As the Acura brand struggles, a new generation of its compact crossover introduces a new interior and infotainment system.
Acura has struggled mightily for the past few years in many ways. Its designs have been panned, sales have stalled, reliability has fallen, and performance has fallen from competitive and innovative to disappointing and behind the times. The flagship RLX sedan is a laughingstock in the luxury world for its meager sales and the bestselling MDX SUV continues to see sales dwindle despite a recent update and yet another new grille. At the other end of the spectrum, the compact ILX sedan had a brief moment in the sun until the refreshed Audi A3 sedan and Mercedes CLA showed up and completely overshadowed it. Not to mention the new Civic and its Type R variant that needs to be a compact Acura coupe version yesterday.
Meanwhile, the shining beacon of performance hope, the NSX, took so long to come to market that it is already forgotten and just three of them were sold in the entire United States in July. To give that some perspective, Audi sold 76 R8s and Mercedes sold 104 AMG GTs last month.
Frankly, the brand simply cannot generate any excitement at either end of the market, so instead they are turning to the middle, launching the 2019 Acura RDX with an all-new platform and drastically reimagined interior in the hotter-than-hot compact crossover segment. This is no lukewarm redesign reliant on marketing buzzwords, but a ground up clean sheet design with new chassis, new engine, and infotainment system that bring it right up to speed and create a template for a new generation of Acuras to come. To say this is an important product for the brand is an understatement, and Acura has done its best to revive the magic of old and keep the value and practicality that Acura’s SUVs have come to be known for. But is it good enough to earn our approval and to be on your shopping list?
I obviously can’t tell you how to feel about the design, but I can say that I quite like it, as Acura finally seems to have landed on a decent grille design that is neither too challenging nor too bland, and the little diamonds both catch and reflect light and create a cool 3D effect around the big Acura badge. The multi-lens ‘Jewel-Eye’ headlights are nicely wrapped in DRL strips and chrome so they don’t look too alien, and the body is detailed in creases and chrome and intakes that actually have some passing function, with a window line that hints at a coupe-like silhouette but a straight roof that doesn’t compromise practicality.
While the surface design helps maximize aerodynamic efficiency over, under, around and through the RDX, the all-new platform is over 40 pounds lighter yet 38 percent stiffer, benefitting efficiency, performance, safety, and comfort. However, while the underlying architecture may be lighter thanks to aluminum and ultra-high-strength steel in key components and high-performance structural adhesives, Acura hasn’t skimped on sound deadening materials, using acoustic spray foam for the first time in the RDX and other sound insulation strategies, keeping the cabin quiet but resulting in an overall weight gain of about 50 pounds, 3,783 lb for the base front-wheel-drive model and up to 4,019 lb when equipped with all-wheel drive.
Despite the overall weight gain and seven less horsepower, the new RDX is faster, handles better and drives better in almost every way. Yes, the peak 272 horsepower from this 2.0-liter turbo actually arrives later than the peak 279 in the previous-gen RDX’s V6, but Acura provided this little output graph showing that at every point from 1,500 to about 5,000 rpm, the new engine is putting down a bit more power and A LOT more torque. You can see that at 2,000 rpm, the old V6 was making barely 200 lb-ft and not hitting its peak until 5,000, but the new turbo is already spooled up at 1,600 rpm, and that peak 280 lb-ft is on tap all the way up to 4,500 rpm.
You feel this power surge in pretty much every situation, whether sticking with the Sport mode hand hammering the throttle at every chance, or just mildly accelerating in Comfort mode, where all that torque still easily gets the RDX up to speed even with the 10-speed transmission shifting quickly to preserve efficiency. The new 10-speed transmission does do its job in terms of efficiency, earning the RDX at best 22 mpg city, 28 highway and 24 combined in base FWD trim or 21 / 27 / 23 mpg for the all-wheel drive models, and the big 20-inch wheels of the A-Spec package add one highway mpg to either of those. The 18.1 mpg I managed in the fully loaded RDX SH-AWD Advance Package is more of an indication of how much I enjoyed driving it than how efficient it can be.
Aside from the torquier, better-performing engine, the RDX has rediscovered some chassis magic that has felt missing from Acuras of late in all but the NSX. The Dynamic mode dial has pride of place, reminding you to give it a clockwise twist and unleash Sport or Sport+.
Sport+ did seem a tad excessive with the throttle a hair trigger and the transmission revving the snot out of the engine and perhaps offering a touch more speed and immediacy than a family-friendly car really needs. Then again, the RDX finally seems to live up to the “Super Handling” of the SH in SH-AWD. Up to 70 percent of torque can be diverted to the rear axle, and all of that 70 percent can be directed to either side, making for a significant slingshot effect of torque vectoring that you can distinctly feel giving you more stability when taking curves excessively optimistically. The RDX also has the same Agile Handling Assist that we discovered on the Civic Type R, braking the inside front wheel to double down on helping the RDX stay on line and combat understeer in corners.
