Curbside Classic: 1996-2004 Acura 3.5RL – A Rather Lost, Relative Letdown, Retrograde Legend


(first posted 12/15/2017)       Following up on a Legend is no easy task, especially when referring to the Acura Legend. Despite it lacking a V8 and rear-wheel drive, it was a highly successful and recognizable enthusiast-oriented luxury flagship and all-around competitive luxury car, offering a balance of athleticism and poshness, and averaging annual U.S. sales of over 40,000 units in its climactic second generation (1991-1995). Indeed, it had style, it had grace, it even gave good face and above all, boasted a high level of owner passion and pride that few competitors could ever dream of achieving.

Yet as stated, replicating a legend is a tough act to follow. In truth, at least at the time of its introduction, the 1996-2004 Acura 3.5RL (third generation “Honda Legend” in many markets) was not a bad car. On paper, its merits were every bit as impressive as the 1991-1995 Legend: offering a powerful V6, high level of fit and finish, and numerous standard luxury features for a competitive price.

Sadly, in real life, the RL lacked the style and distinction that made the second-generation Legend so recognizable, appealing, and well, legendary. Styling, while inoffensive, seemed melted down and generic in comparison to its edgier predecessor.

While undeniably elegant, it was utterly forgettable, especially considering its slab-sided design carried on for nearly a decade and was largely replicated by the third-generation Lexus LS.

Truthfully, the edgier 1999 facelift should have just been the look the RL wore when it premiered for 1996. While hardly drastic, its more aggressive front fascia with larger trapezoidal grille and HID headlights, very early-90s Mercedes-eque wheels, and “jeweled” taillights at least added a touch of dignity to an otherwise forgettable design.

Inside, the situation was far superior. As one would expect from a Honda product, let alone the brand’s global flagship, the RL’s interior was one of impeccable craftsmanship. Trimmed in high-quality leathers, vinyls, plastics infused with pearlescent flecks and mica, and genuine burled camphor wood trim by way of Tendo, the acclaimed Japanese woodworking firm, Acura’s flagship was as posh as any big Mercedes or Lexus, and boasted all the latest in comfort, convenience, and technology features.

Standard amenities included power tilt-telescope steering wheel with automatic entry-egress assist, multi-stage heated front seats, power moonroof, six-disc CD changer, eight-speaker Bose stereo system, and in later years, side-impact airbags, Xenon headlights, Homelink universal garage door opener, satellite radio, On-Star (before it was a GM exclusive), and in-dash navigation.

It should be noted that the RL was one of the first vehicles on the U.S. market to offer in-dash GPS as an option (beginning on late-1996 models), and then make it a standard feature. Over the course of the RL’s first generation, the system was consistently updated as the technology improved, with the touchscreen enlarged to seven inches and the addition of voice-recognition feature to enhance user friendliness.

With regards to its performance, the RL could be described as a relative letdown, at least in terms of being anything noteworthy. Ditching the Legend’s sports sedan pretensions, suspension was softer, steering was lighter, and power from its enlarged 3.5L V6 peaked at lower rpms for more somber acceleration.

Despite a larger displacement, horsepower was actually down 20 from the Legend’s “Type-II” 3.2L, though torque was up 18, a nod to the RL’s less sporting image. Manual transmissions, coupes, and the performance-oriented GS model also disappeared, to little surprise.

Initially offering 210 horsepower and 224 lb-ft torque, the 3.5L V6 was an adequate powerplant, though it hardly stirred the same level of emotion as the Type-II 3.2L, and paled in comparison to the V8s offered in the competitors it was chasing.

The 2002 model year brought welcomed enhancements in the form of 15 more horsepower, 8 additional lb-ft torque, stiffer springs and dampers for its double-wishbone suspension, and thicker, solid anti-roll bars to reduce the pronounced body roll, but it was merely too little, too late. By that point, even the 3.2L found in the smaller TL Type-S offered greater output.

Too little, too late is how I’d describe the infrequent, yet meaningful enhancements made to the 3.5RL over the course of its nine-year first generation. While undeniably a better, more appealing car in 2004 than it was in 1996, “more appealing” must be taken with a grain of salt, as competitors had nine years to further up their game. To no surprise, the RL was a less competitive car in 2004 than it was in 1996.

With its clouded mission in life, Acura 3.5RL sales were never anything impressive. Even in its strongest sophomore season, the RL trailed even the Legend’s weakest and abbreviated final year, with U.S. sales of just 16,004. Compared to the second generation Legend, which averaged just over 41.6 thousand units per year, the first generation RL averaged a mere 12.3 thousand units per year in the U.S.

So while we all like to lament Honda’s decision to drop the name “Legend” for the North American market Acura, maybe it was best that the Legend name went out on a high note here, even if it did continue on in other parts of the world.

Living up to its namesake, the Acura Legend will forever be remembered for the perfection of its climactic second generation, perfection the 1996-2004 RL could never achieve. While the all-new 2005 Acura RL (4th generation Honda Legend elsewhere), represented a significant leap forward in every respect, it too was unfortunately a car with a confused mission in life, and saw even less success.


Initial and Final 2002 Acura 3.5RL Photographed: Financial District, Boston, MA – July 2015


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1989 Acura Legend LS sedan

1994 Acura Legend LS sedan

1995 Acura Legend L coupe

2005-2012 Acura RL/Honda Legend