2021 Acura RDX review: The fast and the frugal
The third-generation Acura RDX made a very strong first impression when it debuted in 2018. There was a lot to love about this small premium SUV, from the sharp, angular A-Spec styling to its nimble all-wheel-drive performance. For the 2021 model year, the RDX is largely the same as it ever was, meaning there's still a whole lot to love.
AcuraLink cabin tech
The RDX's dashboard is home to a really good infotainment suite that is somewhat hindered at first by its True Touchpad Interface controller. Front and center you'll find a 10.2-inch HD dual-content main display, which uses a split-screen interface to showcase the major infotainment functions.
Users navigate by swiping and tapping on the small touchpad at the base of the center stack to make on-screen selections. This True Touchpad is similar to, but also different from, the one on your laptop. It uses absolute positioning, so placing your finger in the lower left or center of the screen, for example, instantly selects items similarly positioned on the display. This makes it easy to quickly move around the RDX's menus once you learn where everything is.
To the right of the main touchpad area is a scroll bar that allows users to quickly toggle the content displayed on that sidebar. So I'm able to, for example, place the currently playing audio source on the right third of the display alongside the optional 3D View Navigation on the main display area. A multitasking button above the touchpad allows content to be swapped between the two panes with a single tap, in this case, keeping the map visible in the sidebar while I select another radio station or audio source.
There are also physical buttons for Back and Home located near the touchpad and, overall, it's reasonably easy to move through the interface -- once you get used to it. The problem is that the learning curve can be a steep one. Acura's True Touchpad is a very small surface, requiring more precise movements to make fine selections, such as text entry. This can be especially tricky for right-seat passengers who have to use their left hand. For destination entry, maybe stick to the reasonably good natural-language voice recognition.
Apple CarPlay connectivity is standard, and Android Auto has finally joined the party, too. Interacting with them using the True Touchpad isn't quite as natural as the rest of the interface, but I'm glad to see both technologies present, bringing thousands of apps for audio streaming, navigation and more to the driver's fingertips.
Overall, I prefer this system to the similar Remote Touchpad you'll find in modern Lexus vehicles. Lexus Enform uses a fiddly cursor dot for selections that is easy to lose track of and requires even more precise positioning to operate. Meanwhile, the Acura infotainment software uses large, easy-to-target selection boxes for most elements of the interface, making it much easier to use and requiring less visual attention while driving.
The RDX's cabin tech isn't limited to the center stack. Ahead of the driver is a 7-inch color multi-information display tucked between the RDX's two physical gauges -- here, featuring A-Spec-specific red illumination. The RDX's climate controls are GPS-linked, taking into account the sun's position relative to the vehicle and its impact on the interior temperature when metering out heating and air conditioning between its cabin zones. Opt for the Advance trim and a large, 10.5-inch head-up display will put relevant information right in the driver's line of sight.
AcuraWatch driver-aid tech
The third-generation RDX comes standard with the automaker's AcuraWatch suite of driver-aid technologies. That means even the base model rolls out with forward-collision warning with collision mitigation braking assist, full-speed adaptive cruise control that works in stop-and-go traffic, and lane-keeping steering assist with road-departure mitigation. Not exactly an active safety feature, but all RDX models also come standard with Acura's seven-segment Jewel Eye LED headlights and LED taillights, bringing bright, yet precisely aimed illumination when driving after dark.
That's already a solid loadout, but there are a few extras you can add. Stepping up to the Technology package ($2,900) adds front and rear parking sensors, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. The top-tier Advance package upgrades to a surround-view camera system and adds a washer to the standard rear camera.
The Technology package is really the sweet spot in the Acura RDX lineup, bringing important safety features, useful cabin technologies and excellent onboard navigation to the RDX's already solid standard list of equipment. The Advance package kicks the creature comforts to maximum and boosts literal comfort with its adaptive-damping suspension and acoustic side glass. The A-Spec package lives in the middle, keeping all of the Technology upgrades, but trading Advance comfort for a sportier appearance.
Out back, the A-Spec features dual exhaust outlets, and filling the wheel arches are dark-finish, 20-inch alloy wheels shod with 255/45R20 all-season tires. The all-seasons are probably the best indicator that this is an appearance package only, not a true sport upgrade. There are no tweaks to the suspension or powertrain that make the A-Spec perform better than or feel any sharper than the standard RDX. At least it looks sharper.
The RDX A-Spec features glossy black exterior trim, including a unique rear spoiler. The shield-shaped front grille has a cool Black Diamond design and color. The internals of the headlamps and taillights are also darker, adding to the meaner look. Of course, there are A-Spec badges scattered around the exterior and throughout the cabin, as well as dark headlamp and taillight internals.
Inside, you'll find leather-trimmed sport seats -- mine look fantastic in red -- with UltraSuede inserts and heated and ventilated surfaces. More UltraSuede can be found trimming various bits around the cabin. Red accent lighting and sport pedals complete the A-Spec visual upgrades.
Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive
OK, the A-Spec isn't any faster than the standard RDX, but the standard mechanical configuration isn't so bad. The engine bay is home to a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that peaks at 272 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. The power plant is mated to a 10-speed automatic transmission with an electronic gear selector on the center console and paddle shifters on the steering wheel.
Drivers have a bit of control over the RDX's performance with a huge Dynamic Mode selection knob near the base of the center stack. Twisting toggles between Comfort, Snow, Sport and Sport Plus modes affects the throttle response, traction control and enhances the engine note for the sportier settings. My sole complaint is that the selector looks and is positioned a lot like a big, ol' volume knob. My passengers and I often accidentally pop the SUV into Sport mode when trying to crank up our favorite songs.
Front-wheel drive is standard, but you'll definitely want Acura's fourth-generation Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) upgrade. Normally, I only really recommend all-wheel drive for areas with lots of poor weather -- even then, appropriate tires probably have a bigger effect on safety -- but SH-AWD is also a performance upgrade, which makes it useful and even fun when the roads are dry. It's definitely worth the $2,000 premium.
SH-AWD can send up to 70% of the engine's available torque to the rear wheels on demand (the previous generation could only manage a 50/50 split), which aids in power distribution when launching from a stop. The system also now features 100% torque vectoring on the rear axle to aid in cornering stability. When you steer into a corner and the vehicle's weight starts to shift, SH-AWD will actively send power to the rear outside wheel to help steer into the corner. This new generation can shuffle power around 30% quicker, which also makes the torque transfer feel more seamless on the road. Chucking the RDX through a series of mid-speed S-turns or a fast set of sweeping bends, the SUV behaves and feels like a much smaller vehicle.
However, there are still those pesky laws of physics to contend with. SH-AWD relies on the throttle to aid in rotation, so it doesn't help much during slow, off-throttle corners, such as tight switchbacks, leaving the SUV feeling less dynamic the slower you go. Plus, the RDX is a tall SUV with a comfort-oriented suspension, so there's only so much speed that you can carry through a fast turn before SH-AWD simply can't help. Fortunately, the transition between "slaloming heroically" and "whoops, too fast" is smooth and easy to catch. The RDX is an SUV that encourages you to push it safely.
Get the throttle application and steering just right and the RDX can be an absolute treat on the right road. Of course, this is not a sports car, so I'm treating the joy that SH-AWD brings under the right conditions as a bonus pro, rather than its limitations as con. Around town, the standard MacPherson strut front and multilink rear suspension is comfortable and responsive, the electric power steering is nice and linear and the 12-inch disc brakes at all four corners are easy to modulate and do a great job hauling the 4,105-pound SUV to a stop quickly and predictably.
With SH-AWD, the EPA and Acura estimate the RDX is good for 23 combined miles per gallon (21 mpg city and 26 mpg highway) when using the recommended 91-octane fuel. During my week of testing -- spent mostly in the hills exploring Sport mode -- I only reached 19.1 mpg. Front-wheel-drive examples fare a bit better at an estimated 24 mpg combined, 22 city mpg and 28 highway mpg.
Pricing and competition
The 2021 Acura RDX starts at $39,225 including its $1,025 destination charge for the base front-drive configuration. As I said, you definitely want the $2,000 SH-AWD upgrade for the extra traction in poor conditions and improved driving joy when it's dry. The $2,900 Technology package is also a worthwhile upgrade given the extra safety tech, navigation and other features it brings to the party. As I mentioned earlier, the Technology package is really the sweet spot, where I think most buyers would be happy with the value offered.
From there, the upgrade path forks with either the A-Spec or Advanced package being the next step up; you can't have both. The A-Spec package doesn't add any performance, but does bring a sporty style to the RDX experience. I love the look, but whether it's worth the $3,000 upgrade over the Technology package is a subjective decision you'll have to make for yourself. That going with the A-Spec blocks the upgrade to the more compelling Advance package with its additional premium features should also be considered for buyers looking to take the most luxurious route. As tested, you're looking at $47,125 for this SH-AWD A-Spec.
The Audi Q5 and the Mercedes-Benz GLC compete hotly for the gold standard in this compact premium SUV class. The RDX is not quite as luxurious as the Germans but still very well appointed and, comparably equipped, costs significantly less. Plus with SH-AWD, the Acura is just a skosh more fun to drive.
Also going tête-à-tête with the Acura are the Lexus RX and Volvo's XC60. The Acura is a better value than the comparably priced and equipped RX 350 and XC60 T5, and would be my personal pick at this price. However, it is quickly outclassed by these vehicles' more potent performance and more efficient hybrid specs, leaving RDX fans looking to move upmarket with less room to grow. Perhaps a future RDX Type S with actual performance upgrades is in order? I'll keep my fingers crossed.