First drive: 2019 Acura RDX [Review]

Acura reinvents one of its best sellers.

We're back this week with another crossover.

The outgoing RDX was already sneaky-good. While pundits spend plenty of time talking about the relative success (or lack thereof) of Acura's sedans, Honda's premium subsidiary has become quietly dominant in the crossover space. The only two luxury CUVs to outsell RDX last year were Audi Q5 and Lexus NX. Even if you apply the "Sierra rule" to BMW and lump the X3 and X4 volumes together, it's still way behind.

This is a car that probably isn't really on your radar, but it's clearly on many others'. Like its larger sibling, the MDX, the RDX hits the entry-level-luxury sweet spot buyers are looking for in terms of value and premium content. So, the next time you rhetorically question Acura's existence, remember this: The company's crossovers print a startling amount of money for Honda.

ReDuXSo, what's new? Well, everything. Not only is RDX new from the ground up, it's also riding on what for the moment is an exclusive platform. In fact, Acura's spokespeople went out of the way to point out that the RDX's lack of parts commonality. That's likely to change down the road, as features such as its re-tuned, fourth-generation Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH-AWD) system trickle out to the rest of the portfolio.

Under the hood, Acura has replaced the 3.5L V6 with a new, turbocharged four-cylinder pushing 272 horsepower and 280lb-ft of torque. For those with longer memories, you may recall that the RDX debuted with a turbo-four way back in 2006 (as a 2007 model). Back then, direct-injected and turbocharged four-cylinders were novel things viewed with distrust by those who weren't quite sold on what was perceived to be new tech with questionable maintenance needs. My, how far we've come in just a decade.

There were many (your author included) who felt that the second-generation RDX's V6-based powertrain was a bit of a regression in that sense. Whether that factored into Acura's decision to go back to forced induction is anybody's guess. Either way, we're glad it did.

The RDX can be had with either classic front-wheel-drive or SH-AWD and no matter how many wheels you choose to power, you get a ten-speed automatic transmission with wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The base suspension is a McPherson strut setup in the front and a multi-link in the rear with amplitude reactive dampers; a true active damper suspension is available with either powertrain if you're looking for more ride and handling options and willing to shell out for higher trims (Acura refers to them as "packages;" but we think that's taking liberties with the vernacular.).

If you were expecting the four-cylinder to provide a significant weight advantage, know that's only the case if you look at it in the context of Acura's engineers having more flexibility to work in things like NVH improvements. The new RDX is not what we'd call a lightweight, but it's on-par for the segment with a base curb weight of 3,783 pounds and running up to 4,068 if you opt for everything.

A more youthful appearance. Acura says the RDX (like others in its segment) is positioned to capture both ends of what we're going to call the "adulthood" market: young professionals starting families and empty-nesters downsizing from larger family cars. Acura's more value-oriented price point has the added bonus of making the RDX more popular with younger people than most of its competitors.

With this youthful consumer base in mind, Acura was mindful to keep the new RDX's design sporty and athletic, and frankly they've succeeded. The outgoing RDX looks a bit dowdy when compared to the new car with its front-bumper air curtains and crisp, sculpted lines. The A-Spec package ratchets this up a few notches with bigger wheels, a blacked-out grille and darkened accents (which also serve to give the A-Spec a floating d-pillar effect).

Yes, A-Spec is an appearance package, and Acura makes no effort to hide that, calling it such even in its own product literature. Fear not, though. Acura has shown little reluctance of late to offer chassis and powertrain upgrades when it deems them appropriate. If Acura thinks there's room for a sportier RDX, we suspect it will appear soon enough.

A more mature experience.With new looks outside, Acura was compelled to address the interior too. While the outgoing RDX's cabin wasn't dismal, it didn't really feel special either. With that in mind, Acura's bean-counters gave its engineers permission to swing away. We're pleased to say that they connected.

Our drive opportunities were limited to the Advance (top trim) and A-Spec models, so we had our choice of loaded or almost-loaded-and-sporty. Both are winners. The Advance's ash wood trim is done with exposed grain à la Infiniti and Volvo (no coincidence there) and looks and feels gorgeous. If you're going to do wood in this segment, you'd better do it right. Acura has.

In the A-Spec, it's all reds, blacks and grays. We actually prefer the Advance trim, but if you like a sporty, more youthful take on entry-premium, this may be your bag. Either way, you get excellent, 16-way adjustable seats that were delightfully set-and-forget.

On the road, the interior is also sufficiently quiet to back up Acura's more premium mission. This has never been the brand's strong point, and we're pleased to note that they seem to be coming around with both the MDX and RDX. Opting for the A-Spec will cost you in this department, as its wheel/tire combo is a bit more intrusive (and you'll also lose a mile per gallon here and there) but it's nothing even remotely intolerable. This is not some clapped-out Integra on stilts; it's genuinely up-market.


