One of the bigger challenges facing automakers in recent years has been making usable and safe interfaces for navigation, stereo, and hands-free phone systems. With the 2014 RLX, Acura shows off its latest attempt at tackling the interface challenge, but ends up with a kludgey design that will leave drivers frustrated.
The RLX replaces the company's RL model as its flagship sedan, and incorporates enough changes to warrant a different model name. It successfully ups Acura's luxury quotient through the use of more quality interior materials and new technologies, yet still does not quite feel up to the big luxury of a Mercedes-Benz S-class or a Lexus LS 460.
However, it is not as pricey as those models, either, putting it in a near-luxury class with new contenders such as the Kia Cadenza.
Per Acura marketing strategy, the RLX does not have factory options so much as different trim levels. This new model can be had in a base trim or with a succession of packages, each adding features to the previous. The first upgrade adds navigation and the next brings in various technology features. An amazing Krell audio system comes in at the next level, and the top package, which the car I reviewed had, adds advanced driver assistance features.
An interface too far?
The RLX sets itself up as the most technologically advanced Acura yet with a direct-injection 3.5-liter V-6 engine and standard LED headlights; that latter feature is found in very few other cars. The headlights, trademarked by Acura as Jewel Eyes, not only use less energy and last longer than standard lamps, but they also throw a more well-defined pattern, with sharper edges and less bleed-over.
And while it's good to see new developments from Acura, which had grown stale in the technology department lately, its new cabin electronics interface is a mess. The RLX features a 7-inch touch screen above the console, within easy reach of the driver. Higher up and set into the dashboard sits an 8-inch LCD. Below the touch screen Acura includes a big jog dial and buttons that control content on the upper LCD.
The upper LCD shows the navigation system along with some music and phone functions, while the touch screen shows phone and stereo controls in a different format, but no navigation. Follow me so far?
Now here is where things really get messy. With a USB drive or iOS device plugged into the RLX's USB port, I could browse music sequentially by album or track on the touch screen, but I had to use the jog dial and refer to the upper LCD to browse the music library by artist, album, and genre, or file and folder when using a USB drive as my source.
On the touch screen, I was able to find a phone screen with a keypad and speed dial numbers. The upper LCD defaulted to a screen showing recent calls and the speed dial numbers. Pushing the Menu button, I was finally able to find my phone's contact list on the upper LCD, along with a keypad.
In short, between the two screens there is some duplication and some separation of controls, none of which makes any sense at all.
On the lowest-trim RLX without navigation, I imagine this interface becomes slightly simpler. However, as it's Acura's flagship model, the company should have just made navigation standard on the RLX. Given that automakers tend to replicate their newest cabin electronics across their lineups, expect to see this flawed system end up in more Acura models before someone has the sense to fix it.
One saving grace is that the touch screen and upper LCD both react quickly to inputs.
I found I could avoid much of the interface mess by using the RLX's voice command system, which let me enter destinations, initiate phone calls by a contact name, and even request music from an iOS device by saying an album or artist name. While fairly comprehensive, the voice command system still made me enter addresses one part at a time, as opposed to the way slicker systems accept an entire spoken address string.
Connected nav, mind-blowing sound
The RLX shows an improvement in Acura's navigation system, adding perspective view to the existing plan-view maps. The maps themselves look more refined than on previous Acura systems, with easily read street labels. The system uses traffic data to dynamically adjust routes so as to avoid traffic jams. It also reads out street names for upcoming turns and shows useful graphics with lane guidance for freeway junctions.
Acura offers many options for entering destinations, including searching a points-of-interest database and an online search option. One of my favorite features, a carryover from earlier Acura models, is a database of scenic drives for just about every one of the United States.
An intriguing means of finding restaurants or hotels is through the new AcuraLink Streams app, an Acura-branded app with Aha Radio services. Running the app on a smartphone, I could choose the Aha audio source, then choose stations listing restaurants or hotels. Aha found the nearest matching locations, showing them and reading the names of each out loud. I was able to choose the Navigate button on the upper LCD and have the location fed to the navigation system.
The real sweet spot in the cabin electronics is the Krell audio system. Krell has been building audiophile-ranked stereo equipment for a little over 30 years, and the RLX benefits greatly from its work.
The system uses 14 speakers, the woofers of which are covered with tasteful aluminum grilles, and deliver about the best dynamic range I have ever heard in a car stereo. Mostly listening to lossless digital recordings on an iPhone, I found the Krell system gave voice to the entire frequency range of each track. Bass notes dropped with a power that hit my entire body, while vocals were pristine and clear, and seemed to put the singer in the car with me on some well-produced tracks.
The higher-pitched notes and instruments invaded the cabin in a shimmering wave. However, at times they sounded shrill, which may have been more to do with the original recording and too-faithful reproduction by the Krell system.
Audio sources abounded in the RLX, although I could only seem to select which one I wanted to listen to on the lower touch screen, and not on the upper LCD.