CALISTOGA, CA – In the world of automotive styling, the all-new Acura RLX is the equivalent of a tie between two rival sports teams: like kissing your sister, it doesn’t mean much.

That’s not to say the RLX is a lackluster effort. To the contrary, Acura’s new flagship sedan is an impressive, comfortable car with a powerful new engine, sophisticated chassis control and the benefits of stability-enhancing torque vectoring without the weight and cost of a driveline sending power to all four wheels.

But in the quest for state-of-the-art technologies under the hood, Honda’s luxury brand appears to have kept its designers on a short leash.

An Acura design executive calling attention to the car’s “new character line” in the sheet metal that dips below the side-view mirror and extends rearward should conjure red-carpet images of Halle Berry, not a buttoned-up librarian.

If not for the “Jewel-Eye” headlamps, consisting of 10 light-emitting diodes per side, the Acura RLX could blend into the landscape on any highway in America, indistinguishable amid a sea of Toyota Camrys.

Acura seriously needs to take some chances if it wants to start moving the metal. In 2012, it sold 75,067 cars, including a mere 379 copies of the outgoing RL sedan.

By comparison, BMW sold 231,257 cars in the U.S. in 2012, Mercedes 177,745, Lexus 132,741 and Audi 96,516, according to WardsAuto data. The flagship sedan for those brands combined delivered 37,239 units.

In the Middle Luxury segment, one could argue the BMW 5-Series, Mercedes E-Class, Audi A6 and Lexus GS are, like the RLX and its RL predecessor, conservatively styled.

But those competitors also are vastly more popular, having established a styling language that connects with high-income buyers. Acura needs to do the same, and it made inroads with the ’09 TL sedan that remains the brand’s best-selling car.

If the new RLX becomes a commercial success, it will be because the car is a great value that delivers good fuel economy and innovative features such as a standard 4-wheel steering system.

Standard on the RLX, the system is marketed as Precision All-Wheel Steering, and the P-AWS acronym fits: With it, the car has the agility of a feline on the prowl, especially in corners and during aggressive maneuvers.

The old RL used Super Handling All-Wheel Drive, which worked great but was expensive, heavy, didn’t sell a lot of cars and really only worked when the vehicle was accelerating.

P-AWS achieves nearly the same torque-vectoring effect by steering the rear wheels (up to 1.8 degrees) at all speeds, depending on the conditions. For instance, when changing lanes on the highway, the rear wheels are turned in the same direction, making for clean maneuvering.

On a twisty snow-covered road, the system counteracts understeer by helping introduce yaw – the necessary rotational effect – to keep the car on the intended path. Likewise, in a parking lot at low speed, the rear wheels are turned in the opposite direction to rotate the back end more efficiently.

The real magic occurs in the off chance the RLX is driven hard. Aggressive cornering is no problem because the sophisticated system integrates two independent actuators, one at each rear wheel, and an electronic control unit linked to the belt-driven electric power steering system, stability control, 4-wheel disc brakes and engine controller.

P-AWS continuously monitors and calculates the correct amount of rear steering necessary for every condition, analyzing steering input, engine and road speed, throttle position, brake pressure, yaw rate and lateral acceleration.

The effect is a back end that comes around effortlessly with reduced steering inputs, without the driver even realizing the technology is at work.

Emergency braking is enhanced by slightly turning each rear wheel inward. Yes, that means the rubber in back will wear out up to 20% faster than with a normal setup. But Honda engineers say the front rollers on the RLX will show 50% less wear because of P-AWS.

The system is completely electrical, which reduces weight compared with a driveline attached to all four wheels. Overall, the RLX is 166 lbs. (75 kg) lighter than the RL.

That means a significant boost in combined fuel economy, from 20 mpg (11.7 L/100 km) in the RL to 24 mpg (9.8 L/100 km) in the RLX. On the highway, the RLX is a whopping 7 mpg (2.9 km/L) better than the vehicle it replaces.

