New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2019 Acura RDX

Worthy of hype that has yet to be created

WHISTLER, Canada — “Beautiful British Columbia” is what it says on the license plates, and this is truth in advertising. The gorgeous forested mountains of the Canadian southwest provided the backdrop for the press preview of the new 2019 Acura RDX, a vehicle said to be absolutely critical for the marque—but then again, Acura seems to say that about every new car it launches nowadays. This time, however, the Acura folks are being as truthful as BC’s license plates.

Though it won’t come out and say it, the RDX must be something of a sore spot for Honda’s luxury division. It’s one of the strongest-selling models in the Acura lineup—not to mention the entire compact luxury SUV segment—and yet it’s also one of its most conservative offerings. Acura wants to be known for advanced technology, such as its sophisticated Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive system and the nifty Sport Hybrid drivetrain, and yet the current RDX employs a traditional V-6 engine and a low-tech, low-cost all-wheel-drive system. And so the RDX’s designers were given a delicate mission: Bring the car up to date without alienating existing customers.

The 2019 RDX rides on a new Acura-exclusive platform and wears a new design motif outside and in. It boasts an innovative control layout and a new-to-Acura turbocharged powertrain. And yet plenty remains relatively unchanged, including general size, configuration, and entry-level price point. Repeat RDX buyers will find plenty of familiar things to love, and the hope is that refugees from other brands—specifically, younger folks transitioning from a sporty sedan to an SUV—will as well.

From a driver’s perspective, the new RDX is quite good. Most recent Acura models have left me wanting in some way, but I found the RDX very satisfying to drive. Handling is a high point; the seasoned sedan drivers Acura is seeking will find the RDX’s steady ride, medium-weight heft, and lack of body roll to be utterly familiar. Still, in an era when most SUVs drive just like cars—when, from an architectural perspective, most of them are cars—the RDX manages to be slightly more car-like than its competitors. It’s a distinction as subtle as a passing breeze, and yet just as unmistakably present.

The RDX borrows its 2.0-liter turbo-four from the Honda Accord, though the engine has been modified for Acura duty. It’s rated at 272 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque, but foot-to-the-floor power isn’t as impressive as I had hoped. For most of the driving I did, however, the RDX’s engine felt right up to the task. It is also surprisingly quiet—noise suppression has never been a Honda strong point—and the full-throttle engine note toes the line between Honda’s sophisticated four-pot snarl and the deeper thrum of German 2.0Ts. (Acura uses electronic sound enhancement, which always disappoints me, though I suppose I can understand why; it’s probably best that the RDX doesn’t sound like a Civic at full tilt.) All 2019 Acura RDXs get Honda’s home-grown ten-speed automatic, a gem of a transmission that swaps its cogs unobtrusively under light throttle and yet firms up the shifts when the driver telegraphs even the slightest signs of urgency.

Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive lives up to its marketing hype, though you’d be hard-pressed to notice, the irony being that the best AWD systems are the least obtrusive. SH-AWD is a torque-vectoring system that can shift power between left and right rear wheels, and it uses this ability to improve dry-road handling by pushing power to the outside rear wheel. Acura demonstrated the system’s rear-drive bias by setting up a muddy slalom course and having the assembled autojournos run it in an RDX with stability and traction control disabled. Our brief was to go foot-to-the-floor from a dead stop, and the RDX gleefully spun its rear wheels and got itself as sideways as Lindsay Lohan on a bender. Point proven.

Still, there’s a lot more to a successful luxury vehicle than driving dynamics, and it’s in these other areas that the RDX is trying to push ahead. Take styling. Acura has chosen a design motif that is modern and attractive and yet instantly recognizable as an Acura—from the front, at least. The unadorned rear end does it no favors, however—the RDX looks like an Acura coming and a Honda going. The optional A-Spec package blacks out the RDX’s chrome trim, making it look sporty without veering off into silly. And kudos to Acura for not being afraid of bright colors: The RDX’s paint palette once again includes arrest-me red, bright blue and metallic brown.

