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2018 Acura RLX Review

2018 Acura RLX Review
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This year, the 2018 Acura RLX wears new clothes, but what's underneath the hybrid looks even better as Honda's luxury brand tries to spice up its lineup with tech borrowed from the NSX.

It’s still an anonymous-looking sedan, though one that positively bristles with tech credentials.

We give it a 6.3 overall. It loses points for style, but gains in safety. 

Refreshed lightly for the new model year, the 2018 RLX adopts a new front-end look that finally resolves some rough spots. The new look has a pretty, patterned grille and LED lighting like the one on the handsome MDX utility vehicle. In back, LED taillights trail ribbons around the rear corners for a dramatic effect. That’s where the drama ends. The conservative shape of the RLX looks too much like its mass-market cousins.

Two models split the RLX family tree. The standard front-wheel-drive car has a new 10-speed automatic, but the 310-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 carries over. We’ve spent more time in the RLX Sport Hybrid, which pairs the engine with a dual-clutch transmission, shift paddles, and three electric motors to generate 377 hp and nifty through-the-road all-wheel drive. The RLX still doesn’t rip off 0-60 mph runs like the conceptually similar NSX. The RLX is complex and muted, a Ryan Adams in a Bryan Adams luxuryverse where watches are the size of sundials and computers are carved from solid chunks of elitism. Anyone who can get past its banal shape will love the RLX’s absorbent ride and fuss-free handling, even if they haven’t the faintest idea about the hoops it jumps to get there.

The RLX coddles front-seat passengers in cozy heated seats, and surrounds them with space and storage. Back-seat head room isn’t as generous, and trunk space is disappointing. Fuel economy is very good compared to rivals, but falls slightly this year.

Safety scores are spectacular, and the RLX piles on all the luxury features it offers in the Sport Hybrid model. All versions have adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and traffic-jam assist; hybrids add surround-view cameras, cooled front seats, and Krell audio with sublime, crystal-clear sound. Absent from both: Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, which would offer a balm for the RLX’s outdated infotainment.

On the 2018 RLX, Acura has adopted some of the lines and forms of the Acura Precision Concept, first shown at the 2016 Detroit auto show.

The change helps the cause, but inoffensive and forgettable still define its style. In a class where A7 hatchbacks and E-Class sedans bristle with extravagant curves and lavish interiors, the RLX damps all its enthusiasm.

We give it a 4 for style, with a point below average deducted for a plain interior. 

This year’s changes won’t trigger smartphone alerts, but they’re obvious—provided you knew what the RLX looked like in 2017. Now it has a diamond-pattern grille with an outline like the nose applied to the MDX, as well as LED taillights, and a rear diffuser formed from gloss-black plastic. It also has more lines stamped into its hood.

The outline just isn’t very different from the sedan shape Acura sells elsewhere. It’s telling that the RLX most resembles a downsized Honda Accord—a last-generation Accord, before this year’s sexy revamp launched a Best Car To Buy winner.

The cabin lacks any hint of passion. Materials in the RLX's cabin have been upgraded, and the new front seats have contrast stitching and piping. Coffee lovers—yes, us—may love the new espresso interior tone. It’s still more of the same, without a distinctive character like Audi’s telegraphic lines or the spare whimsy of a Volvo S90. Admire the finishes and the fit of the RLX’s cabin, but don’t expect to be bowled over by its cutting-edge design.

The 2018 Acura RLX dives deeply into the tech hardware bin to deliver all-wheel drive, hybrid energy, and four-wheel steering. In other hands, that hardware might compile into a frenzied sedan with too much future on its hands.

In Acura’s hands, it yields almost invisible results. The RLX handles with benign oversight, and accelerates with just a bit of urgency.

We give it a 7 for performance, with extra points for its relaxed ride and its dazzling display of sport-hybrid technology.

The new base model in the lineup carries over the 310-hp V-6 it’s had since 2014. This year, a 10-speed automatic replaced the 6-speed automatic, but the front-drive RLX also carries over rear-wheel steering, which uses sensors on the rear wheels to dial them in the opposite direction of the fronts at low speeds.

In the past we’ve remarked on how there’s not much eagerness in this engine, though it’s stronger and somewhat more vocal than past Acura sedans. We haven’t been able to drive this new version yet, but when we do, we’ll let you know if the 10-speed gets lost in all those ratios.

The base RLX is sprung and damped well enough to absorb stretches of broken pavement with little fuss, and it leans into corners casually. For that kind of driving duty, you'll never miss an adjustable suspension system or adaptive shocks like the ones commonly found on competitors.

RLX Sport Hybrid

We’ll focus instead on the RLX Sport Hybrid, which we recently drove in its updated form. Its powertrain carries over: it blends the 3.5-liter V-6 with three electric motors, two of which send power to the rear wheels for a novel means of delivering all-wheel drive.

