2013 Acura RDX First Drive

The black sheep of the Acura family finally goes mainstream.

What It Is
The 2013 Acura RDX targets the entry-level SUV/crossover market, and its young, dual-income couples: those are settling into their first homes while remaining firmly entrenched in the adventures of corporate America.

Best Thing
Stable and sure-footed, the Acura RDX becomes even more comfortable for its luxury crossover audience.

Worst Thing
On its way to more practicality, it’s lost some of its iconoclastic, adventurous charm.

Snap Judgement
The Acura RDX is a safe, well-priced, and practical--if not particularly exciting--option in the ever-growing entry luxury SUV market.


Perhaps it’s rather fitting that during our stay at the Four Seasons in Scottsdale for the 2013 Acura RDX, we actually experienced all four seasons—it was snowing as we checked in, and as the skies grew more tumultuous in the Arizona desert, it started hailing little pea-sized chunks of ice. The hotel staff, brave as they were, expressed their bemusement at the hail and cinched up their collars but otherwise—from behind their plastic-curtained golf carts—remained nonplussed. “It was 85 and sunny yesterday,” said the receptionist at the front desk, “and this is an unusually mild winter for us. It’s definitely not normal.”

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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Well, the 2013 Acura RDX is an SUV, after all, right? And it’s got all-wheel-drive, you say? Surely it shouldn’t be a problem. We drove the newest iteration of Acura’s entry luxury crossover through a blinding snowfall—in Arizona of all places—where the snow first fell in sheets and then in sprinkles melting on the pavement as we drove past log cabins and trees covered in freshly-layered snow. It was like wheeling into a competing automaker’s “December To Remember” commercial.

By the end of the day, it was clear that the 2013 Acura RDX is not, to make good use of that clichéd, odious phrase, a “game-changer.” The last one tried, but it was too left-field in a notoriously conservative luxury market to be anything close to one. But in an effort to go mainstream and attract more buyers, this new RDX loses many of the traits that made the old one a standout: no more Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive, no more turbocharged four-cylinder, no eager bulldog styling that was both cute and ungainly at the same time. It feels like a complete 180—if the old one stood out, this one blends in too much.

Walkaround

The old Acura RDX’s pugnacious styling gives way to very conventional crossover styling through and through, topped only by a handsome chrome Acura-logoed spar up front. Its sharp creases lie where they usually do on such vehicles, and its fender flares suggest no off-road toughness at all. There's no Pontiac-Aztek ugliness in its appearance, but nothing worth noting, either. The entry-level luxury market prides itself on attention-grabbing, fashionista-targeting style, and in terms of curbside appeal the RDX is an orthopedic shoe to the rest of the segment’s Manolo Blahninks.

Sitting Down

The RDX’s new interior is comfortably sculpted, with soft, thickly-padded leather positioned exactly where your limbs will lie. A handsome new center stack, similar to the 2013 Acura ILX, features simpler controls and a refreshingly straightforward layout. It’s nice to see Acura relearn the word “ergonomics.” Those who drove the older model and found themselves staring at the base of the windshield just to see what radio station they were at will find plenty to love about this car. Headroom was snug, with a few inches to spare on 6-foot journalists. But legroom front and rear was ample, and the seats were firm and supportive. Acura says that the new RDX is two inches longer than the outgoing model, but with more passenger volume than anything else in its class.

The RDX models we drove were equipped with Acura’s ELS digital audio system, and satellite radio; no complaints here, as both systems are excellent. And for easily amused types, Pandora Internet Radio (for Apple products only, sorry) and text messaging are standard, both features cribbed from the 2012 Honda CR-V, which shares much of the RDX's mechanical engineering.

Driving

Requiescat in pace, Honda’s turbocharger, which bore into life in 2006 and managed to stave off mortality until this year. (There was also the overseas-only Honda City Turbo in 1986, but that’s the sort of fact better-suited for a last-minute pub quiz victory.) With the arrival of a new 3.5-liter 273-horsepower V-6, the 2012 Acura RDX marks the end of the company’s brave little experiment in turbocharging. The new V-6 engine is more powerful and the new RDX a lot larger this time around—which, come to think of it, represents a very American evolutionary tradition.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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The new engine produces less torque, but more horsepower: 273, versus the 240 of the outgoing model. More importantly, it gets significantly better gas mileage: while city ratings are the same at 19 mpg, highway mileage jumps from 23 to 27 mpg for the all-wheel drive model. Front-drive models are marginally better, at 20 and 28 mpg for city and highway, respectively.

