The 2013 Acura RDX
Price, drive is great, but some premium features are missing

After spending a couple days in the Sonoran Desert with the 2013 Acura RDX I had reached two key conclusions.

First, the new RDX is a big turnaround for Acura, taking a relatively boring under-performer and transforming it into a vehicle that is both fun to drive and refined in a new-money sort of way.  Second, I could not help but feel that despite how impressive the vehicle's performance is -- compared to some of its competitors comparables -- Honda Motor Comp., Ltd. (TYO:7267) is going about things in the hardest way possible, in some cases, tech-wise.  This is interesting to note, but generally does not detract from the vehicle given its strong performance.

I. Looks and Features

The 2013 Acura RDX is the second generation of Acura's entry-level luxury crossover SUV (2 rows of seats, seats 5).  The vehicle is being produced domestically in East Liberty, Ohio and goes on sale on April 2, 2012.

Price-wise Acura has taken an approach similar to Ford Motor Comp. (F) offering standard features that its competitors typically offer as options, such as standard USB iPod comptability, SMS text messaging, premium audio, power moonroof, power seats, and hands-free voice commands, among others.

Acura also offers one of the best backup cameras in the industry, standard.  I'm a staunch critic of most backup cameras in their current state, as I feel they create more accidents, than they prevent.  As most cameras cover a narrow strip of view, they do prevent running over things directly behind/beneath your vehicle (such as a family pet), however, staring forward when you're backing up is an instant ticket to hitting objects to the rear-back sides of your vehicle.  So with traditional backup cams Fido will be safe, but your neighbor, not so much.

By contrast Acura's backup cam is "multi-view", meaning it covers a much broader stretch of view.  It's a bit wild at first -- the human eyes are not used to having that much perspective -- we're not a deer.  But ultimately, multi-view generally offers what traditional backup cams do not -- a safe way to backup up while looking at your display.

In terms of looks, the exterior is slightly more aggressively styled than its predecessor, though nothing earth-shattering.  Where as the previous generation screamed mundane luxury, the new version features a bolder front (think Cadillac), sharper lines, and larger wheels (which also add to the performance -- more on that later).  Acura describes its design approach as "sleek upper, strong lower" (translated).

Curiously some features -- rain-sensing wipers, Active Park Assist (APS)Blind Spot Information System (BLIS), dimming mirrors, adaptive cruise control -- were notably absent.  There's a small possibility that these features could be unmentioned options, but they were not in the vehicles we tested.

II. Price

Jeff Conrad, Acura VP pitches the vehicle stating that the RDX gives you, "The good feeeling of buying something better, not because you have to, but because you want to and because you can."

But if that sounds a bit aloof, be aware that Acura's RDX is an entry level luxury vehicle, hence it is being marketed heavily at increasingly affluent Generation Y byers.  If I had a dollar for every time Acura mentioned "Gen. Y" or DINK (dual-income no kids) in the presentation I'd be a rich man.  But looking at the styling it's clear this is a vehicle that is design specifically to appeal to this segment (though Acura says it's also targeting empty-nester couples).

Acura's vehicle is aggressively priced at about $8k beneath Audi's Q5 crossover and BMW's X3 xDrive28i crossover.  While these were Acura's selected comparison points, some other points of reference (based on current pricing) are seen below:
price comparison
(Click to enlarge)

As most manufacturers' typically clumped options in a way that made it impossible to get a direct comparable, I picked an optionless version (comparable-) with only matching options, and a more-optioned version with packages that included overlapping options and options not found in the Acura RDX (comparable+).  While they're not luxury vehicles I threw in the 7-seat Dodge Durango CUV and the 2013 Ford Explorer as examples of a mid- and high-range consumer CUVs.

Of course, the number from Acura was direct from their presentation, so that figure may or may not see a small change when the pricing goes live online.

Ultimately the pricing reveals that Acura's new RDX may be marketed as a luxury vehicle, but it's priced like a high-end mainstream vehicle.  It fact, it appears to narrowly beat some high-end consumer vehicles (such as Ford's 2013 Explorer) in price, though not in features for well-equipped models.

III. Driving Impressions

a. NVH

Compared to the first generation RDX, the Audi Q5 (V6), and BMW X3 xDrive28i, which Acura provided for comparisons, the NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) was quite good.  The front row was noticeably quieter than its predecessor, and matched the Q5.  The BMW had a great deal of unpleasant engine noise (among other issues) -- basically a high pitch whir that sounded like an overactive gerbil on a wheel (the vehicle was brand new, so I'm not sure where the X3's problems came from).

2013 Acura RDXs lined up

Acura's front-of-the-pack performance NVH-wise comes thanks to a major revamp of the suspension system.  Overall the vehicle frame was made 25 percent more vertically rigid and 142 percent (Acura's number) more laterally rigid.  A new input-separating mounting design dampener, which spreads upwards force in two directions was also added.  The spring rigidity was cut down 15 percent and compensated by a larger 60R18 tire, up from the first generations 55R18 tire.

I drove over some slightly rugged terrain, but nothing too extreme.  Overall the vehicle's ride was relatively silent, with tire noise dominating more than motor noise.  Granted this wasn't exactly a streets of Detroit (aka pothole city USA) torture test, but it did give a rough idea that NVH was a strength

b. Handling

Handling was another strength of the vehicle.  Here comes the part where Acura made life a bit difficult for itself.

It scrapped the thrust-vectoring, which allowed the computer to drive each wheel at different speeds.  In its place motion adaptive electronic power steering (EPS), which compensates for oversteering and understeering.  It also lowered the center of gravity, widened the wheelbase, lengthened the wheelbase, bumped the wheel size, and lowered the vehicle.

