Quattro in the Audi (and very soon, the A6’s outstanding interior).
Unlike Cadillac or Lincoln, Acura had no “traditional” buyers to fall back on who’d like the way it drove or had aspired to the brand for years. So like the early Lexus GS, the 3.5RL never achieved the success Audi had in its sedans that were eventually called the A6 and have become global sales winners by the present. If Cadillac and Lincoln had failed to capture the hearts of younger luxury consumers with German cars on their mind, they had at least continued appealing to their own specific set of buyers. Even against the mid-luxury cars, Honda needed a V-8. In the early to mid-90s the Germans started adding V-8s to their mid-luxury cars, and Cadillac finally saw fit to offer a competitive V-8, the superb Northstar. The 3.5L should’ve only been a base engine in the RL, and some kind of V-8 should’ve been made available. Yamaha has built the Lexus IS F’s V-8 and the 4.4L V-8 used in a couple of Volvos, so maybe they’d have been available. Maybe it’d have been worthwhile to see if Ford was interested in agreeing to the use of the FWD-spec 4.6L from the Continental. Mitsubishi had a large FWD V-8 car on sale in Japan, the Dignity/Proudia line (developed with Hyundai and the basis for the first generation Equus). I’m not sure if that engine or their 5AT could actually work in the RL, but given that neither brand seemed to have plans to sell such a vehicle in the US anyway, I have to think they could’ve found an agreement. Call me a dreamer. AWD should’ve been offered on the V-6 and probably standard on the V-8. The car simply needed some more street cred-worthiness, at least for the sake of warmer media reception and enough to gain more interest in the media and buyers alike. Steady updates should’ve been in store too: the 1999 or 2000 should’ve had a decent update, and the redesign should’ve arrived for the 2002 or 2003 model year. It wasn’t enough car to begin with, but what’s worse was that it was allowed to languish.
The 2005 RL again should’ve offered a V-8. Sure the V-6 provided similar horsepower, but certainly not the actual performance if anyone takes a look at comparison tests. And the cheapest way into car was too expensive. Naturally it was a better value with lots of standard features, but even at the end of this generation the RL was more expensive than a basic A6 or 5-Series; lease deals might not have been competitive either. Perhaps a base 3.0L or 3.2L version for about $4,000 less would’ve generated some interest. I really liked the interior design, but the exterior may not have gone far enough. The 2004 TL was far more stylish, offered a powerful V-6 engine, nice interior, and relatively similar size. I think some people had difficulty in upgrading to the RL for some or all of these reasons. Yet again Honda failed to keep the RL sufficiently updated and waited nearly a decade to redesign it. The mistakes were clearly not learned, and the RL/RLX has just been juggling some combination of sport and luxury since the beginning. That's only barely scratching the surface of the marketing side of things. At this point the most they can do with the current RLX is to remove some standard features, lower the base price a few grand, get some good lease deals, and make SH-AWD (or any AWD system, frankly) optional on the NA V-6 car.....you know, the <60K version that 90% of people will be buying? Don't try to sport-ify it; this is not the car for that. Maybe livery services would be interested in this.
What say you? And with the RLX being just a third generation RL anyway, what do you think the future has in store for the RLX? What should they do?