New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2011 Acura RDX

Five years. That may not seem like a long time, but in the automotive industry, it’s almost an eternity — especially if a model sees no revisions in that period. Mid-cycle refreshes usually occur two or three years after an initial product launch. Double that timeframe and automakers are typically in the throes of replacing the previous model with a significantly new product.

The Acura RDX appears immune to that pattern. When it launched in late 2006, we praised the brand’s premium compact crossover for its frenetic energy, but it’s now approaching its fifth year on the market without any significant modifications or updates. That’s worrisome, considering a number of competitors have launched revised or all-new competitors that directly target the RDX. Does Acura’s crossover continue to hold its own in the increasingly combative segment, or is it in dire need of a refresh?

This One’s For The Kids
The RDX may be one of the oldest models in Acura’s portfolio (other lines have received mild enhancements in recent years), but ironically, it’s designed to target younger buyers. In a nutshell, the RDX is to the larger MDX crossover what the TSX sedan is to the TL: a smaller, sportier, entry-level model designed to draw new customers into the Acura portfolio

Certainly, the exterior aesthetic shouts young and athletic. Acura’s design language mandates plenty of razor-sharp edges and unusual, planar surfaces, but flared fenders, a curved roofline, and a long hood help convey some athleticism.

Although the sheetmetal doesn’t suggest such, the RDX actually shares its basic underpinnings with the third-generation Honda CR-V. The Acura’s wheelbase is an inch longer than the CR-V, and its overall length — 182.5 inches — is actually closer to larger competitors like the BMW X3, Audi Q5, and Infiniti EX35.

Aggressive Exterior, Conservative Interior
That extra length doesn’t adversely affect the RDX’s maneuverability in parking garages and urban jungles, but it does provide a little additional space within. Front legroom measures a commendable 41.8 inches but rear seat passengers will likely appreciate the 37.7 inches of space they’re treated to — nearly double the rear legroom offered by the EX. When those seats are in use, the MDX offers nearly 27.8 cubic feet of cargo space, besting the EX, X3, and almost equaling the volume offered by the Q5. Fold ’em flat, and that figure swells to a best-in-class 60.6 cubic feet.

That interior space may be usable, but it certainly isn’t very visually exciting. The two-tiered dashboard is patterned after the TSX, and although clean and balanced, it lacks the visual pizzazz found in both competitors and other Acura offerings. There’s a surprisingly high quantity of hard plastics throughout, but areas frequently touched by users (i.e. armrests, upper door panels, etc) do receive small infusions of softer materials.

One unique touch lies with the center console. At first glance, the design doesn’t appear to be anything special — open it up, however, and you discover a cavernous compartment that is easily able to swallow purses, cameras, small backpacks, and even a 17-inch laptop computer. Better yet, the compartment is lockable, allowing valuables — including any iPods plugged into the USB interface located within — to be secured.

Forced Induction Four
Rear-seat passengers are treated to ample leg and headroom, but unlike the second-row occupants in the MDX, they’re not treated to any significant lateral bolstering. That’s too bad, considering the turbocharged four-banger underhood may encourage the driver to fling the MDX around.

Power continues to be provided by a turbocharged 2.3-liter I-4. Essentially the same engine found in four-cylinder TSX models but fitted with a turbo, the forced-induction powerplant is rated at 240 horsepower at 6000 rpm, and 260 pound-feet of torque at 4500 rpm. Those figures eclipse many four-cylinder competitors, and actually come close to the naturally-aspirated 3.0-liter I-6 used in the BMW X3 xDrive28i, but unlike several of those engines, the turbo 2.3-liter is very peaky, and is doesn’t respond in a linear manner. Unlike the Audi’s 2.0-liter turbo-four, offered in the Q5, Acura’s engine doesn’t benefit from a long, flat torque curve — maximum torque is only delivered after revving the mill halfway through its rev range.

