Future Classic: 2005-12 Acura RL/Honda Legend – Always A Bridesmaid

Here’s an activity: name a mid-sized luxury sedan sold in North America during the 2005-12 period other than the pictured Acura RL. Did you think of one? Good. If you said anything other than the Volvo S80, then you named a car more popular with American buyers.

If you don’t have a German nameplate you are almost destined for also-ran status in the mid-size luxury segment. BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi dominate this segment, outselling the Japanese and American entrants by a considerable margin. But Acura has struggled more than others over the years.

Unlike the milquetoast first-generation RL, the second RL was engineered to have more of a sport sedan bent even though it was one of the few cars in its segment without standard rear-wheel-drive. Its Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) afforded the car capable dynamics, “Super Handling” being a rather silly name for what was an impressive, torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system.

While other Acuras used SH-AWD, the RL had a more complex version with a clutch/planetary gearset called an Acceleration Device. The RL’s SH-AWD could actively distribute the optimum amount of torque between the front and rear axles and between the left and right rear wheels. In fact, under hard cornering, 70 percent of available torque could be shifted to the rear wheels and 100 percent of this torque could be applied to the outside rear wheel.

The SOHC 3.5 V6 was quite gutsy with 300 hp at 6200 rpm and 260 ft-lbs at 5000 rpm, besting rival V6 engines in power. The engine also boasted a few Ward’s Best Engine awards to its name. The lone transmission offering was a five-speed automatic with paddle shifters, then relatively uncommon. A multi-link suspension set-up was used at the back, with double wishbones at the front. Curb weight was around 4000 pounds and fuel economy was an EPA-estimated 16/24 mpg, both figures around the same as those of an A6 Quattro. This meant the RL looked good on paper: more power than direct German rivals, a trick all-wheel-drive system, and competitive fuel economy.

On the road, the RL followed through. Automotive journalists were impressed with the RL’s refinement and surprisingly capable, sure-footed handling. In a 2005 Car & Driver comparison test, the RL lost only to the Infiniti M in a field of eight. Edmunds ranked it first and Motor Trend second in shootouts against German and Japanese rivals. There were awards, too: a Car & Driver 10Best and CNET’s Tech Car of the Year. Clearly, Acura was onto something with the RL and the executives at Honda had to just sit back and wait for the sales to come flying in.

They waited. And waited. Sure, there was an initial surge – to 17,572 units in 2005 – but the RL began to haemorrhage sales, down to 6,262 in 2007 and continuing to fall thereafter. It was even selling worse than its unpopular and inferior predecessor which, in turn, had sold far worse than its predecessor, the Legend. Although the Legend had sold as many as 70k units back in the late 1980s, the first-generation RL sold only in the teens due to a higher base price, a sedan-only range, as well as Acura re-centering its range around the new, cheaper TL and CL models.

The removal of the Legend name in North America had cost Acura crucial name recognition and equity. Perhaps the RL might have been on more luxury car buyers’ shopping lists had it worn the old name, even if the Acura brand still lacked the cachet and prestige of the Germans. Perhaps the RL would have been more popular, too, if it didn’t have such anonymous styling. It’s not that the RL was unattractive – it was handsome in an inoffensive way – but it lacked any kind of visual drama or presence. It was derided by many as looking like an Accord which, while fairly inaccurate, is a rather damning critique of a luxury sedan, one scarcely made of the second-generation Legend.

The biggest threat to the RL came from Acura’s own showroom. The Acura TL was cheaper, more distinctively styled, almost as large. The fourth-generation TL, introduced in 2009, was even available with the same engine and a version of the SH-AWD (although, worryingly, its sales had slid dramatically too).

