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Driving Past Europe

2005 Acura RL sedan

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2005; Page G01

Prestige is overrated, which is not the same as saying it's unimportant. It matters as long as people think it matters, which is why it's overrated. Many people have inflated opinions of themselves and the things that furnish their world.

Consider cars.

2005 Acura RL Sedan
2005 Acura RL Sedan
2005 Acura RL Sedan (David Dewhurst)

Nuts & Bolts

Downside: Near the end of the weeklong test drive, the "Engine Service Needed Soon" warning message illuminated and remained lit whenever I drove the car. This was annoying. I would have preferred an intermittent warning, maybe something that blinked or buzzed several times and then shut up and disappeared for the rest of the drive.

Ride, acceleration and handling: The Acura RL is one of the best all-wheel-drive cars I've driven. It either matches or, in some instances, exceeds the performance of its toughest rivals in all three categories.

Head-turning quotient: Strong, muscular, elegant -- and all with a decidedly Japanese, thoroughly Honda personality.

Body style/layout: The RL is a front-engine, all-wheel-drive full-size sedan featuring a differential that allows power transfers between the left and right rear wheels.

Engine/transmission: The car is equipped with a standard 3.5-liter, 24-valve VTEC (variable valve timing and lift electronic control) V-6 engine that develops 300 horsepower at 6,200 revolutions per minute and 260 foot-pounds of torque at 5,000 rpm. The VTEC technology uses computer sensors to precisely open and close air/fuel intake and exhaust valves, thus providing maximum power with minimum fuel consumption and exhaust emissions. The engine is linked to a five-speed automatic transmission that also can be operated manually.

Cargo and fuel capacities: The Acura RL has seating for five people. Cargo capacity is 13.1 cubic feet. The fuel tank holds 19.4 gallons of recommended regular unleaded gasoline.

Mileage: I averaged 24 miles per gallon, mostly in highway driving.

Safety: Loaded! Side bags, head bags, traction and stability control, four-wheel anti-lock brakes, rigid body construction designed to protect occupants in a crash but also engineered to minimize harm to pedestrians hit by the car.

Price: Base price is $49,100. Estimated dealer invoice on base model is $46,500. Price as tested is $49,670, including a $570 destination charge. These prices, obtained from Honda and Edmunds.com, are mere suggestions. Truth is, the RL is a high-demand, high-quality luxury car with a comparatively low suggested retail price. Some dealers will charge a premium.

Purse-strings note: Too high a premium would ruin the deal here. The RL's best selling point is its excellent value for dollar based on the manufacturer's suggested retail price. Bargain accordingly. Compare with Audi A6, BMW 5-Series, Cadillac STS, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Lexus GS 430.

The longtime presumption in the automotive industry -- among manufacturers, dealers and buyers -- is that European cars in general, and German cars in particular, have more panache than their non-European rivals.

It is a notion sometimes reinforced by non-Europeans themselves -- as evidenced by the "Euro-style" design craze that swept through the U.S. auto industry in the 1980s and early '90s, and by the Japanese car companies' slavish imitation of all things European in their early introductions of luxury marques such as Acura, Infiniti and Lexus.

Presumption of European automotive superiority remains today. A non-European car may run just as well as its European competitor, or better; but it is likely to suffer a panache deficit, as in: It's not an Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz.

It's silly stuff when you get down to the driving of it. This week's test car, the 2005 Acura RL sedan, is proof.

First, the new RL, completely revised from the lackluster original introduced in 1996 and much better than the substantially reworked edition of 2003, offers something that few luxury cars provide -- actual value for the dollar.

But that may not be an advantage for the RL, because the concept of value is at odds with that of prestige. Value measures what you're actually getting -- the tangible property -- for the money spent. Prestige speaks to what you think you are getting, especially in terms of improved public perception of your worth, in addition to tangible property.

The RL sticks with what's real. It has no factory-available options. Instead, it comes fully loaded with standard equipment -- including sumptuous leather seating and fine wood trim, of course; and a 10-speaker Bose sound system that is its own wonderful excuse for being. But the RL goes far beyond those items by offering as standard equipment bona fide technological advantages, such as its trademarked Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) system.

All-wheel-drive systems commonly transfer drive power from front to rear wheels and from rear to front on an as-needed basis -- sending torque, the twisting power exerted to turn the wheels, from the wheels that slip to those that grip. The function improves traction, the binding force between the car's tires and the road.

The Acura RL's all-wheel-drive system transfers drive power both vertically, front to rear and vice versa -- and horizontally. That means it also distributes power between the car's left and right rear wheels. The side-to-side power distribution yields superior handling -- discernibly better than that of rival all-wheel-drive automobiles -- in sharp turns and around curves.

Other standard technological wizardry in the RL includes a satellite-linked navigation system that provides instant, real-time reports on local traffic conditions. Trademarked AcuraLink, it is the first North American offering of a real-time traffic information system in a civilian automobile.

AcuraLink works in conjunction with XM Satellite Radio's NavTraffic information service to provide frequent updates on road conditions -- traffic congestion, accident- or construction-related blockages, free-flowing traffic and/or the most suitable alternative routes. The information is displayed graphically on the Acura RL's dashboard-mounted navigation screen. It's an effective tool in helping to reduce commuting times.

On those welcome occasions when you have an open road and lots of time and the desire to run just for the thrill of running, the RL is ready and willing to run with you. A standard 3.5-liter, 300-horsepower V-6 engine -- compared with a 210-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 in previous RL models -- comes with the new car.

Low-end torque, the amount of wheel-turning power available at starting speeds, leaves something to be desired for people accustomed to the back-slamming launch of, say, a BMW M3, an AMG version of anything Mercedes-Benz, or the DaimlerChrysler-inspired Chrysler 300C SRT8 (SRT stands for Street Racing Technology) with the 425-horsepower V-8.

But what the Acura RL doesn't do in the short run, it more than makes up for in the long haul. It'll catch up with almost anything that leaves it at the starting line, and will take and maintain that lead without once gasping for air.

In the end, that is the only prestige that counts. No European badge is needed on the RL. The Acura logo works just fine.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company