Cars.comparison: Luxury Crossovers

Luxury crossover shoppers have plenty of choices, and the number of available models keeps growing. New for 2010 is the Acura ZDX, a low-slung, sporty crossover that's more about style than utility. We've matched it against two more conventional competitors in this faceoff — the Audi Q5 and Lexus RX 350 — to see whether the ZDX philosophy has legs. All three models can seat five.

 = Category winner
The Contenders
2010 Acura ZDX AWD2010 Audi Q5 3.2 Premium AWD2010 Lexus RX 350 AWD
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Price as tested
Curb appeal
With its sloping roofline, big haunches and sharp creases, the ZDX is a head-turner — in a good way. Even detractors of Acura's recent styling direction warmed to this design.Despite the Q5's large trapezoidal grille, there's an understated luxury to the Audi's design that avoids the ZDX's aggressiveness. A recent redesign smoothes the RX 350's sheet metal and freshens the look, but the chrome taillight clusters are so 2004. It's pleasant, if a little plump in some spots.
The ZDX's torque-rich V-6 engine pays dividends when starting out from a stop, where it feels the strongest, but its automatic transmission isn't quite as quick on the downshift as the RX's. The Q5's V-6 is the smallest engine here, but it still feels gutsy and moves the crossover easily. The automatic transmission hesitates on its way to a passing gear, which is annoying. All three of these crossovers have strong engines, but what elevated the RX 350 to the top is its responsive automatic transmission.
Gas mileage (city/highway, mpg)
16/2318/23 18/24
The ZDX doesn't feel quite as planted as the smaller Q5, and its nose pushes wide unless you nail the gas, sending more power to the outside rear wheel. The composed Q5 hunkers down in corners and encourages you to push it, with the all-wheel-drive system providing smooth transitions through curves. The RX's front-rear balance was better than expected but not up to the others. Body roll was also an issue.
The Acura's steering is a bit too heavy, especially at low speeds, but it's more consistent than the Q5's.Despite providing good turn-in, the Q5's steering is numb, and its power-assist level varies widely and inappropriately with speed. Known more for comfort than sport, Lexus surprised us with the best steering of the three: predictable and nicely weighted at all speeds.
Cabin style
The ZDX cockpit emphasizes design, and it's nice to see the cabin materials aren't similar to parent company Honda's, which has been a concern in past Acuras. With options, our well-equipped test model came with leather dash inserts, a cloth ceiling liner and interesting textured trim.
Conservatively styled compared with the ZDX, the Q5 highlights Audi's exceptional attention to detail and consistent use of high-grade materials. The one major styling shortfall is the unattractive plastic panel below the center dash vents.
Swoopy dashboard lines give the RX's cabin a daring look, but we noted that some areas of the interior — like the space reserved for the audio buttons — don't look like they got as much attention from the designers.
Seat comfort
Larger occupants might find the more aggressive side bolsters of the ZDX's front seats restrictive. The cushioning is a little firmer than the Lexus', but one editor noted that you appreciate it on long drives. Compared with the ZDX and RX, the Q5's front seats felt a little small, though they were still comfortable for taller occupants. As in the Lexus, there isn't a lot of side bolstering to hold you in corners. Relatively wide and cushy front seats seemed to fit us just right. They're not as restrictive as the ZDX's bolstered buckets, and they offer good thigh support, aided by our test car's optional front-seat cushion extender.
This is one area where you pay a price for the ZDX's swoopy styling. The cabin feels snug — in front and back — with the cabin design crowding passenger space. The crossover's styling causes rear-visibility problems, too. This is really a two-person vehicle disguised as a five-seater. You're not crowded by the dashboard or center console in the Q5, but it still feels smaller overall than the RX. Rear visibility is quite good, and the rear seats slide and recline, though not as much as the RX's. The spaciousness in the front carries over to the RX's rear seats, which are generously sized and both slide and recline over wide ranges.
Navigation interface
Acura's knob-based navigation system isn't hard to learn, but it's not the ideal way to enter an address. Having the control knob in the middle of the dash — rather than where the driver's hand rests on the center console — makes it a stretch to reach. Audi's MMI system has sharp graphics and decent usability, but we're not wild about the mistake-inducing knob-joystick combination, no matter how conveniently positioned it is. A few common actions also require too many steps to accomplish. Lexus' Remote Touch controller — sort of a combination of trackball and joystick — grew on us. The interface is simple, but it still requires more attention to use than a touch-screen, which Lexus used to offer on the RX.
Cargo room and utility
Minuscule. The ZDX's shape shaves a lot of height off the cargo area, and the remaining 26.3 cubic feet of cargo volume is less than that of an RDX, Acura's small crossover. Fold the rear seats down, and there's 55.8 cubic feet of maximum space — equally unimpressive. There is a sizable storage area below the cargo floor, however. Middling. The Q5's cargo area isn't that deep, but it's taller than the ZDX's. Cargo volume behind the rear seats is 29.1 cubic feet; with the seats down, it's 57.3. Both figures nominally beat Acura's but fall well short of the RX's. Mammoth. The RX's cargo area is large and deep, and our test car was the only one to have a scuff plate protecting the rear bumper. There's 40 cubic feet behind the rear seats and 80.3 cubic feet with the seats down. The optional powered liftgate exerted quite a bit of force on objects in its path before retracting.
Overall value
The ZDX is something of an outlier in this comparison, and its pricing reflects that, with an as-tested price that was pushed significantly higher with the optional Advance Package, which runs about $10,000. This results in a well-equipped car, but we'd like greater flexibility with Acura's options. The ZDX's projected five-year ownership costs are notably higher than the others'. Like the ZDX and RX, the Q5's price quickly climbs when you select option packages. With base pricing similar to the RX, many people might opt for the larger Lexus. Five-year ownership costs fall between the others. It's peculiar that the RX comes standard with fabric seating surfaces, but most models on dealer lots should have optional leather. If you're easy on the options, the Lexus seems to offer the most for your money, and its projected five-year ownership costs are the lowest of these three.
Editors' choice
The ZDX asks you to sacrifice a lot of utility and space for sporty looks. There's no question some people will be OK with this, but buyers of this mind might be inclined to go all the way and get a sports car instead.The Q5's sporty handling, premium interior and stylish looks position it well in the luxury crossover segment, but the wonky steering prevents us from fully embracing this Audi. With its spacious cabin, effortless driving experience and luxury trappings, the RX 350 is designed to have broad appeal among luxury shoppers. It doesn't have many negatives, either, which makes it even better.
© 4/1/10
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