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 MDX, 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.
The stereo was pretty easy to hear in the well-insulated cabin of the RDX. True to Acura's premium intentions, road and engine noise are kept largely at bay, even with the larger engine now sitting under the hood of the RDX. Acura made a big change with this new model year, ditching the previous turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder for the company's 3.5-liter V-6, also used in the MDX and ZDX.
The engine swap shows that Acura recognized the failed experiment of its turbocharged four-cylinder. With its lower displacement it should have achieved better fuel economy, but the RDX proved too big for that engine. In CNET reviews, previous generations of the RDX turned in terrible real-world fuel economy. The V-6, which uses variable valve timing but not direct injection, makes more power and better fuel economy than the previous power plant.
By the numbers, the V-6 produces 273 horsepower and 251 pound-feet of torque, enough to easily propel the 3,300-pound RDX. EPA fuel economy comes in at 19 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. In CNET's testing, the car delivered 21.5 mpg, close to its combined economy number of 22 mpg, and not bad for a five-passenger SUV.
Acura gives the cabin a few touches to emphasize the "sport" in SUV, such as the red engine-start button and the paddle shifters on the steering wheel. These paddles are really unnecessary, as the six-speed automatic transmission that comes with the car doesn't have any sporting chops. There is a Sport mode, which keeps the revs just a little higher than normal, but each shift, whether manually selected or automatic, comes about with the usual lag of a torque converter-based transmission.
Besides stepping back to its tried-and-true V-6, Acura also took its Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH-AWD) system away from the RDX. That means the RDX's optional all-wheel-drive system is very basic, acting as a front-biased system and shunting power to the rear wheels when needed. SH-AWD does neat things like torque vectoring across the rear wheels, making big vehicles such as the MDX corner like sport cars.
Taking away SH-AWD did not ruin the handling of the RDX, though. The suspension is rigid enough that the car can be put through high-speed antics in corners. Taking turns at speed, the car's tires made tortured sounds indicating the loss of a tread layer, but the body remained flat, with no wallow and not much lean.
That sport suspension tuning does have its drawbacks, however, with the RDX being jostled a little too strongly by rough patches in the road. The ride feels fine over smooth pavement, but potholes and cracks get communicated right through the seats.
Although a perfectly comfortable small SUV, the 2013 Acura RDX suffers from some tech flaws that will ultimately prove frustrating. Its engine and transmission work well enough, but do not use some of the latest efficiency technologies. The rigidly tuned suspension could do with some softening, given the likely buyers of the RDX. But overall it is an easy, no-hassle car to drive.
The cabin tech offers some nice features, but the lack of dynamic routing to avoid traffic in the navigation system is bizarre, considering how that feature has become standard in just about every other car with integrated traffic data. Likewise, it is very cool that Acura implemented voice command over iPods and music from the internal hard drive, but strange that it does not extend to letting drivers dial contacts from a paired phone by name. The speed-dial voice dialing is a poor substitute. The only real high point of the cabin tech is the stereo, with its many audio sources and excellent-sounding ELS system.
|Model||2013 Acura RDX|
|Trim||All-wheel drive, Tech package|
|Power train||3.5-liter V-6, 6-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||19 mpg city/27 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||21.5 mpg|
|Navigation||Standard hard-drive-based with traffic data|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard with contact list integration|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-DVD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Onboard hard drive, Pandora, Bluetooth streaming, USB drive, satellite radio|
|Audio system||ELS 410-watt 10-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$40,315|