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2012 Acura RDX SH-AWD Road Test

Who It's For
Young, fashion-savvy types who want the ride height and room of a typical SUV, but the maneuverability of a compact -- and the occasional rainstorm is as off-road as they'll ever get.

Best Thing
Drives, accelerates, and steers better than any SUV should get away with.

Worst Thing
Harsh-riding suspension, lousy turbo-induced fuel economy.

Snap Judgment
Genuinely sporty, but pays the price.


Introduction

When Acura introduced the RDX in 2006, it was a mini-showcase of what the company was capable of: cutting-edge bulldog styling, Acura's super-indeed Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive as standard, enough techno gizmos to get Apollo to the moon, and -- for the first time in Acura's history -- a stout little four-cylinder engine that achieved its high horsepower not just through its patented variable valve timing system, but through the wonders of turbocharging. A bold move given the company's past, and in a class full of V-6 engines.

An even bolder move for those who still thought Acuras were nothing more than a fancy Honda. With the features list of modern Hondas expanding more rapidly than the universe, there seems to be little reason to spring for a smaller Acura other than being at the top of the automotive alphabet. When backup cameras, supple leather seating, Bluetooth and MP3 compatibility, and DVD navigation filter down to mainstream family cars, that's what some call progress. So the Acura has to offer far more to remain competitive in the small SUV segment.

In fact, the entire compact luxury crossover class exists in a world where practicality takes a backseat to style, and efficiency -- despite the compact classification -- isn't always a priority. Cute-utes apply to the world of purse dogs and season tickets to Tanglewood. They're conveyances to a lifestyle, not the lifestyle itself. The RDX will probably never venture off-road. Nobody with an RDX will be asked to help someone move a piano. Here, the vast amount of technology is more than a boon, it's a necessity -- something that Acura usually delivers in spades, and one of its strongest suits.

Therefore, does the Acura RDX differentiate itself in a crowded segment of cute-utes comprised of the BMW X3, Audi Q5, Mercedes-Benz GLK-Class, Infiniti EX, Land Rover Range Rover Evoque, Volvo XC 60, and Volkswagen Tiguan? After a week behind the wheel, we found that there are a few other attractive points to the RDX that go beyond nifty technology -- and a few that drag it down.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

What We Drove

Our 2012 Acura RDX came with the oh-so-Japanese-sounding Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive; for 2011, a cheaper front-drive RDX was added to the fold at about $2,000 less. The only option missing on our test car was a $3,100 Technology package, which includes a navigation system, real-time traffic and weather updates, GPS-controlled automatic climate control, and Acura's excellent ELS digital sound system. All together, our example clocked in at $35,780, including a, $885 destination charge.

Despite the lack of the tech package -- high-tech add-ons are the biggest draw in the entry luxury segment -- our RDX still came with a plethora of niceties: Bluetooth capability, rearview camera, power heated front seats, XM and MP3 sound, moonroof, foglights and xenon headlights, and 18-inch wheels with all-season tires. All RDXs come with front and side airbags, side curtain airbags, rollover detection, stability control and anti-lock brakes.

The Commute

The RDX doesn't look tall from outside but you sit high up, with the sort of commanding view that compact-SUV shoppers mark on their checklists as a necessity. The perforated leather seats are supportive, sufficiently adequate at keeping your indulgent posterior from sliding around, and they're heated for those cold, snowy days that make you glad you sprung for the pricier all-wheel drive model.

The turbo's effects come on at around 3,000 rpm, a sort of awkward mid-range mark that falls between parking-lot dawdling and all-out acceleration. Honda four-cylinder engines have for years had a reputation for being "peaky," that is, they make all their power at the highest end of the rpm range. Although a turbocharger in theory can give an engine better low-rpm power, this one only accentuates that Honda trait. When its time to catch up with a break in traffic, you give it a little gas, and a little more, and a little more, when suddenly the turbo kicks in and the RDX accelerates too quickly, forcing you to back off the gas pedal quickly, and maybe even tap the brakes. This happens a lot during the commute, and it gets old fast.

