First Drive: 2013 Acura RDX [Review]

Acura shoots for the mainstream with its redesigned RDX crossover.

Disposing of its quirky, unconventional turbocharged roots, Acura's all-new 2013 RDX compact crossover aims right at the mainstream heart of one of the fastest-growing segments.

And, as we discovered during an initial preview drive through the mountains west of Phoenix, the new RDX largely succeeds.

On paper, its move from a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder to a 3.5-liter naturally aspirated V6 and its transition from Acura's advanced Super Handling all-wheel-drive system to a simpler unit seem like steps backward, but we quickly learned that a hefty dose of refinement and careful repackaging has made the RDX much more appealing.

Out with the old, in with the... old?
From Munich to Dearborn, automakers are slapping turbochargers on smaller-displacement engines in an effort to boost economy while preserving power outputs. So what's with Acura's decision to drop its turbo four in favor of a V6? It's all about smoothness.

The old four was a gruff, peaky performer with limited potential for improved fuel economy. In its place, the 3.5-liter V6 Acura cribbed from Honda's Odyssey minivan addresses every complaint. It cranks out a satisfying 273 horsepower and 251 lb-ft. of torque, and while the latter figure is a little lower than before, this engine operates with the kind of refinement expected in this segment. On our mixed condition preview drives, we found smooth power made all the more accessible by a quick-shifting six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters.

Despite the increased cylinder count, fuel economy is way up - to 20/28 mpg (FWD) or 19/27 mpg (AWD), both of which are among the best in class. Helping save fuel is a cylinder displacement system that seemlessly puts either two or three cylinders to sleep during gentle driving or light cruising.

The more robust powertrain doesn't bring with it sportier tuning, however. RDX's unibody makes use of MacPherson struts up front and a a multi-link unit out back, while special amplitude reactive dampers quell unwanted spring motions. The result is a comfortable, coddling ride that errs on the side of plush without feeling floaty. Electronic power steering saves a bit of fuel but doesn't exactly deliver the corner-carving feel of the outgoing RDX. Pushed into a winding canyon road's curves, the new RDX feels planted, confident and tossable, thanks in part to a dainty 3,800 lbs. curb weight, but it isn't exactly fun. But as we've seen from similarly uninspiring offerings from BMW (X3) and Cadillac (SRX), that's just what this segment is about.

Continuing the mainstreamification path Acura has taken with the RDX, the outgoing model's all-wheel-drive system with its unique torque vectoring is gone in favor of an inclement weather-friendly setup. Relying on a multi-plate clutch to send power to the rear wheels, the system is decidedly front-axle biased. We pushed our RDX on a dirt road and noticed little slip, even with the standard low rolling resistance Michelin tires. A front-wheel-drive RDX is expected to make up the bulk of sales in the sun belt, however.

In addition, the RDX is as serene a vehicle as we can recall on the highway, where it tracked smoothly and nearly silently. Hard acceleration revealed a muffled growl from the engine bay, but little in the way of road rumble.

Mass-market looks
RDX wears Acura's toned-down trademark beak with the kind of elegance and poise its predecessor could only dream about. While that nose-heavy design was worthy of a Razzie for its ugliness, the new model is crisp inside and out.

Up front, a bold front fascia with the aforementioned pointed grille is flanked by squinting headlamps and a pair of gigantic openings filled, on Technology Package-equipped models like our photo vehicle, with round fog lamps. From the side, big wheel openings hold 18-inch alloy wheels and a heavily-sloped D-pillar impedes rear visibility but draws in some familial links to the automaker's larger MDX. At the rear, the MDX is once again channeled with elongated tail lamps and a high-mounted spoiler. A faux rear diffuser at the bottom of the bumper could be improved with a pair of exposed tail pipes.

Inside, the outgoing RDX's challenging ergonomics are shelved in favor of an intuitive if button-heavy center stack and a high-mounted hood that covers either an audio and climate display or a high-resolution navigation system. Generally, the control layout and especially the operation of the navigation system will be immediately familiar to those with experience in Honda and Acura's more recent products. Despite the daunting array of buttons, the system's menus and especially its ugly wart of a control knob are particularly easy to use. The Germans could learn a thing or two (or ten).

Heated leather seats with more bolstering than average are standard, although the passenger's seat is mounted a bit low and oddly lacks height adjustment. The driver gets a small-diameter three-spoke steering wheel that wouldn't be out of place in a sports car. Back seat passengers are treated to good leg room but no air vents. A rear-seat video system isn't available from the factory, which might be a downside to some buyers. For those who value cargo space, the second row folds at the pull of a handle, but even raising the seatbacks leaves a roomy 26 cubic feet of space.

Interior materials are vastly upgraded from the old RDX, although a couple of touches like hard plastic-covered A-pillars (instead of cloth-wrapped units) and chintzy silver-painted plastic design inserts reveal some cost-cutting. Speaking of costs, RDXs significantly undercut their competition at $34,320 for the base front-drive trim and $39,420 for all-wheel-drive with the Technology Package, which adds navigation, a high-zoot ELS audio system and a few minor goodies. A front-drive Tech package ($38,020) and a base all-wheel-drive model ($35,720) are also available.

Leftlane's bottom line
Acura estimates that around 30,000 buyers will opt for the repositioned RDX annually, a figure we think will prove to be conservative.

Carefully redesigned inside and out for a wider spectrum of buyers, the Ohio-built 2013 RDX isn't quite as spunky as its predecessor, but it would be vastly more agreeable to live with on a day-to-day basis.

2013 Acura RDX base price range, $34,320 to $39,420.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.