This is due in no small part to the addition of Variable Cylinder Management, once reserved for big, thirsty V-8. The 2013 Acura RDX can run on four cylinders for highway cruising, or go all the way down to three cylinders for around-town schlepping. Presumably during our cruise-controlled ride on the flat parts of AZ-88, it ran on just four cylinders. If it kicked in, we didn’t notice.

Gone is the turbo lag that so plagued the RDX’s around-town manners: the new engine pulls strongly to redline, paired to an excellent six-speed automatic transmission that represents a leap over the outgoing, jerky five-speed auto. It holds its power well on the steepest uphill grades and remains eager in any gear, at any engine speed. One caveat: the RDX is usually very quiet, but push the pedal all the way down and brace yourself for some loud, ungainly engine sounds.

Also gone is the super-trick, Super Handling all-wheel drive from the outgoing model, which distributed torque from side to side to help carry the vehicle out of corners. It worked beautifully, and the old RDX was one of the better handling compact luxury crossovers, but Acura decided the added weight and complexity wasn't really sought after by the RDX's demographic. The new all-wheel drive system sends up to 25 percent of power to the rear wheels under acceleration, and an even 50/50 under slippery conditions. It's similar to the system on the 2012 CR-V; we assumed that it was the exact same system, but Acura assured us that it used components from both. Either way, it provided adequate acceleration without front-wheel torque steer, and never let us down on uphill gradients or slippery conditions, or both.

Our biggest gripe with the outgoing RDX was its kidney-shaking suspension. It was eminently sporty, yes, but obnoxious and at odds with its luxury pretentions. Acura has paid attention to our complaints and fitted softer shock abosrbers, while attempting to preserve the RDX’s sporty nature. We think they’ve done a fine job, but the all-season tires that worked so well in our impromptu Arctic trek aren’t as conducive to sporty driving as enthusiasts may want. Mercifully, it no longer rides like an unladen heavy-duty pickup truck.

Summary

Like most of Acura’s lineup, the 2013 RDX is aimed at DINKS: Dual Income, No Kids. If you called a DINK a dink, he might not consult you for car buying advice, or anything at all. Evidently, according to Acura, the first-generation RDX was targeted at young corporate types named “Jason,” who lived in lofts and tended to favor Express 1MX slim-fit button-downs.

The new Acura RDX is aimed at a more mature market, outgrowing their trendy loft apartments, settling down for a nice townhouse, especially one with a nursery. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that the RDX loses some of its playful bulldog aggressiveness; it now resembles one of the dozens of other crossover-cum-minivans on the market in both driving dynamics and styling. Some of us felt like the 2013 Acura RDX competed with the Lexus RX, if not in tangibles like size and pricing, then at least in spirit. We all hear about the backlash when bands go mainstream and “sell out,” losing their hardcore fans in droves--it’s one of the oldest tropes in the quest for authenticity, uniqueness, and tradition that the auto industry sometimes lacks. Thankfully, the automotive industry is nowhere as vocal, and honestly, the first-generation RDX didn't have a particularly rabid fan base anyhow.

Ultimately, Acura hopes to sell twice as many RDXs this time around as the last generation, which works out to about 30,000 cars in total per year. There’s no question that it will. The RDX undercuts its most direct competitors--the Audi Q5 and the BMW X3--by $1,280 and $2,780, respectively, for their base models. The front-drive RDX starts at $34,320; its four-wheel-drive variant is $35,720. The popular Technology Package--for which Acura expects a whopping 80-percent take rate--is $3,700 on top of both models. The top-dog RDX with all-wheel drive and the Technology package maxes out at $39,420. Compare this to the 2.8i BMW that starts at $40,050, or the V-6 Audi Q5 that tips the register at a whopping $43,000.

This is very competitive pricing for Acura. It won’t be hard for the company to sell every one it builds. Acura is hedging its bets on a safe, well-priced, well-equipped choice, if one that’s not particularly charming. It may not be an attitude that screams luxury, but one of checkbooks being opened. And in the end, that matters more than unreleased EPs, turbochargers, or even a bit of hail.

Basic Specs

3.5-liter V-6 with Variable Cylinder Management, six-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive, 273-hp, $34,320, 20/28/23 city/highway/combined
3.5-liter V-6 with Variable Cylinder Management, six-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive, 273-hp, $35,720, 19/27/22 city/highway/combined

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