The compact luxury SUV segment wasn't even worth calling a segment a few years ago; it was more of a niche. Now, with the Acura RDX joining the BMW X3 and the upcoming Land Rover LR2, there's healthy competition to win over upwardly mobile folks in need of utility in a small, nicely appointed package.
That's exactly what Acura delivers in the RDX. It has utility and the near-luxury appointments you'd expect in an Acura, but it has two additional plusses: a reasonable price and the fact that it's the most enjoyable Acura to drive.
Super Handling All-Wheel Drive, Super Turbo
Two important components make the RDX so much fun to drive. First is its all-wheel-drive system, which Acura calls Super Handling All-Wheel Drive. I'm guessing that whatever translates as "super" has a slightly less ostentatious meaning in Japanese, but in reality the system is pretty darn excellent.
My week in the RDX included driving in light snow and subfreezing temperatures in Chicago, but in covering more than 100 miles, I never felt a flaw in the SH-AWD. When folks write "confidence-inspiring" in car reviews they mean you'll never worry about taking a turn faster than you planned, because the car can handle it, even if it wasn't meant to. That happened a few times with the RDX, and I grew very attached to the system. It was unobtrusive, yet it worked every time. There's even a diagram that shows which wheels are getting what proportion of power at a given time, although this was a tad distracting to look at.
The other pleasing driving experience comes from the turbocharged four-cylinder engine. It produces 240 horsepower, which is slightly weaker than the less-expensive Mazda CX-7 and its turbocharged 244-hp engine, but there are still plenty of thrills under the RDX's rippling hood.
Power doesn't come immediately when you're driving with the automatic transmission in standard drive. There's a sport shift setting, however, that allows the driver to control shifting via paddles on the back of the steering wheel. Starting off in the manual 1st gear gives added off-the-line excitement that's missing from the standard operation. Shifts through the gears are above-average, but not quite as good as some I've driven in Volkswagen and BMW cars.
Non-sporting enthusiasts most likely won't care about the paddle shifters, and the automatic works fine for the everyday driver, with the turbo kicking in when you need it in passing situations. At the end of the day, the RDX gives a sporting feel when you want it, but doesn't give up anything for an everyday commuter or errand-runner.
Steering is a breeze, and the wheel isn't heavy, like the BMW X3's. Navigating crowded parking lots is almost a joy, and the little RDX is nimble and easy to parallel park as well, especially with the optional rear-mounted camera and parking sensors. The ride is definitely carlike, with its low ride height, but the seating position offers terrific front visibility and there are no blind spots over either shoulder. Bumps intrude a bit more than I'd like, but if you want this kind of handling and performance, ride comfort always suffers a bit. The tradeoff is very minimal.
I read the term "near-luxury" a lot in regard to Japanese luxury brands. I'm not sure if it's some kind of bias by German-car enthusiasts, but it's accurate. The RDX's interior is a step up from a Honda and a few steps up from American competition, but it doesn't compete with BMW, Audi or Mercedes-Benz in terms of high-end look and feel.
That said, the RDX costs almost $5,000 less than the BMW X3 for the base model, and it comes pretty much loaded: It's got a moonroof, which I think could be larger; heated, leather power seats; and lots of safety features. The look of the interior in all black is a bit overwhelming, but I preferred it to the light taupe the company also offers.
My test vehicle also came with an optional technology package that adds a center LCD screen for navigation operation, but it can also serve as a readout for audio controls. I found the screen, while big, hard to read in bright morning light. The controls were awkward, as well.
Steering-wheel buttons that controlled the stereo turned out to be all I needed, and a smaller display screen resting at the top of the dashboard showed me the time, climate controls and radio settings, clearly and legibly. That screen in the middle was simply overkill. If you want a navigation system, though, you'll be stuck with this setup.
The front seats weren't oversized in the least. They still fit my 5-foot 10-inch, healthy-eating frame just fine, with no crampiness in the hip area, where I sometimes notice slender seats. The gauges are well-lit in a calming blue and white, and are easy to read. A center information display tracks mileage.
Putting the Utility in SUV
The RDX is such a fun vehicle to drive I almost forgot it was an SUV. I've tested every Acura in the current lineup, with the exception of the new TL Type S, and can say that the RDX is the most like a sports car — even more so than the TSX and RSX. The added value and convenience of the cargo area could easily sway sedan shoppers.
Compared to other SUVs — and I've tested a lot — the RDX's cargo area is right up there with the best I've seen. To fold the rear seats down, the seat bottoms need to tilt forward; they simply rotate out and swivel forward with just a lift from a free hand — no straps to pull or buttons to push. A button on top of both seats easily drops them into place, creating a nearly flat floor. Only the Toyota RAV4 has a better system going right now, creating a similarly flat floor without having to lift the seat bottoms. Others either give up the flat floor for the one-step seat drop, or are more cumbersome, requiring that the seats be moved forward, taking up more room compared to those that fold flat.
A removable solid cargo cover easily detaches and fits flatly on the floor, with either a carpeted or hard plastic surface facing up.
The RDX won the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's highest accolade, the title of Top Safety Pick, by earning the top rating of Good in both frontal and side-impact crash tests. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administrations also gave it perfect five-star front and side-impact ratings and a four-star rollover rating.
Standard safety equipment includes side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags, antilock brakes, an electronic stability system, traction control and active front head restraints.
RDX in the Market
The RDX competes with the BMW X3 and will soon take on the upcoming Land Rover LR2 in the expanding compact luxury SUV segment. It's a small group for now, but all promise a lot of utility with upscale surroundings. The Acura, though, also offers value with its well-equipped base model and single upgrade feature. Its exciting driving feel and Honda reliability add to an already practical and well-built machine.
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