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Honda has long been known for its attention to detail, which is reflected by the high build quality and reliability of its products. Consequently, Acura models have exemplified many of the same endearing characteristics that have made Honda a valued brand in driveways across America. The challenge until now has been elevating the Acura brand’s status as a luxury marque to one on par with European makes and its Japanese rival, Lexus. With the recent launch of the RLX sedan last year, the company was hoping its new model would chart a different course for Acura. After a year on sale, however, it appears that while the brand’s flagship model is more dynamic than ever, in a crowded field of mid-size luxury vehicles, the RLX still has its work cut out for it.

Prior to the RLX, Acura’s RL served as the brand’s premier model. In production for model years 1996-2012, the RL was never truly able to connect with customers and as a result, its sales lagged those of its competition. Hoping to lift sales, Acura refreshed the RL in quick succession for the 2009 and 2011 model years, but sales continued to fall.

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Until 2011, the RL was equipped with only 290 horsepower and a 5-speed automatic transmission, which put it at a disadvantage in power and performance versus its competition for years. Even after boosting output to 300 horsepower and adding another gear to the transmission, the RL’s dwindling sales acknowledged it was too little, too late. With its tight-fitting cabin and polarizing front-end design, the RL had a tough time finding buyers, particularly when its slightly down-market TL sibling was such an attractive value in terms of packaging and pricing.

Nevertheless, while new sales were not kind to the RL, its value has shone through in the used market as consumers recognize it as a reliable, comfortable luxury car that is a solid purchase as a second-hand vehicle.

As was uncovered in the February 2014 edition of NADA Perspective, about value retention for passenger cars, the RL’s retention percentage of 51.6% was well ahead of the segment average at 48.5%. The Acura model was bested only by the BMW 5-Series, Audi A6 and Lexus GS, which all enjoy strong sales in the new market. The fact that the RL has better retention than the Mercedes-Benz E-Class or Infiniti M is evidence that it is a respectable, competitive vehicle in the used market and with some modifications could possibly have been more desirable in the new market.

With this in mind, Honda revamped its Acura lineup starting with the RLX and created a new division, called Acura Business Planning Office, to undertake strategic planning and business development for the luxury brand. Equipped with a plethora of technologies – including new signature Jewel Eye LED headlights that are brighter and more efficient, and the P-AWS (Precision All-Wheel Steer) system that improves handling through four-wheel steering – the RLX offers many of the same luxuries as its competitors and more. However, as a standard front-wheel drive model, it does not share the same perception in the eyes of many consumers in performance and handling due to its lack of a rear-wheel drive setup. Also, with an automatic transmission that’s limited to six gears, it is easy to view the RLX’s driving character as being more Honda than BMW as far as sport sedans go.

While Acura’s ties to Honda benefit the brand in certain regards, the challenge for company execs is convincing the general public that an upmarket model such as the RLX is much more than just a well-dressed Honda. With its upcoming optional SH-AWD (Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive) Sport Hybrid system that includes a three-motor hybrid drivetrain with a roughly 370 horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, the RLX can state its case that it offers unparalleled performance – but that applies only in this configuration. Nonetheless, with its extremely advanced hybrid all-wheel drive system that is essentially a reversed interpretation of the setup of the one expected to be on the upcoming NSX supercar, there is much to be excited about when it comes to the RLX distinguishing itself as a luxury sport sedan.

In creating the business strategy for its new flagship model, Acura leaned on data from a 2012 Strategic Vision survey that revealed value for the money as being the biggest consideration among luxury consumers, with manufacturer reputation following closely behind. While it can be argued that the brand checks both those boxes, from a prestige and vehicle design standpoint, luxury buyers may not perceive Acura as having enough cachet to be a truly great value when its RLX starts at $48,450. If one holds little regard for rear-wheel drive and places Acura’s premiere sedan in a vacuum, however, seeing it as a well-designed luxury car with plenty of technology and reputation for reliability, the RLX merits strong consideration.

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Thus far, the RLX has been unable to realize its expected sales growth over its predecessor, with deliveries in the same ballpark as the Infiniti M/Q70 and Hyundai Equus. While BMW and Mercedes-Benz are far-and-away the biggest sellers in the segment, the RLX has found difficulty reaching the same success as the Audi A6 and Lexus GS despite having only been introduced a little over a year ago. Consequently, Forbes published a list titled “10 Easiest Cars to Bargain For” last month, with the Acura RLX coming in at number six among a group that included the BMW 6-Series and Mercedes-Benz E400 Hybrid. The ranking was due to the Japanese model having an average days’ supply of 135 days, $3,000 in additional dealer discounts and financing as low as 0.9-percent for 60 months.

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With sales not meeting expectations, Acura is doing its best to stir up demand for its flagship model and average incentive spending has reached nearly $6,800 in recent months, per Autodata. Unfortunately, inventory remains high as days’ supply climbed above 100 days in 10 of the past 12 months, which is concerning for a new model as competitive on paper as the RLX is. Unlike the RL that came before it, though, the RLX is a vast improvement in content and packaging, making it arguably the most advanced sedan the brand has ever offered. It is reasonable to suggest that the RLX’s slow sales start is less a function of any quality concerns and more a result of questionable exterior design  and a lingering stigma carried over from its predecessor.

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Although there are those who do not recognize Acura in the same light as leading luxury makes, the RLX is a high-quality vehicle that is among the best products the brand has created. What is hard to determine is how much more successful Acura would be had it changed its flagship’s exterior design to one less polarizing. If Hyundai and Kia are any indication, a fresh new look could do much to raise Acura’s image and status as a true luxury make; but it remains to be seen what  the company’s new strategic arm has in its plans. In the meantime, with discounts as deep as they are currently, the RLX is a great bargain as a new luxury mid-size car, especially considering Acura’s history for good value retention, and is definitely worth a look for anyone in the luxury mid-size market.