SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - With sandwiches in the cooler and water bottles in the cup holders, we departed for a road trip in a 2005 Acura RL sedan, equipped with more gadgetry than almost any other car available in North America.

The plan was to drive south from San Francisco to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, testing out the $49,100 car's industry-leading navigation system. We carried no maps or directions, relying exclusively on the car's brain - a sophisticated system called AcuraLink.

But only a few blocks from home, a danger sign flashed on the 8-inch monitor that usually displays the road map: Something was wrong with the headlights. (These low-beam lamps pivot as much as 20 degrees depending on how sharp of a curve you're taking, a fabulous feature that makes nighttime driving far less taxing on the eyeballs.)

A man's soothing electronic voice then piped up, overriding the XM satellite radio's classical station: Turn the engine off and start the car again. If that doesn't work, go directly to the nearest Acura dealership.

The reboot worked, and we never again had a problem with the headlights. But the incident raised a concern that remained throughout my six-day test drive: Has Acura injected too much complexity into a machine that most people will use on the same commute each day? Would I be better off with my 10-year-old Civic, a beater that never needs rebooting?

Make no mistake: I loved driving the RL.

When the car debuted in October, it was the first to deliver optimal torque split, making it supremely stable, even on Highway One hairpins.


Thanks to what Acura calls the "Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive" system, going 50 mph next to a jagged cliff overlooking the Pacific isn't a white-knuckle ride. We caught ourselves taking tight turns at shocking speeds. (Honest, officer - it's the car's fault!)

The 3.5-liter VTEC V-6 engine can produce 300 horsepower but logs slightly better mileage than the previous RL. The Acura/Bose audio system - with 10 speakers, 360-degree surround-sound in every seat and active noise cancellation - blasts tunes beautifully in both DVD-A and CD formats.

Among standard features in this fully loaded sedan is the Onstar telematics system.

But the epicenter of the RL's intelligence is an aluminum knob in the middle of the dashboard that governs satellite navigation, synchs up with Bluetooth-enabled cell phones, adjusts the XM radio and six-disk changer and even offers the most updated Zagat guide to local restaurants.

This car is so smart, it doesn't merely adjust the heat or air conditioning based on the temperature you select. It gets satellite data and turns up or down the fans based on factors such as the time of day and the angle of the sun against the windshield or roof.

The navigation system, the first of its kind in North America, is intuitive. After about one day playing with the knob, similar to BMW's I Drive system, I could easily scroll back to the previous screen, enter names and addresses, toggle between the audio and climate, and otherwise operate the system without swerving or crashing.

The system, developed by Acura and XM Satellite Radio engineers, gives diagnostic advice (including the false alarm about the headlights, which would have been useful if a light had been actually burned out) and real-time traffic information in large U.S. cities. Based on prompts from the California Highway Patrol and other agencies, hazard symbols appeared on the RL's navigation screen if I was nearing a wreck, and yellow warning lines indicated heavy congestion.

One quibble: The voice commands were inconsistent. Sometimes the man's voice would tell us to turn, other times he'd be suspiciously silent even though we had to change lanes or exit the highway.

But the text directions were easy to decipher and usually accurate. When we arrived at the aquarium, the voice - which can be set to male or female - confirmed that we had reached our destination. And once we retrieved the car in a parking lot a few blocks away, the system provided updated directions back to the highway from our new location.

As much as I enjoyed the RL, now that I'm back driving my 10-year-old Honda Civic - whose intellectual zenith is its one-touch automatic window roll-down feature - I wonder if I truly need a car that tries to be so clever.

AcuraLink proved prescient when I made a rush-hour, weekday trip across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, warning that I would soon enter heavy traffic and suggesting an alternative route on another bridge. But that route would have tacked on dozens of extra miles, possibly without saving time, leaving me no choice but the clogged span.

Maybe the next generation Acura will recommend public transportation?