by Nelson Ireson
The compact sport luxury SUV niche was not so long ago a non-existent thing, though recent years have seen an increasing number of entrants, including German, Japanese and American offerings. The next several years will see even more added as Mercedes brings its GLK to the mix and Audi rolls out the Q5. With so many cars vying for a relatively small portion of overall sales, the competition is fierce, and small weaknesses can be magnified. It’s a case of automotive survival of the fittest.
So can the RDX hold its own in the increasingly intense sub-genre it has chosen for itself? Or will its flaws render it incapable of survival in the harsh automotive and economic conditions of the oil-crunch marketplace?
At almost the same size as a mid-size hatchback - parked side-by-side, one would need a tape measure to distinguish it significantly from a Mazda3, for example, except in height - the RDX isn’t packing a whole lot of cargo space into its repertoire. Neither is it a roomy enclave ready to accommodate four six-footers - though it’ll haul four average-sized people and their gear around with ease. And despite the 2.3L displacement and four-cylinder engine, the variable-flow turbo adds enough punch to make driving it a lot of fun.
Unfortunately, this is where the complications start, at least for those that took interest in the RDX because of its happy marriage of sport-sedan handling and small SUV space. In reality, it’s more of a combination of small SUV handling and sport-sedan space, which, as you may notice, isn’t the best of both worlds.
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The engine isn’t as potent as you’d expect from a 240hp (179kW), 260lb-ft (350Nm) 2.3L turbo, especially if you’ve been exposed to the brilliant powerplant of the same displacement and configuration huddling inside Mazda’s hotted-up Mazdaspeed3, and once you start putting foot to floor, the battle isn’t nearly as close as a spec sheet might lead you to believe. The RDX’s rather portly 3,900lb (1,770kg) curb weight certainly contributes to that sensation, as well as the poor fuel mileage, achieving 13-15mpg (15.6-18L/100km) in normal driving in town, 19-21mpg (11.2-12.4L/100km) on the highway - both of those numbers can go even further down if you get caught up in listening to the turbo spool. Those are not the efficiency figures of a sport sedan, but you’d know that from reading the EPA estimates of 17mpg (13.8L/100km) city and 22mpg (10.7L/100km) highway on the window sticker.
Other journalists have opined that the vehicle handles like a sports sedan, and I agree. It drives like a sports sedan or hatchback - that’s been lifted six inches. That’s not a good thing, however. The omnipresent rollover warnings, including one particularly worrying note on the driver’s sun-visor discourage truly vigorous driving. Attacking a twisty tree-lined highway or canyon road is right out, as is essentially anything that requires quick transitional responses, as the car’s higher stance overcomes the stiff springing and firm damping when rapidly changing direction, rendering a tippy, not-so-stable feel. Heed the warnings. They are there for a reason.
Nevertheless, the RDX can be fun to drive. Broad sweepers and the occasional moderately-paced tight corner are treats, handled with relative ease by sport sedan standards and with athletic aplomb by almost any SUV’s measure.
Turbo lag is noticeable, and kills off-the-line acceleration until about 3,000rpm when driving in automatic mode. Once it spools, the power surge makes for jerky driving, which you have to compensate for with your foot, especially if it hits mid-turn. Passengers likely will not appreciate the driver’s hoot and the further acceleration that follows, either. The standard-equipment paddle-shifted automatic is actually quite fun if used in sport mode, though the tippy feeling and all the warning signs combine to really make for an uneasy feeling about pushing it, and therefore actually taking advantage of the shifter paddles for anything but straight-line acceleration. Self-shifting does help alleviate some of the boost lag problems at launch, however.
The Super-Handling all-wheel drive system (SH-AWD) definitely improves cornering, making low-to-moderate speed maneuvers feel ‘flatter’ than they would otherwise, but not more confidence inspiring if you’re used to being fully in control of the car (i.e. completely free of traction and stability control) as it’s obvious something unnatural is going on. When it kicks in, it sends extra torque to the outside rear wheel, giving a feeling that the seat-of-the-pants sensor interprets as ‘slewing’ or ‘yawing’ around corners at first, though that is a feeling that’s fairly easy to grow accustomed to. It’s also easy to understand why Acura feels the system is a suitable replacement for all-wheel steering systems.
