Editor's note: This review has been edited to correct a mistake concerning automatic navigation system re-routing based on traffic.
The new generation of Acura's smallest SUV, the RDX, represents both a step forward and a step back. For 2013, Acura updated the exterior styling, and increased the size just a little, but dumbed down the underlying performance technology.
The 2013 Acura RDX looks dramatically different from the previous generation, with nicely smoothed-over styling making for a refined, premium SUV. The grille is more subtly inset at the front of the car, above an invisible bumper, the hard parts hidden by a bit of seamless molding. At the rear, the exhaust pipes are completely invisible unless you crawl underneath.
The RDX also gains an inch in length and height, and sheds about 200 pounds. Its roomy cabin has leather seats and soft plastics over the dashboard. The rear seats fold down easily to maximize the cargo space. Rear-seat passengers will find more than ample legroom.
However, the dashboard looks largely unchanged. In historic Acura fashion, buttons litter the center stack and steering wheel. There are both a monochrome radio display and a color LCD in the dashboard. This latter mess comes from the fact that, rather than replace the dashboard's tech interface elements, Acura adds to it when it equips cars with its infotainment system. There is little excuse for this approach, as the LCD shows navigation, phone, and audio information, making the monochrome radio display redundant.
That said, the car's main interface controller, a large joystick/dial/button hybrid surrounded by buttons for direct access to specific infotainment functions, works very well. The interface is very usable, with attractive screens that are easy to navigate. On the destination entry screens, for example, Acura puts only six menu items on each, so the driver isn't flooded with a lot of distracting choices.
Voice command works well as an alternative way to use the car's infotainment features. It is pretty chatty, but the helpful voice prompts at each command can be cut short just by pressing the voice command button again. Along with entering destinations, the system allows voice selection of music from a connected iPod or the onboard hard drive. It would be nice if Acura extended the voice command to USB drives, which are the easiest way to keep a big music library stored in the car.
But in one way voice command in the RDX comes up surprisingly short. Most cars these days let drivers use voice command to access the contact list of a Bluetooth-paired phone, but the RDX does not, at least not directly. To dial by name, it requires the driver to first save a contact to the speed dial list, then record a voice tag for that entry. And there are only 20 speed dial slots. That lack of voice command for the phone system is a surprising gap in the RDX's technology.
The maps shown on the LCD look nice and clear. Acura includes only top-down-view maps, not perspective views, but zooming all the way in reveals building outlines, which can be useful when navigating through urban canyons. Along with the usual manual address entry and points-of-interest database, Acura includes Zagat listings for restaurants, complete with scores and comments. Another nice feature is a database of scenic drives, at least one for every state. The route guidance uses big graphics to show upcoming turn maneuvers, and the system includes traffic data to help avoid bad traffic jams.
Unlike its big brother, the, the RDX has few driver assistance features available. It has a rearview camera that does show three different views behind the car, making parking easier. However, it doesn't have adaptive cruise control, blind-spot detection, or anything else of that sort.
The award for best tech in the RDX's cabin has to go to the stereo system. It draws on a robust set of sources, such as the aforementioned hard drive and iPod, along with Bluetooth streaming and Pandora integration. And the audio from these sources comes out over an excellent system, Acura's ELS surround stereo. This 10-speaker system created very crisp, detailed sound. With multilayered recordings such as "The K&D Sessions," it not only made quieter layers audible, it produced striking bass. Its only flaw was letting higher notes get a little too shrill.