First Drive: 2013 Acura RDX

Acura's first-generation RDX crossover suffered from a bit of an identity crisis: it packed an exciting, enthusiast-oriented powertrain into a CUV, but trailed competitors when it came to ride quality, refinement, and sophistication. The entire package led one Automobile editor to suggest last year that Acura needed to "commit to competing against the big boys and develop a vehicle that can meet them head on."

Thankfully, the automaker did just that. The all-new 2013 Acura RDX, which was first shown at the 2012 Detroit auto show in "concept" form, promised to be the sporty yet sophisticated crossover the first-generation model never was. We recently had a chance to slide behind the wheel to find out for ourselves.

A Slightly Different Aim

The 2013 RDX not only represents an all-new model, but for Acura, a new way of thinking about its entry-level crossover model. Acura originally thought the RDX would appeal to a well-heeled young male, which it termed an "urban achiever." These buyers, Acura said, would be single or actively dating, reside in a trendy downtown loft apartment, rake in about $100,000 annually, and desire to "work and play hard."

But market research doesn't necessarily equate to marketplace success. Perhaps that's why sales never exactly took off: after 23,000 units moved out the door in 2007, RDX annual sales slid to just over 10,000 vehicles in 2008. Volumes grew slightly to 15,000 units in 2009, and have remained at that mark ever since.

What happened? Is the urban achiever a mythical creature of marketing folklore? Not necessarily: Jan Moore, product planner for the 2013 RDX, says that demographic exists, but they're not that interested in buying entry luxury crossovers -- even if they are equipped with turbochargers and torque-vectoring drivelines.

Instead, Acura found customers in this segment fell into two groups: either they were couples in their late 20s and early 30s, or they were empty nesters looking to downsize their vehicle choice. Despite nearly two decades of age disparity between those two audiences, both sought a level of maturity and refinement the original RDX didn't exactly deliver -- but the new 2013 RDX does.

The RDX's New Clothes

Certainly, the new RDX looks more upscale than before. While the previous model's lanky, long-nosed proportions almost mimicked a tall hatchback, the new RDX looks more balanced. Stretching the wheelbase by 1.5 inches allowed designers to place the standard 18-inch wheels at the corners of the vehicle, lending it an aggressive and planted stance. Ginsu-sharp character lines no longer dominate the RDX's exterior; instead, fenders, fascias, and shoulders are softer and more fluidic than ever before.

The 2013 RDX may look considerably larger (in fact, it's almost easy to mistake it for an MDX), but that's little more than an optical illusion. Overall length is only an inch greater than the previous model, while its width only increased by a tenth of an inch. Subsequently, the 2013 RDX is roughly in the middle of a diverse group of premium small crossovers: it's about an inch and a half longer than the Audi Q5, BMW X3, and Infiniti EX35, but roughly three inches shorter than the Lincoln MKX, four inches shorter than the Lexus RX350, and seven inches shy of the portly Cadillac SRX.

Acura does lead the class in terms of weight: a base front-wheel-drive 2013 RDX tips the scales at only 3717 pounds, while an all-wheel-drive model weighs in at 3838 lbs.

An Interior to Match

The 2013 RDX interior evolved in step with its exterior: the new cabin is far more upscale and attractive than that of its predecessor. A dual-cowl upper dashboard section neatly flows into the center console, which intersects an argent trim accent that stretches across the entire instrument panel. It's not only an attractive design, but is far more user friendly than the previous RDX: climate controls are simple, concise, and grouped together instead of being strewn between audio and navigation controls.

The materials used within are a refreshing departure from the last Acura RDX, which was riddled with dark, hard plastics across the instrument and door panels. Most plastic surfaces are nicely grained, soft-touch materials, but Acura dresses things up by inserting a sizable amount of leatherette-trimmed accents into the front and rear door panels. The center console isn't as expansive as before (the previous RDX center console could swallow a sizable laptop computer whole), but a covered cubby contains both the USB audio input and 12-volt power outlet, and keeps devices tethered to either tucked out of sight.

Bucking The Turbo-Four Trend

The original RDX seemed to lead a wave of manufacturers adopting small, turbocharged four-cylinder engines in lieu of a conventional six-cylinder engine, but the 2013 RDX doesn't follow in its footsteps.