Despite this, as turbocharged engines go, the RDX's engine is mostly mild in nature. While the power from many performance turbos crashes over you like a wave, this one's more of a ripple. The brakes were firm enough to rein in the RDX without drama, with a firm pedal and short travel, all surprisingly sporty characteristics, keeping with the RDX's performance-aspirant nature.

When you're waiting in traffic, however, things are more bearable. Acura's two-tiered dashboard (with its bizarre protruding knob) took some time to get used to, with buttons arranged illogically and unevenly, almost as if its designers were reluctant to mar the aluminum-painted plastic dressing up the otherwise drab interior. Still, the button layout is less fiendish than in some other Acuras. The dual-zone climate control was easily set without needing a second glance, and steering wheel controls fall readily to hand. Thank goodness for that, too, because the radio (underneath the swoopy upper shelf) was button-heavy, considering how little real estate it took. Better find a good station and stick with it.

Consumers at this price point pay for the technology, and the Acura RDX delivers in spades. First is the excellent sound system, pumped through on seven speakers of acoustically balanced fury (or calmness, depending on the smoothness of your commute). An optional ELS digital surround sound system can be added as part of the Technology package, and promises to make Coldplay sound even better. The Technology package also includes Acura's old-school navigation system, and it's looking more than a little dated. With fun new infotainment systems being developed for other cars -- that at least look good anyway, to say nothing about their actual functionality -- we'll be waiting to see what Acura rolls out for the next generation.

The Grocery Run

Being a compact SUV, the RDX Acura says that the RDX has 60.6 cubic feet or cargo space with the rear seats folded, which neatly slots in between the VW Tiguan (4 more cubes) and the GMC Terrain (3 fewer). We didn't buy nearly that much food. But the rear seatbacks folded down with ease, though the lower cushions took some effort to wiggle into place. Seats back in their upright position, rear legroom was generous and the RDX's egg-shaped roofline provided plenty of headroom.

The Acura RDX's surprisingly tight turning radius made short work of the Whole Foods parking lot, which is a common gathering spot for this breed of small SUV. Its rather sizable blind spots behind the second row were alleviated by an excellent rearview camera, standard on all models, which kept us free of property damage.

Acura took a "put all your eggs in one center console" approach to interior storage. There aren't many places to stash phones, receipts, and other filigree of modern life, but shockingly deep locking center bin divides the front seats. It expands downwards through folding trap doors to hold the most voluminous of purses. Think of a coal mine here. You could hide a laptop in there the long way, or stick your arm in and still not touch bottom. "I'm pretty sure this center console is deep enough to go to Narnia," one editor said. As a (literal) catch-all for your stuff, it does a good job of alleviating the lack of storage space throughout the rest of the interior -- there's a strange, lidded bin on the door panels that seems purpose-built for hiding sticky Jolly Ranchers, but not much else.

The Weekend Fun

If your shopping for a sporty and good-handling compact luxury SUV, this Acura fits the bill. For one, that turbo engine that's so infuriating during the morning commute finally gets to stretch itself out, rolling on the power when needed and whooshing the RDX from a standstill to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds. A responsive five-speed transmission does its own work, or can be controlled by paddle shifters on the steering wheel; either way it makes driving the RDX aggressively pleasant and painless. Handling, too, was there in spades: the RDX doesn't lean too much in turns -- a rare feat in a high-riding SUV, no matter how small -- and the steering was sharp and accurate. Despite its tall-wagon styling, the RDX could shame many so-called sport sedans.

But Acura is a luxury brand, and with luxury comes, well, comfort. That handling ability comes at the expense of a granite-hard suspension, as if you might suddenly find yourself on a racetrack on your way to Neiman Marcus. The stiff-suspension pounds over the slightest of freeway joints, tossing occupants and shaking empty headrests; "it bobs like a cork," in the words of one editor. Sure, it's sporty, but for the average $36,000 luxury crossover shopper, this sort of noisy, noisome, non-adjustable ride is unacceptable.

