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Acura Aims to Redefine Itself with RLX Flagship

Luxury maker counting on new design and advanced technology to lure in new buyers.

by on Nov.30, 2012

Acura loses the peak but gains a new LED lighting system with the 2014 RLX flagship.

It was the brand that proved Japanese automakers could compete in the luxury segment but in recent years Acura has been little more than an after-thought, lost behind mainstream high-line marques like Lexus and German giants Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

But Acura is hoping to redefine itself with the launch of its all-new flagship model, the RLX.  Larger and more lavish than the existing Acura line-up, the maker gave a hint of what it had in mind with a concept version at last April’s New York Auto Show. The production version of the Acura RLX is now on display at the LA Auto Show.

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A casual viewer might first notice what executive Jeff Conrad demurely described as a “redesigned Acura grille.” That addresses what may have been the single most controversial aspect of recent Acura design, the massive chromed “beak,” as critics derisively called it.

The 2014 Acura RLX will get the maker's new hybrid all-wheel-drive system.

The downsized grille is surrounded by what may become a more appealing design signature, the Acura RLX’s distinctive “Jewel-Eye” Headlamps which use a cluster of individual LED bulbs rather than the more conventional projector or HID lamps found on most other luxury models.

The overall shape of the RLX, with the subtle S-curve flowing through its fenders and door panels, is more fluid than recent Acura models, though not nearly as distinctive as products like the Cadillac CTS or Lincoln ZDX, edgy designs those struggling marques adopted in their own bids for resurrection.

Nonetheless, Acura is hoping that the RLX will put the brand back on the market – not just with high-end luxury buyers but those looking for smaller and less expensive models, such as the marque’s new compact sedan, the ILX.

“It’s the role of a flagship model to communicate the brand’s aspirational values,” explained Conrad during a presentation at the LA Auto Show.

The problem is that many potential buyers don’t even look at Acura, officials acknowledged, marketing chief Mike Accavitti conceding the brand “has fallen off the radar screen” in the increasingly competitive luxury market.

It hasn’t helped that the dominant players, notably Mercedes and BMW, have continued flooding the segment with new models that seem to fill in every possible “white space” in the luxury market.

Acura sales hit a peak of 209,610 in 2005 but then plunged sharply, dipping to just 123,299 last year – or less than half that of the luxury market leaders.  Volume is on track to rebound by about 20% by the time the books are closed on 2012, but the competition has been gaining ground nearly as fast, so Acura is still struggling to catch back up.

While the new design of the RLX – with its downsized beak – should help Acura gain a little more attention, the maker is putting even more emphasis on the technology and features debuting on the 2014 Acura RLX.  Those who recall the early years of the Acura brand will recall that technology was one of its original selling propositions.

The already high-end ELS Audio system has been upgraded and a new top-line Krell Audio System will be available.  The RLX also will feature an array of advanced infotainment features with the next-generation AcuraLink system – which adds OnStar-like features such as remote locking and unlocking, a concierge service, the ability to track a stolen vehicle and automatic notification of first-responders in the event of a collision serious enough to trigger the vehicle’s airbags.

The new Amplitude Reactive Dampers are designed to let the suspension respond more rapidly to changing road conditions – and driver behavior. The RLX also will get what Acura calls “Precision All-Wheel Steer,” a system where the toe-in of the rear wheels subtly shifts to improve the handling of the front-wheel-drive model.

There also will be an all-wheel-drive model, an electric version of the Acura Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive, or SH-AWD system.  In this case, the vehicle will pair a V-6 with a three-motor hybrid drive, one of those up front, two in the rear.  The system allows each wheel to subtly speed up or slow down, a concept called torque vectoring, to not only improve traction but to smoothly help steer through cornering maneuvers.

The electric all-wheel-drive system will produce 370 horsepower, what one would expect in the luxury segment – but still hit 30 mpg.

The standard-edition, front-drive Acura RLX, meanwhile, will generate 310 hp with its 3.5-liter V-6 yielding 20 mpg city, 31 mpg highway and 24 mpg combined.

Expect a starting price of just under $50,000 when the first Acura RLX rolls into showrooms next spring.

About that time we should begin to get some more insight into what could be the true halo model for the Acura brand, the reborn NSX sports car.

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