While some competitors — notably Mini’s Cooper S Countryman All4 — offer drivers the choice of a manual transmission, the RDX makes do with only an automatic — and an aging five-speed unit, at that. Though the gearbox is sufficiently smooth and quick to respond to throttle input with a downshift; it isn’t quite as refined as the six- and eight-speed units found in competitors. It’s also no friend to fuel economy, either — the EPA rates front-wheel-drive RDXs at 19/24 mpg (city/highway), while all-wheel-drive models achieve a 17/22 mpg rating. For perspective, the larger (and heavier) Q5 3.2 V-6 earns an 18/23 mpg label.

A Hot Hatch In Disguise?
The four-cylinder’s output may lead buyers to think the RDX is a sport compact on stilts, but that impression quickly disappears when the crossover is driven briskly. Dampers are stiff enough to help curtail body roll, but the ride quality suffers greatly as a result, even with the stock 18-inch wheels (we’d avoid the 19-inch wheels — available through dealers — for this reason altogether). Steering is dead on center, and steering assist will likely prove a tad too much for true enthusiasts.

In our tester, mashing the go pedal is literally an all-hands-on-deck affair. Sending 240 horsepower through the front wheels is a recipe for torque steer and, the RDX exhibits plenty — all while simultaneously taxing the traction control system in an attempt to transform torque into forward motion.

Thankfully, there’s a solution: all-wheel-drive RDX models are fitted with Acura’s ubiquitous SH-AWD driveline. Not only is this system capable of sending 70 percent of the engine’s power to the rear axle (this aids greatly during launches), but it’s also capable of channeling that power to the outside rear wheel in turns. A short drive in an RDX SH-AWD revealed none of the torque steer exhibited by our front-wheel-drive tester, and thanks to the trick rear diff, the CUV felt much more agile in tight corners.

The Matter of Cost
Despite being positioned as an introduction to the Acura brand, the RDX isn’t wanting for content. Base front-wheel-drive models, which start at $33,480, include high-intensity discharge headlamps, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity, leather seating with heated front seats, a 360-watt audio system with a USB audio input, a moonroof, and six airbags as standard equipment.

Buyers seeking extra content have few additional options to choose from before hitting the list of dealer-installed accessories. Adding the aforementioned SH-AWD system bumps the MSRP up by $2000. An optional Technology Package, which adds navigation, programmable features, and the superb ELS surround sound system, tacks on an extra $3000. Add both features, and the base price for an RDX SH-AWD with the Tech package reaches a stout $38,580.

As the RDX has its toes in both the sport crossover and luxury crossover segments, it’s a little difficult to put that figure into context. On the one hand, it’s significantly cheaper than building a comparably equipped BMW X3 xDrive28i (doing so will run you close to $46,000). On the other, a number of challengers drive just as well — if not better — than the RDX, and cost a whole lot less. RDX customers may not think to cross-shop the model with the MINI Cooper S Countryman All-4, but the funky vehicle is a blast to drive. Better yet, add the same features found in a loaded RDX, and the Mini’s price tag comes in at nearly $3000 beneath the RDX.

Acura has the general formula — sporty with a dash of sophistication — down pat. Since competitors continue to pack their compact crossovers with upscale features, we’d love to see the company bestow its contender with some additional refinement — perhaps a revised cabin, along with a modern gearbox — in the near future. Considering a number of new rivals are expected to debut shortly (BMW’s X1 and the Audi Q3 are both believed to come stateside within the next two years), a refresh, even a mild refresh, may be imperative for the RDX to weather its next few years on the market

2011 Acura RDX

Base price: $33,480 (including $860 in destination)
Price as tested: $36,850 (RDX with Technology Package)

L x W x H: 182.5 x 73.6 x 65.2 in
Legroom F/R: 41.8/ 37.7 in
Headroom F/R: 38.7/ 38.3 in
Cargo capacity (seats up/ down): 27.8/ 60.6 cu ft
Curb weight: 3743-3942 lbs
EPA Rating (city/highway): 19/24 mpg (fwd), 17/22 mpg (SH-AWD)

Buying Guide
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19 City / 24 Hwy

Cargo (Std/Max):

NA / 60.6 cu. ft.