GOING GREEN, QUICKLY: Acura’s RLX Sport Hybrid goes 32 mpg, and every mile offers solid performance.
GOING GREEN, QUICKLY: Acura’s RLX Sport Hybrid goes 32 mpg, and every mile offers solid performance.
GEORGE KENNEDY

SAN FRANCISCO—“Sport” and “hybrid” are terms that many consider to be incongruous. We often expect the hybrid version of a vehicle to be the more staid, conservative choice based on its inherent emphasis on efficiency. But as we learned carving up the coastal roads north of San Francisco, the 2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid plays the role of the brand’s flagship sedan, employing an advanced all-wheel-drive system that promotes efficiency and capable handling.

The RLX is Acura’s largest sedan; it replaces the staid and aging RL, which ended production in 2012. Though branded as the “flagship sedan,” it sits somewhere between the mid-range 5-Series/A6/E-Class set and true flagship cars like the 7 Series, A8, and S-Class. The common thread among all of these vehicles is their emphasis on dramatic styling and responsive handling.

The RLX initially debuted with a V6 making 310 horsepower, and a novel four-wheel steering system. The RLX Sport Hybrid we tested is the second act in the vehicle’s rollout, and slots in above the V6 model, representing the top of the RLX range. According to Acura, the RLX Sport Hybrid has the performance and handling to stand in for what would have once been the V8-equipped flagship sedan.

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The equation starts with a modified version of Acura’s 3.5-liter V6. It features direct injection and cylinder deactivation, and is connected to a seven-speed, dual clutch gearbox. After that, the hybrid setup gets a little complicated, so follow closely.

The RLX has three electric motors. One at the front that works with the gas engine, and two motors that power the rear wheels individually. The front wheels can be powered by either the conventional gas engine, or the front electric system, or both, or neither.

The combination of front and rear drive systems makes up Acura’s Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive, or SH-AWD. The genius of this system is something called torque vectoring. In essence, torque vectoring is the ability to distribute power individually between left or right wheels. It can push the outside rear wheel of the RLX harder than the inside wheel in a turn, allowing it to make the corner with more precision and confidence.

At peak acceleration, the three electric motors and gas engine combine for 377 horsepower and 377 pound feet of torque. Fuel economy for the RLX Sport Hybrid is 28 mpg city, 31 highway. For reference, the non-hybrid RLX achieves 21 city, 30 highway. While the Sport Hybrid does not offer significant gains in fuel economy, when you consider the performance advantages of the RLX Hybrid, the numbers gain context.

When you accelerate the RLX Hybrid, power is sent to all four wheels. When cruising, the front wheels will pull the vehicle, and switch between gas and electric power. If coasting or braking, the system is set up to employ regenerative braking, storing power in the lithium-ion battery pack.

The RLX also has a force feedback accelerator that is supposedly meant to make the driver feel one with the car. As you depress the pedal in hard acceleration, the pedal pushes back, which is claimed to add to the driving experience. Given the light steering feel and ability for automakers to fine tune electric steering systems, the steering wheel should have received more attention from Acura than the pedal.

As we carved through the windy roads of Sausalito, the RLX felt quite composed. Not as locked down as a BMW 5 Series, perhaps, but far more so than the old RL.

Pulling off along the northern shores of Tomales Bay, we stopped to appreciate the cabin. The 2014 RLX finally dispenses with the plethora buttons in the RL, but in its place is a control system that is arguably just as complicated. It is a dual screen, center console system, with a dynamic lower touch screen. If you select Navigation, nav controls come up on the lower screen, and the same if you select the stereo. Sound system presets remain there in many different modes. It has the potential to be very useful but is not as intuitive as it could be.

Strangely, the graphics are dated, even though the quality of the digital screens has greatly improved. On the plus side, the navigation system is simple for address input, and the direction delivery should not confuse anyone.

While the interior lacks some ergonomics in the menus, the RLX Sport Hybrid makes up for it with an outstanding interior fit and finish. Interior accent panels flow towards the center console, which is bolstered by soft-touch material. The seats are supremely comfortable and the rear seats offer plenty of legroom.

The tradeoff in added fuel economy and performance is the reduction in trunk space due to the battery pack. It takes up the room that would have been provided for a large travel bag. The space will hold two large golf bags and is large enough for a weekend road trip’s worth of bags, but is not the size that large-sedan buyers expect.

Pricing for the Acura RLX Sport Hybrid has not yet been announced, but the market for mid-range luxury hybrids runs from $55,000 to $60,000. Acura argues that the RLX also competes with the full-size lux sedan set, which starts in the low- to mid-$60,000 range. When the RLX Sport Hybrid goes on sale in Spring of 2014, look for a starting price between $58,000 and $63,000.

Acura is targeting the German luxury market with the RLX Sport Hybrid, but it more realistically competes with the Lexus GS 450 hybrid. Neither the GS hybrid nor the RLX Sport Hybrid are true performance vehicles, but the RLX will do more than get out of its own way. The RLX Sport Hybrid will not turn your knuckles white but will deliver a composed ride and swift acceleration in a large luxury sedan that offers plenty of interior space and advanced tech features.

2014 Acura RLX Sport Hybrid

THE BASICS

Price: TBA. As tested: TBA. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 28/31. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 28.8 mpg. Drivetrain: 3.5L V6 hybrid, 7-speed dual clutch transmission, adaptive front/rear/all-wheel-drive. Body: Full-size four-door sedan.

THE SPECIFICS

Horsepower: 377. Overall length: 196.1 in. Wheelbase 112.3 in. Height: 57.7 in. Width: 74.4 in. Curb weight: 4,312 lbs.

THE GOOD

Sharp interior, full-size space, latest infotainment technology.

THE BAD

Steering too light to be “Sport,” battery pack halves trunk space.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Hard to call it a true flagship, but it is a competent, efficient, luxury sedan.

ALSO CONSIDER

Lexus GS 450H, Infiniti Q50H.