When my colleagues learned I would be interviewing Takanobu Ito, Honda’s CEO and former engineer, most of their questions were some variation of, “When will Honda make a fun car again?”
Honda appears to have taken notice of such criticism, because before we got behind the wheel of a 2014 Acura RLX development mule, the automaker’s pre-drive presentations were full of big, bold examples of “FUN.” This being contemporary Honda, though, “ENVIRONMENT” and “SAFETY” weren’t far behind. The 2013 Honda Accord sedan is capable enough when it comes to safety and efficiency, but the car placed second out of six cars in a recent comparison because it wasn’t as fun to drive as our first-place finisher. So does the Acura RLX bring the fun back to the Acura lineup?
Yes. Well, mostly yes. With the same basic drivetrain approach as the radical new NSX – dubbed “Sport Hybrid All Wheel Drive” – the top-of-the-line RLX is fun, based on our time driving a development mule. Whereas the NSX uses two unique motors to send power to the front wheels and a Hybrid V-6 to motivate the rear wheels, the RLX’s flips the system, with the fronts powered by a direct-injected 3.5-liter V-6 coupled to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission with a built-in electric motor, and the rears by two individual electric motors that send instant torque to the outside wheel while regenerating (slowing down) the inside wheel. Think of the brake-steer system on a McLaren 12C and you’re halfway there.
The system doesn’t quite deliver the “on-rails” driving experience promised in the briefing, but it does perform some neat tricks. On the short course provided for evaluation, it was easy to push the RLX mule into a corner with understeer, let off the brakes to induce oversteer, and then feel the two motors work their magic and wiggle the butt back in line. Sport Hybrid SH-AWD (not to be confused with normal SH-AWD) is actually what Acura thinks will be the less popular of the two drivetrains offered when the RLX hits showrooms; the less expensive and less tech-heavy front-drive variant will be the volume RLX, which is powered by a 310-hp 3.5-liter V-6 and debuts at the 2012 Los Angeles Auto Show.
After driving the Sport Hybrid SH-AWD RLX and then the front-drive version, I walked away just as impressed with the base 2014 RLX mule, thanks to its new Precision All Wheel Steer system. Various forms of all-wheel steering have been around for some time; Nissan had it on the GT-R in 1986 and even Honda offered it on the Prelude starting in 1987. While Acura’s new system does all the old tricks – rear wheels mimicking the fronts during lane changes for high-speed stability, and aiming opposite the fronts for a hard corner to increase handling prowess – it offers a few new moves as well. For example, the precision actuators positioned in the toe control link use an electric extending and retracting arm to achieve an industry first “toe-in” position, which improves stability under hard braking. Maybe it’s because I usually have a pessimistic approach to front-drive cars and their natural tendency to understeer, but I was pleasantly surprised with the PAWS’ aptitude around the handling course. The PAWS car, which felt like it was pushing around less weight up front, actually carries a higher percentage of its curb weight over the front wheels compared to the SH-AWD car. Bottom line: the system works. So for those who won’t be willing to spend the premium on the Sport Hybrid SH-AWD RLX, the front-drive version with PAWS will have little trouble prompting smiles from enthusiasts.
If the production RLX Sport Hybrid SH-AWD really returns the “dynamic performance equivalent to a V-8 with higher fuel efficiency than an in-line 4” as Acura says it will, then the brand’s upcoming flagship sedan will not only be an impressive handler, but also a drag strip and fuel economy champ. Based on our short and very early drive in Japan, it’s too early to validate those facts just yet, but we’re happy to report Acura’s on the right track. Systems such as Sport Hybrid SH-AWD and PAWS are steps in the right direction for heightening the fun factor. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from our time in the RLX is knowing that the next NSX, which will get a more potent version of Sport Hybrid SH-AWD, could very well take the fun factor off the charts.
Honda Earth Dreams SH-AWD prototype side view Photo on November 12, 2012 #290999 from WOT on Motor Trend