Many luxury automakers pride themselves in achieving a certain type of driving dynamics that sets their products apart from mainstream alternatives. That is to say, they strive for a certain solid feel and tightness of handling, distinct from the more big-and-cushy aims of an ordinary car.
But what of the other benefits that come with a luxury car – the plusher interior and fancier features, the relative exclusivity and the more upscale appearance? Among entry-luxury crossover SUVs, which are typically priced in the $40,000s, there are few choices for someone who wants all of the comfort and everyday utility of a mainstream best-seller – with upgrades, rather than with an entirely different character.
The leader of such models is the Acura RDX, which was redesigned for the 2013 model year. The previous RDX chased BMW as a sports-oriented model, but its stiff ride and relatively unrefined four-cylinder engine cost it sales. In the redesign, Acura spent its money on interior décor, standard features, and a powerful V6 engine; scrapped the expense of “super-handling all-wheel-drive” in favor of a simpler system optimized for messy weather rather than racetrack performance; and traded some handling agility for a smoother ride.
What results is essentially a more powerful, more refined, more feature-laden version of the best-selling Honda CR-V. A weeklong test of a fully-loaded RDX revealed that the Acura lacks the taut handling and unshakeably solid feel of an Audi Q5 or BMW X3, but beats them for everyday qualities like interior volume, control layout and fuel efficiency. It also retains their tidily compact exterior dimensions, compared to bulkier competitors like the Lexus RX or Cadillac SRX.
Furthermore, it handily undercuts their price tags. With every option checked, the RDX has a sticker price of just over $40,000, and it's already well-equipped at its base price of below $35,000. Some shoppers will demand that their premium crossover feel more special, and would accordingly be underwhelmed by the RDX's driving dynamics. But it is perhaps the best choice in its class for someone looking for something less like a sports sedan with more versatility and more like a more-polished CR-V.
Less than decadent
The RDX doesn't have the remarkably plush leather or the wood-trimmed interior you'd find in some competitors. The two-tone gray-and-beige interior could be called tastefully restrained, but it's far short of eye-catching. Few components either jump out as cheap or stand out as seeming particularly expensive, as is the case on Acura's entry-luxury sedans.
The seats, too, are more good than great. The fronts look amply bolstered, but they're flatter than they appear – easing entry/exit but doing little to hold occupants in place going around a corner. At the same time, they're more firm than cushy, which will also come down to personal taste. There's plenty of room and a high seating position, and decent visibility by the ever-diminishing modern standards.
In the rear, the cushion is roomy and comfortable for two passengers. There's a nearly flat floor, but the cushion is shaped for two rather than three – someone in the center position will not be comfortable.
Cargo space, too, is ample by the class standards. It doesn't stack up terribly well on the specifications chart, with 26 cubic feet of room behind the rear seat and 63 cubic feet with the rear seat folded. But it includes lots of usable floor space, and the cargo hold has a simple boxy shape.
Handles just inside the cargo hold fold down the rear seat in two sections, but there's a substantial ledge of several inches between the cargo floor and the top of the folded seatbacks. The cheaper Honda CR-V, curiously, has a more complex seat-folding mechanism that yields a flatter cargo floor.
Besides the interior volume, a strong point in the RDX's interior is the simplicity of its control layout. It gives up little technology compared to other premium crossovers, but Acura eschews the complicated menus and touch-sensitive controls that make some of the competition frustrating to use. The RDX's functionality is simple and unassuming.
Less than crisp
A brief test drive of an RDX last year suggested that its handling was within range of the best competitors. Credit goes to tight, responsive steering that makes this Acura feel alert during routine driving. But push it a little, and it feels more like a CR-V than a sharply tuned BMW. The steering feels lighter and looser, with less of a direct connection to the wheels. The RDX quickly feels like the tall, heavy vehicle it is; some crossovers mask that much better.
That said, this Acura still uses its relatively compact dimensions compared to, say, a Lincoln MKX or Lexus RX to its advantage, and it's still more nimble than the CR-V. The standards, though, are high in this class.
Ride quality, while good, is also not perfect. It's not intentionally firm like some sport-tuned competitors, and it muffles bumps with fewer jolts than those models. But there some unwanted ride motions even on smooth pavement. The overly light, disconnected high-speed steering also keeps the RDX from feeling unflappable in a straight line on the interstate.
The now-standard 3.5-liter V6, mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, is a strong point, though. It's not exactly luxury grade, as it's shared with various Honda and Acura models, but it's more than a match for the power and smoothness of many competitors' four-cylinder engines. Even its fuel efficiency is in the league of the four-cylinder competition, and above competing V6s, at an EPA-estimated 19 miles per gallon in the city and 27 on the highway with the tested all-wheel-drive, or 22 miles per gallon overall. (This reviewer observed 22.3 mpg in mixed driving; premium fuel is recommended.)
The smooth, quiet engine contributes to the RDX's quietness compared to most crossovers. Wind and road noise are also suitable muffled.
In terms of features for the money, the RDX is the best value among premium-badged crossovers. At around $35,000, it comes standard with features that most competitors nickle-and-dime for: heated leather seats with power adjustments and memory positions, a proximity key, a sunroof, and a rearview camera. The camera includes an unusual three modes – straight back, wide-angle rear, and top down – a handy system.
There are only two options: the Tech package ($3,700), which includes an in-dash navigation system, an upgraded sound system that includes a built-in hard drive for digital music storage, and a power liftgate; and all-wheel-drive ($1,400). The simplicity of Acura's options packaging means that someone who might have special-ordered a BMW or Audi might wish for a chance to better tailor the RDX, but it means that there's a certainty about the models that will be available on the dealer lot – rarely a given among luxury marques.
The RDX is well-equipped overall, but some competitors offer a few items that are missing from its options sheet: radar-based cruise control, a panoramic sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, and cooled front seats. If you have your heart set on those, you'll need to look elsewhere.
A strong choice for some
While some of the criticisms of the RDX could made it sound like an also-ran, they speak more highly to the standards the premium compact crossover class has reached in recent years. And for someone seeking quiet, practical, and relatively unassuming transportation that's a cut above mainstream competitors, some of those advances in interior opulence and zingy handling aren't worth the tradeoff against the Acura's everyday comfort, value, and ease of use.
Also shop the RDX against similarly priced upscale-feeling crossovers from mainstream brands, like the Nissan Murano and Toyota Venza. They're bigger and feature shinier interior décor – for better or for worse. Both have smoother rides than the RDX but less agile handling and inferior fuel economy.
Vehicle tested: 2013 Acura RDX
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $34,320
Version tested: AWD Tech
Version base price (MSRP): $39,420
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $40,315
Estimated transaction price as tested: $38,824
Test vehicle provided by: Acura
Length: 183.5 inches
Width: 73.7 inches
Height: 66.1 inches
Wheelbase: 105.7 inches
Weight: 3,852 pounds
Cargo volume behind rear seat: 26.1 cubic feet
Cargo volume with rear seat folded: 61.3 cubic feet
Turning circle: 39.0 feet
Engine: 3.5-liter V6 with 273 horsepower
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
EPA city mileage: 19 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 27 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 22 miles per gallon
Observed mileage during test: 22.3 miles per gallon
Assembly location: Ohio
For more information: Acura website
*Estimated transaction prices are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.