It takes the same 3.5-liter V-6 and mates it to a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission with a 35-kw motor built in.

All-wheel drive derives from the two-motor electric rear differential. Each puts out 27 kw and can send different power to each of the rear wheels, for a torque-vectoring effect.

To smooth launches, the RLX Sport Hybrid uses its motors for initial power application.

All told the 2018 RLX, Sport Hybrid makes 377 hp and 341 lb-ft of torque. Power constantly routes around to different wheels, transferred selectively to keep the car on an ideal path. Foul-weather traction on past models we’ve driven has been brilliant.

Driver engagement has been less so. The Sport Hybrid responds quickly to stabs of the throttle, and it accelerates with an electric car surge, an uninterrupted trail of thrust, electric motors smoothing over where the dual-clutch transmission gears overlap.

The RLX's steering feels heavier now than in our earlier drives. The light touch on Sport Hybrids we drove was gone. It’s very light at parking-lot speeds but turns on steering weight once it hits double digits. It builds to a consistent weight, which doesn’t vary much for speed or cornering load. The suspension does a fine job of damping a huge range of bumps without resorting to adaptive shocks. The ride is consistently creamy, and credit for that spreads to soft springs and nicely tuned dampers and absorbent tires.

With the RLX, Acura paces off the right proportions for a roomy passenger space. Somehow, rear-seat and cargo space end up shy.

We give the RLX a 7 for comfort and utility, with points for very good front seats and very good fit and finish. 

The large-car proportions promise lots of space, an impression that holds up when you step into the driver seat. With the opening sounds of a musical jingle (lots of new cars have their own digital theme music), the RLX offers up a wide cabin with a low dash styled with twin arcs that frame the center console. The overriding impression, though, is of a car that consciously avoids a distinctive style and theme.

This year’s improved front seats offer more support, and 12-way power adjustment as well as heating, great but less showy than seats in Lincoln Continentals and others that now have 22-way seats with massage functions. On RLX Sport Hybrids, cooled front seats come standard too. Knee and head room are great, and the footwells for front passengers are notably wide and flat.

Slide into the back seat, and the door openings are cut wide to make entry and exit easy for large passengers. The seat cushions are supportive and shaped well, but the RLX has a slope in its roofline that trims back-seat head room. Tall passengers will touch head to headliner, a rare event in most sedans in this class.

The RLX has decent in-car storage for small items, but the trunk is barely big enough. It’s 14.9 cubic feet for front-drive cars, while Sport Hybrids now have 12 cubic feet, a bit more than last year thanks to a reshaped battery pack.

The most recent crash test scores put the Acura RLX a long way ahead of its rivals, some of which haven’t ever been subject to scrutiny.

The IIHS says the RLX earns “Good” scores in its crash tests and gave it a Top Safety Pick award.

The NHTSA gives the sedan five-star scores in all tests.

Acura fits an extensive list of standard safety equipment to the 2018 RLX. Included are a rearview camera, adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warnings with automatic emergency braking, and lane departure warning. This year, traffic-jam assists allows a degree of autonomous driving, as the RLX can steer and accelerate and stop itself at speeds of up to 40 mph. RLX Sport Hybrids add a surround-view camera system and parking sensors.

For 2018, Acura has trimmed prices on the RLX and the RLX Sport Hybrid sedan. It’s also blocked some packages from the base model, to create more demand for the more satisfying hybrid.

With a base price of $55,865, the 2018 RLX sports standard power features, leather upholstery, heated power front seats, keyless ignition, navigation, ELS premium audio, and a package of safety technology that includes forward-collision warnings with automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, active lane control, a rearview camera, and new this year, traffic jam assist, which follows a car ahead in traffic at speeds of up to 40 mph.

Acura has removed a bundle of options from the non-hybrid car. The RLX Sport Hybrid, at $62,865, is the only model to have a surround-view camera system, heated rear seats, cooled front seats, front and rear parking sensors, and 14-speaker Krell audio.

A word about the RLX infotainment system: it’s an older setup with dual screens. One display serves out information like mapping, and uses another touchscreen for functions, as well as a knob on the center console. As you can guess, there’s nothing intuitive or fluid about the setup. Fortunately, Acura has direct access to many features via buttons and switches, but it does not offer Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Fuel economy in the 2018 Acura RLX diverges, from gas-powered front-drive cars to hybrid all-wheel-drive models.

For 2018, the newly updated front-drive RLX, with its new 10-speed automatic, earns EPA ratings of 20 mpg city, 29 highway, 23 combined. Those numbers are down slightly from last year, despite the new transmission.

The RLX Sport Hybrid models earn ratings of 28/29/28 mpg. That’s also down a fraction from last year, though the powertrain carries over. The likely culprit is a slightly revised test procedure.

Premium fuel is required for both versions.

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