Acura's taking another stab at the whole alternative-input-interface thing that the luxury manufacturers love so much. Touchscreens are just not cool in this segment, apparently. Instead, Acura went for a touchpad located in the center console. This seems odd on spec, but it's actually not all that tricky to use. It's designed to be as intuitive as possible (which it should, of course) and delivers pretty well. Essentially, you treat the touchpad like it's an overlay on the screen located at the top of the stack.

Think of it less like an input device and more like a remotely located overlay for a touchscreen and you're in the ballpark, functionality-wise. Press on the pad in an area corresponding to the location of items on the screen and it will activate them. Sounds simple, right? It is. If you're unsure as to the correct place to press, you can also drag your finger around to highlight items on the screen until the one you want is selected, then push (the pad depresses for selections, like clicking a mouse button). We hated it much less than we expected to.

Any time something like this is proposed, we always question why it was necessary to forego the touchscreen experience that has been made so ubiquitous by smartphones, especially if the smartphone generation is a significant chunk of the buyer demo. Still, it's light-years better than the Lexus not-mouse, so we're hesitant to criticize it too vocally.

Moving freelyEnough about that stuff; you want to know how it drives. Fortunately, Acura saw fit to give us the playground that is the roads around Whistler, British Columbia, to evaluate the Acura both in a vacuum and against some of its European competition. Yes, in keeping with its parent company's traditions, Acura brought along an Audi Q5 S-Line, a BMW X3 and a Volvo XC60 for back-to-back comparisons. They were, to put it mildly, enlightening.

When we first set off in the RDX, we were immediately impressed by the seating. After some typical adjustment, it simply disappeared from our conscious attention. This is high praise, especially for anything under the Honda umbrella. A seat you don't think about is a seat that isn't giving you back, neck or leg pain.

Every time we stopped, we found ourselves admiring the interior materials yet again. They're especially nice in the Advance, and easily a cut above anything else you can get for the price. This is where it's important to note that the new RDX with the content you'd probably want (whether that's A-Spec for the sportier looks for Advance for the premium features) is going to be somewhere between $7,000 and $12,000 cheaper than the competition's comparable offerings.

Fight!Ah, yes. The competition. We didn't get a chance to drive the XC60 back-to-back with the RDX due to its demand, but interior-wise, we can tell you it's the closest match. We'll allow you to digest that for a moment before we move on.

In terms of dynamics, the GLC is probably the RDX's closest equal. Even with the RDX in Sport+, the chassis is more oriented toward the ride end of the spectrum than handling, which we'd be inclined to concede is a shortcoming compared to the most aggressive settings for the GLC's Air Body Control. That said, the price gap comes into play here. Loaded-to-loaded, we're talking about a significant price gap, and one that we'd be hesitant to say is worth it.

Interior-wise, the RDX and XC60 are fairly closely matched. There's something else you should probably take some time with. Acura's product developers were not screwing around with this car. It really is that nice. Sitting in even an A-Spec after driving the Audi Q5 made us wonder why everybody would want a German car that comes off so boring. Yes, Audi--long the standard-bearer for interior appointments in this segment--is just a sea of square, gray plastic compared to the Acura. If you just want to go in straight lines for hours on end in quiet comfort, by all means, buy the Q5. Or, you know, a base RAV4.

Don't worry; we didn't forget the X3. Ah, poor BMW. Honestly, what the X3 is best at is being a car from a well-established German luxury automaker. Its squared-off interior (like the Q5's) gives the impression of a larger, less-competent car. We were even startled by its exterior dimensions. When it was presented to us, we were taken aback. "That's an X3? Wow." Making room for the X1 has clearly pushed the X3 into new, ungainly territory.

The Q5 and X3 may not actually perform any worse than the RDX, but they give an impression of size that detracts from their experience. Neither shrinks around the driver; they're simply large, quiet, sterile environments compared to the RDX.

Leftlane's bottom lineWe were surprised by how much we liked the 2019 Acura RDX, quite frankly. It's nice to look at outside, great to live with inside, and thoroughly competent everywhere in between. It's a redesign that actually strikes us as an honest, earnest attempt to further the brand in a meaningful, interesting, and even exciting way. The TLX and RLX may be over-sized paperweights, but these new Acura CUVs are the real deal. Take them seriously if you're shopping in this segment.

2019 Acura RDX A-Spec SH-AWD base price, $45,500; as tested, $46,4952019 Acura RDX Advance SH-AWD base price, $47,400; as-tested, $48,395Destination, $995

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd; interior photos courtesy of Acura.

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