The RL’s competitive set wasn’t standing still, either. By 2009, the Germans and Infiniti were introducing seven-speed automatic transmissions. There was a new Cadillac CTS, the new Jaguar XF, as well as the first Hyundai Genesis and the Lincoln MKS. The RL could handle well, yes, but so could any number of its rivals and many of them had more power, features and efficiency. The progress in the segment in just a few years could be seen even in 0-60 times: with a time of 7.3 seconds, the RL went from being competitive in 2005 to being “slow” in 2008. Or try fuel economy: Audi’s supercharged V6, new for 2009, produced the same power as the RL but with more torque and better fuel economy.

Acura freshened the RL in 2009 with the controversial “power plenum” grille and a larger 3.7 V6, which produced an extra 10 pound-feet of torque. This helped fix a commonly cited deficit in low-end torque, but lowered fuel economy to 16/22 mpg. A six-speed automatic was belatedly added in 2011, which boosted fuel economy beyond even the original 3.5 (17/24 mpg). But none of these changes salvaged sales.

The angular and striking new grille looked incongruous with the RL’s gentle curves and was hurriedly toned down in 2011. The interior was scarcely changed and, while its design was still distinctive, its silver plastic trim was looking rather passé by the 2010s.

The RL/Legend was even less popular in Australia—at $AUD74,500, the Legend was 63% more expensive than a top-of-the-line Accord V6, even if it did undercut base model 5-Series and E-Class sedans by thousands of dollars. As in North America, it came exceptionally well-equipped but it had an eye-popping price for something with a Honda badge on it. Consequently, used examples are few and far between and dizzying depreciation has made these roaring good buys.

On a more personal note, for my past three car purchases, I’ve considered a used Legend. Each time I haven’t pulled the trigger, despite these cars’ horrible residual values working very much in my favor. I loved the Legend’s high-quality, modern interior, and I was encouraged by its reliability. And for me, a V6 engine was enough—I didn’t need a V8.

But what eliminated the Legend from contention each time was arguably its strongest attribute: the SH-AWD system. All-wheel-drive is unnecessary where I live, where it literally doesn’t snow. While I appreciate the traction and superior handling it affords, I was concerned, justifiably or not, about the additional complexity and higher parts, maintenance and fuel costs. Granted, my thought process as a cheapskate used car buyer differs from that of a new luxury car buyer, but my experience underscores one of the RL’s deficiencies. There was no cheaper RL or more powerful RL or non-AWD RL. There was one drivetrain, take it or leave it.

The 2009 Legend had less of a beak than the 2009 RL

Where the Legend fell down in the Australian market (and in Europe, for that matter) could be chalked up to hubris, that Honda thought they could sell a sedan with the Honda logo for E-Class money. It was only slightly more reasonable for Honda to expect an Acura to sell for similarly BMW-level pricing in North America.

Honda may have beaten Toyota and Nissan to the punch with its own luxury brand but it made a series of mistakes for which it is still paying today. Where Lexus and Infiniti went high, Acura settled for a near-luxury/premium price point. Where Lexus and Infiniti introduced rear-wheel-drive models targeted directly at the Germans, Acura settled for Accord-derived, front-wheel-drive models like the TL. Whether they realized it at the time or not, Toyota and Nissan had planned for a future where mainstream brands could introduce highly-specified, pricier trim levels. They saw the only way to be spoken of in the same breath as the Germans was to play them at their own game.

Today, Acura leans heavily on its crossovers. It’s struggling to convince shoppers to pick the TLX over the almost equally impressive Honda Accord, while the RL’s replacement, the RLX, is selling just as poorly as the RL did and losing big time to American, Japanese, European and now Korean rivals. The RLX also repeated the RL’s mistake of looking too conservative.

The RL was always going to be handcuffed by a lack of name recognition and a lack of brand prestige. Add in anonymous styling and BMW-level pricing, internal competition, a slightly cramped cabin and the lack of an optional, larger engine and it was doomed to fail.

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1999 Acura 3.0 CL – Too Well-Rounded?

Curbside Classic: 1995 Acura Legend L Coupe – Legends Never Die

CC Capsule: 2003 Infiniti M45 – The Closest Thing To An American-Style V8 Four-Door Hardtop In A Long Time