When Acura's US designers and engineers were tasked with bringing the all-new 2019 Acura RDX to market, they studied the competition, strived to beat their segment opponents via every metric they could, and then decided to sell their finished product for thousands less.
That's an ambitious business plan, but on paper with this nearly loaded $45,500 RDX A-Spec, the new Acura delivers by offering more luxury, power, tech and space than the vaunted Europeans, which hover closer to the $50,000 mark, or substantially beyond, when comparably equipped.
As a result of the Acura RDX's mission to offer more SUV for less cash, my expectations were raised. Does the behind-the-wheel experience meet these goals?
Mixed first impressions
My week with the 2019 Acura RDX A-Spec begins with a quick jaunt around the block. But after just a few miuntes of driving the new SUV, I'm giving it a dollop of side-eye. The crossover's 10-speed automatic transmission is great, but because it shifts to about sixth gear by 35 miles per hour, you hear the sound of the engine rise and fall way too often during city driving.
Fortunately, thanks to the smooth, well-timed programming of the transmission, you never feel any jerkiness through those myriad shifts. But because Acura pipes artificial engine noise through the cabin's speakers to add a dash of sport to the drive, you are forced to hear the engine fluttering through gears. It's not a becoming noise, and it doesn't make a good first impression.
Those fake sounds are really pronounced because the RDX offers one of the quieter cabins I've experienced recently. To quell this disconcerting artificiality, I twist the large, center-stack-mounted, NSX-inspired drive-mode control knob counterclockwise to bring the RDX into its Comfort setting. In Comfort mode, the electric power steering becomes lighter, the throttle-response profile and optional torque-vectoring Super Handling All-Wheel Drive are given a light sedative, but most importantly for my sanity, the Active Sound Control's artificial noise-making steps into its quietest setting. The irritating fake noise is still there, but it's nothing that rolling down the windows or some medium-volume music can't solve. Funnily enough, the 272-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine itself sounds refined. Therefore, the Active Sound Control's existence is superfluous for everyday driving.
For this new third-gen RDX, Acura was able to reduce the unibody's weight by 41 pounds, while increasing its rigidity by 38.3 percent. The structure's key dimensions are raised, too: length is up 2.4 inches, which goes mostly toward increasing max cargo volume, up this year by 2.9 cubic feet to 79.8. Width is also increased by 1.1 inches compared with last year's RDX, and with a 2.6-inch longer wheelbase, the front and rear overhangs are now shorter, but passenger volume is up half a cubic foot to 104.
As a result of all these dimensional shifts, the 2019 RDX's center of gravity has moved 3.1 inches aft, thus yielding a more athletic 57/43 front/rear weight distribution, compared with last year's 60/40. Despite these improvements, the BMW X3, which weighs 137 pounds (or an entire me) more, does a much better job of hiding its weight and elevated center of gravity. The RDX, in contrast, feels every bit of its high-riding 4,019 pounds.
The RDX dives under braking, exhibits noticeable body roll with sudden course corrections, and even though its suspension does a great job of soaking up choppiness, the bumps that do filter through lend to a subtle bucking feeling in the cabin.
Born to run
The RDX may not be ashamed to show its faults around town, but get it cruising on the highway, and it becomes an A student. This has to be one of the quieter vehicles on sale today, which makes long-distance trips much more enjoyable. That serenity pairs well with some of the most comfortable seats in the industry. My current benchmark for seat comfort can be found with Nissan and Infiniti's NASA-inspired "Zero Gravity" technology, but the seats in the Acura RDX come pretty darn close. In-cabin enjoyment only gets better as soon as you crank the RDX's available 710-watt, 16-speaker, 16-channel ELS Studio 3D sound system.
Whether listening to 320-Kbps Spotify files from my USB-connected iPhone or 2,113-Kbps, 5.1-channel audio files like the ones Acura provided me on a thumb drive, the ELS system gives me hours of listening enjoyment, although I wish the four headliner-mounted "Highline" speakers did a better job of lifting the sound stage. Still, it's a respectable premium audio system that does a great job of making the RDX's cabin feel even more upscale.
I love how the interior is built to wrap around you while still feeling airy. The center console sits high, which makes you feel like you're nestled inside the car as opposed to sitting on top of it. Acura then adds a generous amount of storage space underneath the console. By my estimate, you could fit an entire air conditioning compressor or an alternator and a small bag of Flamin' Hot Cheetos under there, although most people will likely just lay down a passenger's cell phone or tablet right in front of the adjacent charging port.
During my turnaround trip from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, most of my time behind the RDX's wheel is accompanied by a blissful smile. The quiet Milano leather-lined interior, supple highway ride and pleasing ELS audio combine to enrapture me into tranquility.
The RDX's impressive, class-leading suite of standard safety features also aids my peace of mind. The SUV is equipped with eight airbags, two of which protect the driver and front passenger's knees. Also standard on the RDX is forward collision warning and mitigation, lane-keep assist, multi-angle rearview camera and tire-pressure monitoring. This RDX A-Spec is also equipped with rear cross-traffic monitoring, parking sensors all around and blind-spot alert.
Commendable in corners
On the way back to Los Angeles, I interrupt my relaxed bliss with an exciting expedition into the San Gabriel Mountains for some canyon carving. I'm curious to see how the RDX's Super Handling All-Wheel Drive will react to being driven in anger.