While other automakers are downsizing their engine portfolios, the 2013 RDX eschews the old 2.3-liter turbocharged I-4 in favor of a 3.5-liter SOHC V-6, similar to that offered in the front-wheel-drive Acura TL and the Honda Odyssey. In RDX guise, the 3.5-liter produces 273 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque. Compared to the old turbo-four, that's an increase of roughly 33 horsepower, although torque does drop roughly 9 lb-ft. It is, however, fairly comparable to many of its six-cylinder competitors, including the Audi Q5 3.2 (270 hp), the Lexus RX350 (270 hp), the outgoing BMW X3 xDrive28i (240 hp), and the Volvo XC60 (240 hp).

Despite the increase in power and cylinder count, the new RDX is more fuel efficient than before. A new six-speed automatic not only provides a wider gearing spread than before, but the V-6 itself also features cylinder deactivation, allowing it to run under on three or four cylinders when under light load.

Another gain came by revising the optional all-wheel-drive system. Though the previous SH-AWD system, which was capable of sending 70 percent of torque to the rear axle and shuffling that power between the rear wheels, the new system -- which is biased towards the front wheels but capable of splitting power 50/50 once wheelslip is detected -- is less expensive, less complicated, and considerably lighter than the old SH-AWD system.

These revisions add up to a noticeable decrease in fuel consumption. Acura says the 2013 RDX front-wheel-drive model should earn EPA ratings of 20/28 mpg (city/highway) once testing is completed. That's a mild increase over the previous RDX, which was rated at 19/24 mpg, but it's one of the best ratings for a front-wheel-drive CUV in the segment. All-wheel-drive models are expected to clock in at 19/27 mpg -- a big increase over the previous all-wheel-drive RDX, which was rated at a meager 17/22 mpg.

How's It Drive?

We'll miss the woosh of the turbo and SH-AWD's ability to tuck the tail into a sharp corner, but the 2013 RDX does feel worlds different than its predecessor. The V-6 delivers brisk acceleration, although the shift quality from the six-speed automatic is occasionally a little jarring. All-wheel-drive is no longer a must-have option in terms of curbing torque steer; front-wheel-drive models no longer veer under hard acceleration.

Acura also did a commendable job of walking the line between comfort and sportiness in terms of chassis tuning. The RDX's ride quality is firm, but dual-stage dampers do an admirable job of ironing out minor imperfections in the road surface. The electric power steering is a bit light and numb for our tastes, but a lowered center of gravity allows the RDX to feel less top-heavy when thrown into a corner. Acura engineers obsessed over brake tuning, and it shows: the RDX has a surprising amount of bite coupled with firm, linear pedal travel.

We suspect most RDX shoppers will instead appreciate the new refinement on the road. The interior is quiet, thanks in part to additional noise insulation and a new active noise cancelation system. Engine noise is kept to a minimum, leaving faint wind noise near the B-pillars and mild tire noise as the only intrusions into the cabin.

Model Mix

The ways one can order a 2013 RDX are again kept to a minimum. Base RDX models, which start at $35,205, feature leather seating with heated front surfaces, keyless entry and ignition, a power moonroof, rear-view camera, a 360-watt audio system with USB/iPod input, and a new infotainment system (which provides Pandora Internet radio and text messaging functionality when paired with a smartphone) as standard equipment. Adding all-wheel-drive bumps the MSRP to $36,605. Opt for the Advance Package, which adds navigation, a power liftgate, foglamps, and HID headlamps, and the window sticker will grow by another $3700.

Do we, as enthusiasts, miss the snort of the turbocharged four-cylinder, or the way the SH-AWD system allowed the RDX's rear to rotate into tight corners? Perhaps -- but the vast majority of shoppers in this segment won't. Instead, they'll find Acura finally has a stylish, sophisticated crossover that drives as nicely as it looks -- or, put another way, one that finally competes head on the big boys.

2013 Acura RDX

On sale: April 2012
Base price: $35,205
Price as tested: $40,305

3.5-liter DOHC V-6
Power: 273 hp @ 6200 rpm
Torque: 251 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed
Drive: Front-wheel, all-wheel

L x W x H:
183.5 x 73.7 x 66.1 in
Legroom, F/R: 42.0/ 38.3 in
Headroom, F/R: 38.7/ 38.1 in
Cargo capacity (seats up/down): 26.1/ 61.3 cu ft
Curb weight: 3717-3852 lbs
EPA Rating (city/highway): 20/28 (FWD), 19/27 (AWD)

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