Together this grab bag of tweaks made the 2013 RDX feel much more responsive than the first generation base models for both the front wheel drive and all wheel drive models.  We were taking steep, curvy hill descents at 65-75 mph, and the handling performed beautifully.

2013 Acura takes the hill

Granted on the most extreme curves we did have to reduce speed slightly.  Thus if there's a weakness based on the lack of super handling/vector thrust, you'll probably see it only on the sharpest corners -- the kind rarely encountered during standard driving.

c. Acceleration

Again, here seemingly Acura made life difficult for itself by going the unusual route of variable cylinder management (VCM) rather than the prevailing industry approach of direct injection+turbocharging, with many also opting for hybrid variants [1][2].

It scrapped the turboed I4 of the first generation model and adopting Honda's 6-speed 3.5L i-VTEC engine, with variable cylinders management.  The engine puts out 273 hp at 6,2000 RPMs, bumping horsepower approximately 33 hp.

2013 Acura RDX pair

While the engine is rather old hat, Acura invested substantial time into perfecting the shifting mechanism for hill ascent, descent, and flat travel under all kinds of acceleration/deceleration scenarios.

The result is a 19/27/22 mpg AWD (city/hwy/combined) and a 20/28/23 mpg FWD vehicle.  But while that lean performance comes from liberal deactivation of cylinders down to 3 or 4 cylinder mode, Honda's new code ensures that when you demand performance all six cylinders come blazing into full effect.

Acceleration was on par with the also-quite-good V6 Audi Q5.  Passing cars was a joy and remarkably easy.

When driving the first generation model, the difference in acceleration was substantial.

By contrast the BMW X3 xDrive28i felt heavy and underpowered.  The accelerator pedal fought you (versus the Q5 and RDX which could be smoothly floored) every step of the way and the engine took painfully long to respond to flooring the pedal.  Also when backing off after flooring the pedal, the new RDX and Audi Q5 both responded appropriately decreasing the RPM, noticeable by the quickly quieted engine noise.  By contrast the BMW X3 28i continued to rev well after it should have toned down, a painful noise to listen to.

Fortunately, BMW is replacing this engine, but it definitely was a head-scratcher.

By contrast the second-gen RDX performed wonderfully, much better than its predecessor, placing itself in the league of the Audi Q5.  Again, I can't help but feel that Honda/Acura is taking the most difficult road (pun) possible here.  Looking ahead Acura looks to switch its lineup largely to direct injected and turbocharged engines, by all indications.

2013 Acura RDX by hill

That said, in the long run Honda/Acura's experience VCM-wise could allow it to merge VCM with GDI, turbocharging, and possibly even a hybrid system.  While incredibly complicated, such a system arguably may be the goal of every automaker, and Honda/Acura -- along with Chrysler and Volkswagen, have the VCM part of the experience equation, at least.

iv. In-Car Electronics

The iPod connecting system worked without fuss.  The sound system's quality was okay, but did not really wow.  The voice commands were actually quite good -- Acura has a great help system for its "SYNC-like" system -- better than Ford, arguably, although the functionality in interface trail well behind Ford.

Acura made the wise choice of not-overhyping its infotainment system, a mistake made by Toyota Motor Comp. (TYO:7203).  My expectations were low, but I came away pleasantly surprised.

Two gripes about the system, though.  First there's this horrible navigation scroll wheel that prominently juts out of the center vertical stack.  It's by far the most prominent feature in the middle of the car.  And you should never touch it while you're driving.  That's right, the most prominent feature is unusuable to the driver.

To me this is a very poor design choice.  If only that were the volume knob, my hands were happy (that's what I thought it would be, and found myself unconciously trying to use it like a volume knob several times).  Instead, I was greeted with an unusable (while driving) massive navigation knob.

2013 Acura interior
That center knob looks a lot bigger when sitting in the driver's perspective.  
It really should be a volume knob... 

Secondly, the optional navigation system does not allow you to enter addresses by voice while driving -- and it doesn't even allow your passenger to enter them via the interface (for safety reasons -- the assumption is presumably the driver might try to do this solo).  In short, this dramatically reduces the usefulness of the nav system, and make it so you're better off skipping it and tossing in a portable GPS or smartphone with turn-by-turn.

IV. Conclusions

The RDX is an interesting vehicle, not quite the traditional premium luxury, yet not quite a mass-market SUV.  It's good at what it does and stacks up favorably against some vehicles.

That said, there's substantial threats from the mass market (the Ford Explorer) and from the luxury market (e.g. the Range Rover Evoque). Acura is clearly targeting younger luxury buyers, which may help it somewhat given that many of its competitors (e.g. BMW, Volvo) skew towards an older demographic.

The RDX did things the tough way, dropping super handling and turbocharging in favor of a major body/suspension rework and VCM with new engine controller code.  The result is impressive -- Acura more than broke even.  But the question remains whether Acura could have gone even farther had it chosen to simply improve SH, improve its turbo I-4.

Acura RDX

The RDX is well priced for a buyer that wants a brand traditionally viewed as entry-level luxury, but doesn't have the means to reach into the higher end (e.g. Land Rover Evoque).

The RDX is a fun ride.  The vehicle has no glaring flaws.  

On the other hand, while it's a big step forward for Acura (who admits they were behind their luxury competitors), it's only a small step forward over the competitors' previous generation models.  In that regard it's not a vehicle for all luxury buyers -- though it might be the right one for some.

2013 RDX looking out on lake

(We'll bring you our impression on the 2013 Acura ILX standard and hybrid sedans [more coverage: 1, 2] next month, we currently can't disclose them and are awaiting final details.)

(All Images property of Jason Mick/DailyTech LLC)

(Special thanks to my SLR photography "guru" John Cottone, for helping improve my amateur photography skills.)

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