IT'S BEEN 20 years since Honda launched its luxury Acura marque, and it's steadily been establishing a foothold in the prestige market, pitted against the likes of Toyota's upmarket Lexus range. Honda may have found it tough to match the sales or popularity of its compatriot rival's luxury brand in the past (with the possible exception of its NSX range), but the Acura group has been investing in a new range of luxury sedans, sports cars and SUVs in a bid to change all that.
At the New York Motor Show last year, Honda launched its first compact sports utility vehicle, the RDX, a sister model to the CR-V. In January, it previewed the Acura ASC at the Detroit Motor Show - a new sports model set to fill the void left by its NSX supercar, which ceased production in 2005.
As a performance luxury sedan, the RL joins this line-up and combines the practicality of the Honda Legend - from which it borrows its Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) system - with some of the pace of the NSX (the RL packs 295 brake horse power). Add to this a stylish cabin and some luxurious appointments and the RL is a new prospect for Hong Kong's hungry prestige market.
The RL is low, sleek and understated, despite its imposing dimensions and performance. Sitting on 17-inch alloys, its countenance is dramatic enough to suggest potency, with fared-in twin xenon headlights framing a broad chrome grille, but its lines are smooth enough to appeal to more discreet types who nonetheless want an exciting drive.
Peeling through Causeway Bay traffic on a circuit of Hong Kong Island, the RL is a pleasure. Its interior is luxurious and tasteful. With fine, hand-crafted maple trim accenting comfy tan leather seats, the cabin has an informal, loungy feel, but has all the latest gadgetry you could wish for. The CD/DVD/radio in-car entertainment system comes with a Bose 10-speaker surround system that provides amazing sound quality, even with the car's 3,500cc V6 VTEC humming away up front.
It's a driver's car, as it has to be. With rivals such as the Mercedes E-Class and the BMW 5 Series drawing the eye of every badge-snob in town, Honda has had to make the RL special to compete.
The car is composed and as easy to drive through Happy Valley traffic as it is on a point-to-point dash from Shek O to Tai Tam. The ride is excellent and its grip on the road sure. The Acura shows little perceptible tipping or roll when cornering hard, despite the considerable G-force delivered with every stab at the accelerator. The SH-AWD system really is super at redistributing the torque (a healthy 35.8kgm/5,000rpm, if you want the figures) to each wheel independently, leaving you free to get on with the business of driving.
It's a big car, but it handles nimbly and responsively, rewarding your driving characteristics rather than cosseting you from the road - unlike many luxury sedans, in which you simply float along. The traction control settings are adjustable so you can change the level of ride comfort without compromising responsiveness.
The car is super smooth, even with a 0-100km/h speed of 6.4 seconds and its serious torque. The sequential sport shift gearbox is snappy without being too gung-ho and there's no noticeable lag as it moves up through the ratios.
Most importantly, the Acura RL is a good combination of speed and stability, which makes it a lot of fun to drive. It's no surprise that it was voted one of Car and Driver's Ten Best Cars when it was launched in the US.
The Acura also topped both the rigorous American safety tests and Forbes Autos' list of 10 Safest Vehicles. It comes with an impressive list of safety features as standard, including advanced compatibility engineering, anti-lock braking, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist, vehicle stability assist and a front seat occupancy detection system.
The Honda is well-appointed, safe as houses and a joy to drive. So, where's the catch? Well, the new Acura RL is the most highly engineered Honda since the NSX, and all this performance and luxury comes at a price: a whopping HK$586,000, to be exact.
Admittedly, you get a lot of car for the money, but the Acura's resale value could suffer in the local market, in which German marques are often favoured for their prestige and residual value. Also, it's arguably not as stylish as a BMW 5 Series, for example, having been designed with the more conservative US and Japanese markets in mind.
But if you go with your instinct and choose one over a European marque, the Acura RL will prove a reliable sedan that's great to drive and a good choice if you need refinement and power for long trips.
AT A GLANCE: ACURA RL
What drives it? A 3,471cc, V6 VTEC engine with SH-AWD linked to a sequential sport shift automatic box with paddles. The saloon rides on 17-inch alloys.
How fast is it? Quick, with 295 brake horsepower at 6,200rpm. Sprints to 100km/h in 6.4 seconds.
How safe is it? Has anti-lock braking system, electronic brakeforce distribution, brake assist, vehicle stability assist, and a front seat occupancy detection system.
How thirsty is it? US tests show the Acura drinks 12.9 litres per 100km in the city and 8.4 litres on the highway.
Hong Kong friendly? Emits 270g of CO2 per km (gpk), the fug equivalent of 2.1 Smart ForTwos.
Nice touches: Fine build quality, tasteful interior touches and an awesome sound system.
Availability: HK$586,000 at Reliance Motors (tel: 2881 8862)