1998 Acura 3.5 RL

By November 10, 1999
1998 Acura 3.5 RL

The pool of luxury cars is a deep one, teeming with fine automobiles offering blue-chip credentials and exciting, highly individual personalities.

But when a car’s character is founded on subtle, exquisite refinement, it isn’t always noticed. That’s been the problem for the Acura 3.5RL, a technically and aesthetically excellent automobile that is perhaps too refined for its own good.

The 3.5RL debuted late in the 1996 model year as the replacement for the Acura Legend, a luxury car with a sporty edge. When Acura adopted the alpha-numeric 3.5RL designation for its flagship luxury sedan, it took its new name seriously. The initials stand for “Refined Luxury,” and that is precisely what it offered: a smooth, cosseting and deeply luxurious experience.

For 1998, Acura has returned some of the sportiness to the RL. Disappointing sales in recent years have persuaded the company that some of its past successes can be attributed to the sporty handling offered by the old Legend. Sporty handling and engineering excellence, after all, are areas where Acura shines. For these reasons, the suspension settings on the RL have been revised for 1998, bringing a welcome crispness to handling response without introducing harshness.

A few more features have been made standard and the optional navigation system has been improved for this year, making the 1998 RL a more visible member of the luxury class.

Walkaround

In appearance, the RL aims for an upright, conservative look. The low lines and sharp edges of the Legend were

replaced by a taller, more formal profile with a prominent front grille. The soberly elegant exterior carries over

to this year, perked up slightly by new, sportier bright-finish alloy wheels.

This front-drive sedan is a big car, about the length of a Lexus LS 400. The modest-sized trunk has a packable

square shape, with a handy niche molded into the side to keep briefcases from skidding. A narrow pass-through in

the center of the rear seats lets you fit skis in the trunk.

Interior Features

The 3.5RL has a sumptuously comfortable, suitably hushed interior, with an airy spaciousness and plenty of elbow

room.

It is available in two trim levels: RL and RL Premium. The list of standard features on the $41,635 base RL is

thorough, especially for 1998. Several features that previously were found only on the Premium model are now standard

on the RL, including the rich, eight-speaker Bose audio system with cassette and CD player, and heated outside

mirrors.

Exclusive to the Premium trim level are heated seats, traction control and a more extensive use of walnut trim. A

six-disc trunk-mounted CD changer is also standard. (It is optional on the RL.)

Luxury amenities abound. Entering and exiting is eased by the automatic steering wheel that glides up and out of the

way when you turn off the ignition. Two memory settings restore the wheel, mirrors and seat to your preferred

positions. A power moonroof is standard.

The leather seats are soft on first contact, and remain supportive over the long haul. The long seat cushions support

the thighs, and side bolsters on the seatbacks hold your back in place.

Rear seat comfort is particularly high, a carryover from Japan where cars like this often are chauffeur-driven. Extra

knee room has been carved into the front seatbacks, and the broad track under the front seat leaves plenty of foot

room. The undersides of the front seats are even carpeted to prevent shoe scuffs. Rear-seat passengers can adjust

the temperature with controls at the back of the center console.

Acura claims its climate control system has the quickest draw in the West, or at least in its class, with an air

conditioning system that can cool the car from 100 degrees to 70 degrees in 15 minutes flat, faster than any of its

competitors. Since our visit with the 3.5RL occurred in the dead of a Michigan winter, we can’t vouch for the a/c

claim, but it reflects the intense refinement that went into every detail of the car’s comfort quotient.

The illuminated instruments convey necessary information clearly and elegantly. Controls are intelligently arranged,

pleasant to touch and operate, and comprehensible without recourse to the owner’s manual. The speed-sensitive

windshield wipers adjust their rate to the car’s speed. The headlights turn on automatically. Even the leather has

been treated to reduce the amount of oil that evaporates in the sunlight.

Our only complaints are aesthetic quibbles. The wood trim, even on the Premium model, could have been laid on a

little more generously. And the center dash console, with its high-tech trapezoidal shape and materials, looks

a little hard-edged in this otherwise soft environment.

On the other hand, that high-tech look seems exactly right when the optional satellite navigation system is installed.

The six-inch color screen is linked to GPS satellites and a database of maps. Enter your destination and the route

will appear on the screen. A pleasant female voice gives you turn-by-turn directions.

The $2000 navigation system developed in-house by Honda R&D, is easy to learn. Some of the other manufacturers

have recently introduced navigational systems that incorporate the controls for the audio, heating and ventilation

systems, and we find those units a challenge to use. Entering commands on Acura’s system, however, is quick and

easy, thanks to the touch-screen technology.

When originally introduced, the system only covered California and Las Vegas. You can now order databases for

the Eastern Seaboard, the Midwest or the Southwest as well. The database includes maps and a virtual Yellow Pages

of hotels, gas stations, restaurants, tourist sites, ATMs and more.

Driving Impressions

The original RL’s performance matched its interior appointments: exquisitely well-executed in an unobtrusive way.

The 1998 edition, with its firmer damping and faster response, has a noticeable edge under its silkiness.

The RL is powered by a smooth and silent 210-horsepower 3.5-liter V6, the largest engine Acura has ever produced.

Even more impressive is its torque: 224 pounds-feet at an unusually low 2800 rpm. That helps give the V6 the

aggressive launch of a V8 and plenty of available power at most speeds.

The V6 is paired with a four-speed automatic transmission that has unduly firm shift points for a luxury car. The

speed-sensitive power steering provides good road feel at higher speeds and plenty of assist at low speeds.

The RL’s ride and handling are fully in step with its luxury goals. Even with the revised suspension, the RL doesn’t

have the firm ride and taut handling of a classic German sports sedan. There is more feedback to the driver than

before, but the overall impression is of effortlessness–which may or may not be to your taste.

The safety-equipment list is lengthy. Dual airbags, big disc brakes with ABS, seat belt tensioners, side-impact

protection (although not side airbags), and innovative padding to increase head protection are all standard. For

1998, a three-point seat belt has been added to the center rear position. The traction control on the Premium model

provides additional control on slippery roads.

Summary

Acura has employed its formidable store of technology and intelligence to develop a lovely car whose hallmark is an

exquisite sense of ease, comfort and luxury.

The accurate steering, good visibility, supportive seats, well-placed controls, rich silence and powerful V6 all

combine to create a confident, relaxing environment whether you are driving long distances or dodging local traffic.

And Acura’s reliability and excellent service organization help make the RL as easy to own as to drive.

The RL’s price compares favorably to its most direct competitors, the six-cylinder BMW 535i and Mercedes-Benz E320,

particularly given its luxurious equipment list. But it also faces competition from the popular entry-luxury class

just below it: The Audi A4, Lexus ES 300, Cadillac Catera, and Mazda Millenia S offer similar performance and luxury

for $5000 less, but are a bit smaller.

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