In 1986, Honda’s upstart Acura Division created a demand for Japanese luxury cars with the first Legend sedan. That Legend was a bargain in features and quality, and quickly rose to the top of the charts. But since then the likes of Lexus, Infiniti, as well as Mercedes-Benz and BMW, have given the Legend a real run for the affluent buyer.
So, Acura is counter attacking with a new flagship that they hope will not only appeal to current Legend owners, but to those who still know high value when they drive it. That car is this 1996 Acura 3.5RL. It’s a lot fancier than it sounds. But will it too be legendary? Acura certainly hopes so. For they expect this 3.5RL sedan—the RL stands for “Refined Luxury”—to compete with Mercedes’ E-420, and Lexus LS400.
The 3.5 refers to the displacement of the RL’s V-6 engine, not a V-8 like the competition. However any disadvantages are only in the mind. Acura completely reworked the Legend’s 3.2-liter V-6 to respond more like a modern V-8. The new three-and-a-half liter, all aluminum engine is Acura’s largest ever. Still with one overhead cam per bank driving 24 valves, horsepower is down 20 to 210. However power peaks a full 1000 RPM sooner. Also the 3.5’s 224 pound-feet of torque, an Acura all-time high, is delivered at only 2800 RPM. That means strong off-the-line performance.
Indeed, our 3.5RL scoots from 0 to 60 in a brief 7.5 seconds. With a steady stream of power, the quarter-mile passed in only 16 seconds, ending at 90 miles per hour. The sole transmission is a 4-speed automatic with grade logic control. Shifts are precise and nearly invisible. The Premium Package adds traction control.
Like all Acuras, the suspension is all independent with double wishbones. However, in the RL, the system has been tuned for a more luxurious combination of ride and handling. We noticed no more body roll than the Legend, but that car’s crisp handling has been traded for safer understeer. Also the RL rolls slowly to its suspension stops and reacts lazily, but softly, to surface irregularities. Steering is also lighter, feeling more like a luxury car, even though the standard 16-inch tires insure secure road holding. It is clear that Acura wants Legend fans seeking a sports sedan to opt for the TL rather than this RL.
Brakes are 4-wheel discs with anti-lock and have a more secure pedal feel than many ABS systems. Stops from 60 were effortless at 110 feet with no noticeable fade.
Styling qualifies as refined, if not a tad conservative. The front fascia has a definitive Acura family grille. A high beltline and upright greenhouse give the RL a more substantial appearance than the Legend. The broad rear deck and formal C-pillars show a definite Mercedes influence. Clever touches to reduce noise, include small wind deflectors under the outside mirrors. We got a lot of looks in the RL, mostly from Legend and LS400 owners who liked the more expansive styling.
Inside the RL is easily the most luxurious Acura to date. Along with quality materials, the roomy interior is designed to create a feeling of openness. Of course there’s the expected safety of dual airbags and automatic seatbelt tensioners. Although the RL doesn’t have side airbags, the front doors do have dual side impact beams and polyproplyne hip and shoulder pads.
The Lexus-like electroluminescent gauges really stand out, and their size and recessed position remind us of Buick Riviera. The driver’s bucket features 8-way power adjustments, manual lumbar control, and a 2-setting memory that can also position the tilt and telescoping wheel. Softer foam and new springs absorb 50 percent more vibrations than conventional bucket seats. The truck front armrest adjusts for height and covers 2 separate storage areas, while 2 cupholders hide under the tasteful wood trim.
The standard RL model has an 8-speaker, 105-watt AM/FM stereo with cassette. The Premium Package RL gets a 225-watt, special Acura/Bose unit with a trunk-mounted CD changer. Large, easy-to-use switchgear runs the automatic climate controls, with a standard air filtration system.
Rear seat passengers gain 2 inches of legroom over Legend, a huge armrest with 2 more beverage holders, and some control over their environment. Plus there’s a lockable pass-through to the trunk, which holds a generous 14 cubic feet of cargo.
Having a generous income will help you own Acura’s 3.5RL. Base price for the standard 3.5RL sedan is $41,435. The Premium Package adds traction control, heated front seats and mirrors, more wood trim and the Bose sound system for $44,435. This satellite-linked navigation system will be a $2,000 option on Premium RLs, and initially available only in California.
While hardly inexpensive, the Acura 3.5RL is about $8,000 less than an E420, and over $10,000 less than an LS400. So in other words, it’s quite reasonable for such a sophisticated class of sedan. Indeed, high value luxury is what made the original Acura Legend … a Legend in the first place. Now on their 10th anniversary, the new RL looks fit to drive the Acura brand into the next millennium.
Engine: 3.5-Liter, Sohc, 24-valve, V-6
Torque: 224 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 7.5 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 16 Seconds @ 90 MPH
60-0 MPH: 110 Feet