While the crossover remains impressively balanced, the 235/55R19 all-season tires squirm and squeal beyond their grip when you truly start to have fun. The wider, lower-profile tire of the A-Spec Package might unlock another sliver of capability, but it’s truly not necessary, and the 19-inch tires delivered adequate ride comfort along with the front MacPherson struts and five-link independent rear suspension. The RDX at the very least features “Amplitude Reactive Dampers” that has two sets of reaction profiles in response to driving conditions. The Advance package takes it up a notch with electronically controlled active dampers than can vary the responses of each individual wheels based not only on road surface conditions but also information from the car’s performance sensors and working in concert with the driving modes to heighten performance limits.
The steering, while feeling completely vague and digital, still responds with the right balance of speed and weight, the Comfort mode effortless and light, Sport and Sport+ progressively increasing weight and immediacy. Okay, that's a lot of time to spend talking about a compact crossover’s handling potential. It’s not on the order the Civic Type R I mentioned, nor would it be able to keep up with an SQ5 or X3 M40i or AMG GLC 43 around a track, but no one takes those onto a track anyway. The RDX meets and exceeds any of the dynamic limits you can safely toy with on public roads, and then some, with the incredibly sophisticated all-wheel-drive system also ready to provide stability and security in snowy or wet conditions at any time of year.
However, you will likely find RDXs plying the congestion and frustration of rush-hour traffic, so that comfortable ride and steady steering are able companions in those conditions, with adaptive cruise with low-speed follow and lane-keeping assist and more standard. The adaptive cruise and steering assist aren’t as smooth as some in the segment and the forward collision alert is a tad jumpy, but overall they still reduce the tediousness of and stress of a busy commute, allowing you to enjoy a stellar sound system.
The Advance and A-Spec models’ ELS Studio 3D audio features a 710-watt system with 16 speakers, which is audiophile grade, and even base models offer a 9-speaker setup ready for satellite radio or your personal favourites via USB or input back. Apple CarPlay is ready and working, but Android Auto is not yet available owing to the brand new setup of Acura’s new True Touchpad Interface.
Ah, the touchpad… Now, touchpads are starting to accumulate a lot of baggage after several attempts by a few different companies have resulted in unintuitive, difficult interfaces, but Acura thinks it's found the key in “absolute positioning”.
Ironically, despite being incompatible with Android Auto, the operating system is Android based, and Acura has come up with clean, attractive visuals coming through with crisp definition on the 10.2-inch HD display. Absolute positioning means the points of the touchpad correspond to the parts of the screen – i.e. top middle on the touchpad is top middle on the screen and bottom right is bottom right – and smaller zone of the split screen has its own nifty little finger pad that has only vertical swiping between the three common fixed functions, but it’s clickable to launch that on the main screen.
Almost anything you might need to use frequently can be added as a favorite to the multiple screens or tacked on at the end of the head-up display menu. And for traditionalists, there’s still a volume knob if you can’t get used to using the steering wheel controls.
Acura made the point of sending a product expert out when I picked up the car, who gave me a walk through of the basic layout and navigating principles, and offered quick pointers that massively sped up my acclimation period. I was setting up radio station shortcuts and favorite phone numbers before I was even clear of the parking lot. In fact, I got used to the infotainment system quicker than I did to the transmission button shifter, which still gives me fits even though it is clearly laid out and simple – muscle memory of reaching for a shifter from years of driving is just too ingrained.
Looking and feeling beyond the shifter and infotainment system, the RDX interior is a revelation in quality as well, with rich, creamy leather, open-pore wood, and a unique wood-panelled scroll-top cover for the console storage and cupholders. That storage is generous and well thought out with an ideal slot for a phone paired with a USB port, and then a larger compartment under the armrest for further odds and ends. Storage for larger items is plentiful in the trunk, which measures 31.1 cubic feet and growing to 79.8 with the 60/40 split rear seats dropped flat, and a fairly deep well under the floor panel even fitting my laptop bag.
Humans should be just as comfortable, with satisfactory space in both rows except in the middle rear, and being the top trim, our backsides enjoyed a cool breeze all week long in the front seats, and both rows were heated. It’s a comfortable, practical, luxurious interior, but what might have been most relaxing was its price.
Granted, all the compact crossovers advertise prices starting in the high thirties or low forties, but the 2019 Acura RDX isn’t just impressive that its $37,300 starting price remained the same as last year’s model even with all the mechanical improvements and feature upgrades. At that price, with synthetic leather and minimum feature content it won’t have clear separation from other base models, but climb the four simple trim levels and you’re not even eclipsing $50,000. As tested, the SH-AWD Advance Package came to $48,395 with the $995 Destination fee taken into account and simply blows away the Europeans when it comes to feature content at that price.
Granted, Acura has lost some of its luster over the past decade, so it doesn’t have the cachet of the Germans, and the slightly exotic appeal of Volvo, Jaguar, or Alfa Romeo. And, to be honest, pound for pound the Q5 and X3 still drive a bit better in my opinion, with supple, athletic manners and a more solid overall feel. However, it takes many thousands of dollars more to get the same equipment and quality from those leading competitors in the segment and the 2019 RDX meets every need for a compact crossover and checks every box for a luxury vehicle. Boasting flashes of dynamic prowess that are more than anyone needs, but just enough to spark some interest and passion that the brand was missing for so long.