Don't expect great fuel economy, either, despite the smallish four-cylinder. After a week of driving the RDX we returned an average fuel economy of 24 mpg on the highway and 16 mpg around town, for a combined rating of 22 mpg. Either our numbers were fudged (impossible!) or we returned better economy than the EPA estimate of 16/22 mpg. Despite this, the turbo-four still drinks like a six: the Audi Q5's 3.2-liter V-6 engine gets 18/23 mpg while producing 30 more horsepower, and the BMW X3's 3.0 straight-six gets 19/25. The power of a four-cylinder with the fuel economy of a V-6 isn't exactly a winning combination, and Acura can bet that consumers will definitely cross-shop the RDX against those Germans.

Finally, there was much to gripe about the squat, bulldog-stance looks, a mishmash of angular lines and rotund shapes -- topped off by that irksome Acura grille treatment, one that hasn't had a chance to get toned down to the smoother grille on the TL. (And now it never will, seeing as a completely redesigned model will roll out in mid-2012.) With its pulled-in headlights and narwhal-nosed grille, it resembles a hungry chipmunk. Not a flattering look against the likes of the Volkswagen Tiguan and baby-ute Mercedes-Benz GLK. "Who drives these things?" asked associated editor Jason Davis bluntly, and if the answer is the fashionista set, the typical market for the cute-utes, they won't like what they see.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Summary

Sporty characteristics in SUVs has always seemed like a concession to enthusiasts: asking these tall five-doors to be something they're reluctant to do. Acura has done something commendable and given buyers the choice of an SUV that drives better than most cars. But the RDX places too much emphasis on this intangible concept called "sport" -- feel the curve-carving suspension that's obnoxious on the freeway, or its sharply-weighted steering (that unlike the suspension, never lends it to fault). Other companies, such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW, combine handling and smoothness characteristics more admirably -- perhaps an adjustable suspension should be in Acura's grab-bag of technological tricks.

But the two things most people shop for in this segment won't be sportiness -- it'll be luxury and style, of which the RDX falls short. It's not a particularly good-looking vehicle. Carrie and Miranda won't climb out of one. And Acura's own TSX wagon is just as sporty, better-looking, roomier, and easier to live with in general than the RDX. If you're one of those who still think of Acura as nothing more than gussied-up Hondas, the RDX will do little to dissuade you from that opinion.

Yet there's one important caveat to the story. Acura will soon roll out the next-generation RDX, one with a V-6 engine that promises better fuel economy and more power, a more luxurious and sensibly laid out interior, styling that's closer to the excellent MDX, and even a smoother suspension. We'll have a full report on the new RDX soon. For now, unless you prioritize sporty handling above all else, the current RDX can be skipped.


Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $35,780
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 17 miles per gallon
EPA Highway: 22 miles per gallon
EPA Combined: 19 miles per gallon
Estimated Combined Range: 342 miles
Cost of Ownership: Below Average

Notebook Quotes

"If there is nothing offensive about this car, does that make it good? Technically, it is a very good car. In fact, this engine should be in the TSX Wagon. But the cute shape is hard to take seriously. And that's a shame, because this non-functional gripe, plus the poor mpg, detract more than they should for what is otherwise a fantastic car. " -Jason Davis, Associate Editor

"The biggest problem with the RDX is that you can get every feature, bell and whistle that you get here, all for less money if you buy a Kia Sorrento. The only hope for the RDX is that they're redesigning it soon. Otherwise, skip it." -Keith Buglewicz, News Director

"The secondary info screen takes a bit getting used to, to understand that is a place to look for info instead of the primary screen. But I didn't mind it, it was actually pretty easy for the eyes to gravitate to." -Matt Askari, Associate Editor

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