The interior of the 2019 RDX is based on the Precision Interior Concept Acura showed on the 2017-2018 auto show circuit, and it’s a definite high point. The look is modern, mature, and purposeful. Genuine materials are all the rage nowadays, and Acura has gone nuts with genuine wood, genuine aluminum, and, in A-Spec models, genuine suede, though the leather is only genuine on three of the RDX’s four trim levels. Five interior colors are on offer, including a jazzy red offered only on A-Spec models. But the cabin’s styling is best enjoyed from the passenger’s side: Over on the left, the instrument binnacle is encased in a large slab of what appears at first glance to be Honda-grade plastic. It’s not; the driver’s dash is actually softly padded and feels great under the fingertips. Unfortunately, that’s not the first impression you get.

Making its debut on the new RDX is what Acura calls the True Touchpad Interface, which uses a touchpad on the center console to control the 10.2-inch HD display screen. Acura says the system provides the ease of a touch-screen but allows them to set the screen higher and further back, closer to the driver’s line of sight. It’s hard to pass judgment on this new interface with only a few hours’ experience; my first impression is that it’s not as easy to use as a touch-screen, but far more intuitive than Lexus’ mouse-like controller and less concentration-intensive than a dial controller.

Other interior details: Climate controls use traditional buttons and dials—thank Heaven!—and the heated and cooled seats have an automatic setting that works well. The front seats feature a pleasant pattern of stitching and piping and offer between twelve and sixteen modes of power adjustment; too bad about the lack of thigh support. Storage spaces are plentiful, though the RDX lacks a wireless phone charging pad.

Rear seat occupants fare pretty well, too. The seat is well sized and supportive, and the full-width flat floor is a nice feature. Legroom looks good on paper, but the lack of toe-space under the front seats makes it difficult to stretch out. On the upside, the standard-fit panoramic sunroof provides a spectacular view from the second row, especially in beautiful British Columbia.

Safety is also a priority for the RDX, with a full suite of driving assistance aids as standard equipment in all trim levels. The optional ELS Studio stereo system, which has four of its 16 speakers mounted in the roof, will make you fall in love with your music all over again (provided it’s on an iPhone; the RDX doesn’t offer Android Auto as the phone OS doesn’t support the new touch-pad interface). Those looking to buy American can feel good, too: Not only is the new RDX built in Ohio, with much of the content sourced from North American suppliers, but it was engineered and styled in the U.S. as well.

Value was a highlight of the outgoing RDX, and the new version follows suit. The $38,295 starting price (including destination) is identical to a 2018 RDX with the AcuraWatch safety suite, which was optional on the old car but standard on the new one. Acura will offer the RDX in four trim levels (base, Tech, A-Spec and Advance) and while the top-end price of $48,395 is $3,200 higher than the outgoing RDX—a reasonable increase considering all the new kit—it’s still seven to ten grand cheaper than comparably equipped European rivals.

All in all, the 2019 Acura RDX is an impressive effort. It’s not easy to execute a redesign that will attract new buyers without alienating the old ones, and I think Acura has managed to walk this narrow line without losing its balance. That said, brand image is a critical factor in a luxury buyer’s purchase decision, and in this respect Acura has a long way to go—nowadays an Acura doesn’t impress the neighbors the way a Mercedes or a BMW does. But this is a problem for the marketing team and not for the RDX, which is well worthy of the hype that Acura desperately needs to create.

2019 Acura RDX Specifications

ON SALE June 2018
PRICE $38,295 – $48,395
ENGINE 2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/272 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 280 lb-ft @ 1,600-4,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 10-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD/AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 21-22/26-28 (city/highway)
L x W x H 186.8 x 74.8 x 65.7 in
WHEELBASE 108.3 in
WEIGHT 3,783-4,068 lb
 0-60 MPH N/A
TOP SPEED N/A

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