The interior will be considered a bit too flashy and bright for some tastes, especially considering the relatively poor tactile quality of several primary pieces, though it is certainly comfortable to inhabit. Silvery plastic pieces make no serious attempt at appearing like aluminum, and their feel would quickly betray the truth if they did. The sheer quantity of silver-colored trim in the cockpit is staggering, and inexplicable, especially when the rest of the materials are so good. The leather feels soft and durable, the remainder of the plastics are solid and impressive, and the eminently ergonomic steering wheel is probably among the best designs in road cars today, at least in terms of size and shape.
Like so many other strong points of the RDX, however, it has a dark side. In a contest with the average Formula 1 steering wheel to see which has the most buttons, the RDX would lose, but only just. Likewise, the center console area, which houses a brilliant sound system and a very good nav system is undermined by small buttons in illogical locations and a counter-intuitive interface. For example, the tiny black strip at the top of the center stack isn’t a decorative feature - it’s the odd and nearly invisible location for the audio and climate control displays.
It’s a shame there’s not more available in the DVD audio music format, because the demo disc that comes with the car proves it’s not just a gimmick. It’s like having a band in the car. Even in non-DVD audio mode, the stereo sounds excellent, filling the whole vehicle with even, balanced sound. The whole technology package in the car is suitably impressive, and despite the small buttons and displays that easily wash out in bright sunlight, it’s a very fun and entertaining environment.
Despite the difficult controls, the navigation provides thorough and accurate information that’s easy to read when the sun isn’t interfering. The live traffic reporting feature is a highlight of the system, but the reviewer’s home area wasn’t within the unit’s coverage, so we’ll have to withhold judgment of this element until a later date.
One of the most underreported features of the Acura RDX is its proliferation of innovative, or at least handy, storage areas, such as the use made of the large door armrest. The center console bin, for example, could hold a mid-sized dog or even a very small child. OK, maybe not quite (and we certainly don’t recommend it), but it’s big, and it’s divisible into several configurations thanks to a handy tray system located at the vertical mid-point. Cupholders are well-sized, if somewhat awkwardly placed on the far side of the center tunnel from the driver.
Headroom is pretty good, even for a six-foot-plus driver or passenger, and legroom is acceptable for tall folks - probably ample for the more average-sized. The fully adjustable seat and steering wheel allow for the driver to customize the seating position at will, even accommodating tall drivers that must sit a long way back from the pedals and don’t want to be constantly reaching forward for the wheel. Room in the rear is better than it could be, and better than most hatchbacks or small SUVs of the same size. Room in the cargo area is a bit scarce, however, even with the seats down, because they don’t lie at a significant angle, rather than folding flat.
Road and cabin noise don’t make themselves known any more than is appropriate, even at brisk highway speeds, and the car is a comfortable ride on smooth pavement. The ‘whoosh’ of the turbo will likely prove appealing, even addicting, to some and a turnoff for others. It’s not intrusive, but it is noticeable. Turn up the DVD audio, however, and it melts into the background. The stiff springing and firm damping - designed to resist rollover, but only so effective - make for a choppier ride than you’d expect over rough or broken surfaces. Speed bumps are nightmares.
Off-road use will be limited, thanks to less-than-stellar clearance, not that the vehicle is likely to see more than dirt or gravel roads anyway - the AWD system is meant to improve handling, not make it a mountain goat, after all, and it’s effective at that.
Though a few angles make it look a bit odd, especially anything low that catches the oddly-upswept front end in profile, the RDX presents a handsome overall image. It will probably win a lot of fans that simply aren’t turned on by the staid Germans. Infiniti’s FX line of sport-compact SUVs, however, offer a seductive alternative, and Mercedes’ GLK shares some of the fashionable look of the RDX, though with a very European flair.
Pricing is relatively good for its class, starting at $33,695 for the base model or $36,695 equipped with the technology package, like the test vehicle, but many looking for a bit more sport while maintaining 99% of the utility of this compact SUV would be better served by a punchy hatch like the Impreza WRX or Mazdaspeed3. Neither offers the level of luxury specification, and the cars that offer both the luxury and the sport are considerably more expensive, for the most part, so the Acura RDX does offer a unique package at a competitive pricepoint. Toss in the (mostly) good looks and the RDX is a contender in the tough compact sport SUV class.
2009 Acura RDX Turbo Review