On twisty canyon roads, the RDX still displays stilty heaviness, but I can feel the SH-AWD expertly managing the VTEC engine's 280 pound-feet of torque. I dive into a bend with just a little too much speed so I can hear the tires begin to mumble for mercy, and then I shut them up with a hint of throttle before the apex.
Once I pass the apex, I squeeze the accelerator for a full-blast exit, and a feeling of empowerment washes over me. "I just erased understeer," I giggle to myself. If the RDX were sentient, this is the moment I'd lock onto its bejewelled LED eyes, and with a seductive stare, utter, "Hey, girl. How you doin'?"
The RDX A-Spec is admirable for the sporty traits it exhibits on a back road, but it's no sports car, and neither is it supposed to be. However, my mind keeps going back to the BMW X3, and how that heavier SUV is able to trick me into thinking I'm driving a compact sports sedan. I never get that sense in the RDX, and that's a shame, because, at least in the dry, I prefer the fluidity of Acura's SH-AWD to BMW's xDrive.
But the Acura has some advantages over the BMW, namely in the powertrain department. The RDX's engine is 24 horsepower and 22 pound-feet of torque ahead of the BMW's turbocharged four-cylinder, and the Acura feels much more urgent to build speed, as a result. The 10-speed, paddle-shift automatic transmission certainly helps with the immediacy, but also with efficiency. In top gear at 70 mph, the RDX is only turning about 1,800 rpm.
Oddly, the RDX is only rated at 26 miles per gallon for highway fuel economy. Ratings of 21 in the city and 23 combined are just average, but after a week and 396 miles with the RDX, I only managed 18.4 mpg. Even accounting for my spirited run through the San Gabriels, I would've been happy to see a number matching the EPA's city figure.
Beauty and brains
It's the climax of golden hour in the heavens overlooking Los Angeles, and I'm armed with a long camera lens. As the sun takes its final bow for the day, I'm captivated not only by the silence and beauty of the wilderness, but also by the RDX's visual allure. In full preparation for the hate comments this statement will generate, I must declare that the RDX (to my eyes and by a narrow margin) is better-looking than the Alfa Romeo Stelvio, thus making it the best-looking compact SUV on sale today.
Gone from the RDX's nose is the hideous shield grille, and in its place is Acura's new diamond-pentagon maw nestled between attractive Jewel Eye LED headlights that are some of the most effective I've experienced on any vehicle. My favorite part of the RDX's face lies in the wing-shaped air curtain openings that help to reduce drag. Overall, the RDX, even with its 8.2 inches of ground clearance, appears to be hugging the road.
The good looks translate to the interior, too. Not only does it wrap around you, but it looks good doing it. It's a pretty functional place to be, as well. Acura's True Touchpad Interface is intuitive in that the touchpad on the center console acts like a touchscreen. In other words, if you need to click on something in the upper-right of the 10.2-inch HD display, simply place your finger on the upper-right corner of the touchpad, and you're there.
The RDX is the first new Acura to get the new True Touchpad Interface, which, according to Acura, went through tens of thousands of testing hours at Ohio State University's Driving Simulation Laboratory. Within minutes, I'm comfortable navigating Acura's Android-based operating system as well as the integrated Apple CarPlay. The speed of my acclimation jibes with Ohio State's and Acura's R&D findings, which show that users typically become comfortable with the interface within minutes.
After a week with the vehicle, touchpad commands are edging on second-nature for me, so I see promise in this new setup. It's easily better than Lexus' Remote Touch Interface, and if I spend more time with it, I think it's poised to beat industry leaders like Audi's MMI and BMW's iDrive.
Still missing the magic
Overall, the 2019 RDX is a good-looking, comfortable, sprightly and value-priced entry in the compact luxury SUV segment. If price is a primary consideration for you, then this is arguably the top pick in the class, but if you can afford to venture into the $50,000-plus range, I might choose something with a European badge instead.
If you're considering something with a Lexus or Infiniti badge, I'll save you time by saying that you can forget the Lexus NX 300. Its turbocharged four-cylinder doesn't offer near the refinement or power that the Acura can, and while almost $1,000 less when comparably equipped, its 71.6 and 17.7 cubic feet of passenger and behind-second-row cargo volume pale in comparison to the Acura's 104 and 29.5 cubic feet.
The Infiniti QX50 is on par overall (especially when it comes to interior volumes) with the RDX. However, comparably equipped, it's still just over $4,000 dearer.
Pick the RDX, and your left brain can be satisfied in knowing that you drove off the lot in something that offers more power, luxury, tech and space than the competition, and you get to keep a load of cash in your pocket, too. But if you're right-brain dominant, the RDX may set you on a course of wondering what could have been with the pricier competition.
Do yourself a favor and tell your right brain to shut it. An extra $5,000 to $10,000 in your checking account can buy a lot of right-brain satisfaction. Sure, the RDX's priciest competitors -- the Audi Q5, BMW X3 and Mercedes-Benz GLC -- feel a little more special overall, but that added premium feel isn't worth the price. The RDX may feel a little out of sorts around town and in need of more chassis tuning, but for the price, it's the one you should get.