To prove its point, Acura boldly put its RLX to the test against rear-driven BMW 335i and Mercedes E-Class sedans on a handling track set up at Sonoma Raceway near here. While the German luxury cars tend to plow through tight corners at high speed, the RLX negotiates the turns more easily.

Yes, P-AWS is a great system that will appear in other Acura vehicles, most likely the forthcoming MDX cross/utility vehicle replacement. Honda also is considering the system for the Pilot CUV.

Despite its capabilities, P-AWS might be a tough sell to savvy customers in northern climates who actually want the drivetrain powering all four wheels in snow and ice. In those regions, AWD has become popular, especially among luxury buyers.

The RLX will come with AWD as standard equipment in the 3-motor sport hybrid version that arrives at the end of the year. Two of the motors will be placed at each rear wheel. Acura says the hybrid will deliver V-8 performance (but will not integrate P-AWS), and engineers are hoping for a combined fuel-economy rating of 30 mpg (7.8 L/100 km).

That’s an impressive number, but the non-hybrid RLX isn’t far behind with a highway rating of 31 mpg (7.5 L/100 km). The RLX employs the same 6-speed automatic transmission found in other Honda/Acura vehicles, with different gearing, which raises the question: In this age of multi-speed transmissions, are six forward gears enough in premium vehicles?

Under the hood of the new RLX is a re-engineered “Earth Dreams” 3.5L direct-injection V-6 – Acura’s first engine with DI – that makes more horsepower than the 3.7L V-6 it supplants in the RL and delivers more torque at lower engine speeds.

This 310-hp gem arrives while Honda still is celebrating its 2013 Ward’s 10 Best Engines win for the less-sophisticated 278-hp 3.5L port-injection V-6 powering the all-new Accord.

Expect to see the new DI V-6, which runs on premium, in more vehicles in the future. First up is the new MDX.

The RLX also gets something the RL never had: Variable Cylinder Management, which shuts off fuel to three of the six pistons during deceleration and steady-state cruising in certain conditions. The system works well, enabling 27 mpg (8.7 L/100 km) during a winding route through Napa Valley.

The cabin suggests Acura designers had more styling freedom than their exterior counterparts. While the overall interior language is familiar for the brand, the lines are fresh and taut, soft surfaces abound and the tapered center stack lends a masculine sense of urgency.

The stitched 1-piece leather instrument panel is particularly handsome, as are door panels made up of flowing arcs, also punctuated with authentic stitching.

The Graystone and Ebony interior shades are appealing, but the boldest combination is Seacoast white with black trim.

The RLX interior gets a demerit for the high-gloss faux wood center console that would be much more convincing with a matte finish, and actual wood.

Honda builds the RLX in Sayama, Japan, on the same R-Large sedan platform that supports other FWD sedans, namely the Honda Accord and Acura TL and TSX. Pricing starts at $48,450 and caps out at $60,450.

Forgive the RLX for its pedestrian sheet metal, because the car is truly remarkable. Besides, things are looking up for Acura, which handily outsold Cadillac, Infiniti and Volvo cars in 2012.

The RLX could push the brand to new heights.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com

'14 Acura RLX
Vehicle type Front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger sedan
Engine 3.5L SOHC DI V-6; aluminum block/heads
Power (SAE net) 310 hp @ 6,500 rpm
Torque 272 lb.-ft. (369 Nm) @ 4,500 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 89 x 93
Compression ratio 11.5:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 112.2 ins. (285 cm)
Overall length 196.1 ins. (498 cm)
Overall width 74.4 ins. (189 cm)
Overall height 57.7 ins. (147 cm)
Curb weight 3,933 lbs. (1,784 kg)
Base price $48,450 (plus $895 destination charges)
Fuel economy 20/31 mpg (11.7-7.5 L/100 km) city/hwy
Competition Audi A6, BMW 5-Series, Infiniti M37, Lexus GS350, Mercedes-Benz E-Class
Pros Cons
Jewel-Eye LED headlamps very cool Sheet metal unremarkable
P-AWS with a mighty cause Some buyers might want real AWD
Outstanding, luxury-sport interior Faux-wood trim needs to go