Whistler, BC Canada When the 2007 Acura RDX debuted as one of the first compact luxury SUVs on the market, the competitive set was relatively small. Acura's idea was to attack the segment with an "urban running back" themed design, featuring a sports-car stiff suspension and Acura's first-ever turbocharged engine (it was also the first turbocharged automotive engine to be sold in the USA by any Honda brand). It was one of the first SUVs that was targeted towards enthusiasts, but enthusiasts weren't really biting. The 240hp turbocharged 2.3L 4-cylinder engine promised "6-cylinder" performance with the advantages of "4-cylinder" fuel economy, but it didn't quite work out that way in the end. In fact, the performance lagged Honda's own 6-cylinder engine, and so did the fuel economy. Sales weren't exactly brisk, despite the fact that the RDX offered Acura's trick Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive system (SH-AWD). As such, with the second generation RDX Acura pretty much bailed on the idea of offering a sporty compact SUV, and instead focused on delivering a vehicle that delivered a really good balance of luxury, comfort, value, performance, and efficiency. This flavor of RDX turned out to be very popular and became one of the best-selling models in the Acura lineup.
The third generation 2019 RDX arrives at a pivotal time in the history of Acura. Acura is entering yet another period of reinvention, and this time, it's different. Except it's sort of the same, as Acura claims that they are attempting to return to their "Precision Crafted Performance" roots. The 2019 RDX is the first product to launch in this time of reinvention, and Acura has set some very specific goals for it: 1) Elevate the brand 2) Increase emotion 3) Enhance luxury appeal 4) Modernize tech & connectivity 5) Strengthen fundamentals.
It begins with a shift back to a sportier mindset for Acura. The RDX's 272hp 3.5L V6 and conventional all-wheel-drive system are replaced with a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine and the 4th generation of Acura's torque vectoring Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH-AWD) system. A sporty new A-Spec trim level has been added to the linup as well.
Acura hosted a first drive event for the 2019 RDX last week and we were fortunate enough to have been a part of this event. We spent the better part of two days driving the new RDX Advance and RDX A-Spec (both SH-AWD) through the beautifully scenic roads of the Canadian Rockies. We also had the chance to compare the 2019 RDX to Acura's 4 chief targets on some of the same roads: BMW X3, Mercedes GLC 300, Volvo XC60, and Audi Q5. Acura freely admits that the RDX is more likely to be cross-shopped against its main Japanese rivals, the Lexus NX and Infiniti QX50, but they felt that it was important to emphasize that the 2019 RDX is strongly competitive with the vehicles which are considered to be the best in the segment.
Styling is subjective, of course, but we think the 2019 RDX is a sharp looking machine. Our favorite RDX is the A-Spec. The A-Spec looks amazing in the exclusive Apex Blue Pearl, but if we were to buy one it would likely be in white, because it also looks great and will be easier to keep looking clean. The A-spec's contrasting trim and darkened 20" wheels look especially appealing. The European competitors all take slightly different styling approaches, but they all seem to strive for a look of understated elegance. For better or for worse, the RDX is a bit more expressive with its styling elements.
The 2019 RDX has benefitted from some serious upgrades to the interior. It's packed with technology and premium materials. The Precision Cockpit design is not only very ergonomic, it is also extremely comfortable, particularly with the amazing 16-way power driver and passenger seats on the RDX Advance. The standard 12-way seats are quite nice as well. The new user interface afforded by the True Touchpad Interface™ has a bit of a learning curve at first but it seems to be excellent, with an extremely responsive infotainment system featuring a gorgeous widescreen 10.2" HD display. Apple CarPlay support is standard on all trim levels (with Android Auto support being added at a later date), and navigation is standard on all but the base trim level. The Natural Language Voice Recognition system that's integrated with the infotainment system is superb – it's truly one of the best we've ever encountered in a car. From a passenger standpoint, despite its compact exterior dimensions, the RDX can comfortably seat 4 adult males. Second row legroom, kneeroom, and headroom are truly impressive. The RDX's standard panoramic moonroof, extensive standard feature list, and class-leading passenger and cargo room make a very strong case for the RDX amongst its (more expensive) European counterparts. Once again, the European designs are generally elegant and understated, while the RDX uses more of a "high-tech meets luxury" approach.
Looks are important, but arguably the most important thing is how a car drives. And here, the 2019 RDX does not disappoint. The 3rd generation RDX gains an all new body structure, and it's immensely stiff. This stiffness enables many good things to happen. It improves crashworthiness, ride quality, handling, and NVH (Noise, Vibration, Harshness). A great chassis needs a great powertrain, and Acura has installed an amazing powertrain. It starts with a 2.0L DOHC 4-cylinder turbocharged engine featuring direct injection and VTEC (it is very similar to the 2.0T engine found in the all-new 2018 Accord). In RDX-spec, this engine produces 272hp and 280lb-ft of torque on the recommended 91-octane premium unleaded fuel. The output of this transversely-mounted engine is routed through Honda's excellent 10-speed automatic transmission. Again, this part is essentially lifted intact from the 2018 Accord 2.0T. The key difference is that the heavier RDX runs a shorter final drive ratio. This transmission pairs very well with the RDX's engine and delivers a responsive feel with superb shift quality and a good level of response through the paddle shifters.
The RDX is offered in front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive (Super Handling AWD) versions, though we've only had the opportunity to drive SH-AWD versions so far. The 2019 RDX is the first model to receive the upgraded 4th generation of SH-AWD, with the key enhancement being that the 4th generation unit has a 40% greater torque capacity. This means that Acura is able to send more torque to the rear drive wheels of the vehicle at lower speeds than ever before, which helps handling tremendously.
The RDX features 4 dynamic drive modes, accessible through the NSX-inspired dial at the front of the floating console. The standard mode is "Sport", which serves as a reminder that Acura is shifting their emphasis back towards performance. A twist to the right dials up "Sport+" mode, which firms up the dampers (Advance only), reduces steering assist to add some heft to the feel, and dials up more aggressive throttle, transmission, and SH-AWD torque vectoring maps. It also dials back the Active Noise Cancellation to allow a bit more of the "fun" sounds to enter the cabin. Going the other way, "Comfort" mode shares the throttle, transmission, and SH-AWD calibrations with the "Sport" mode, but it reduces the steering effort, softens the dampers, and maximizes the effect of the active noise cancellation. We didn't get the chance to test it out, but there is also a "Snow" mode which is specially designed to optimize everything for traversing slippery surfaces. Somewhat confusingly, the transmission selector also features a Sport mode setting. This allows you to dial up the same transmission shift maps that are employed in Sport+. In this mode, the top two gears are locked out, so the transmission operates in gears 1-8. Additionally, with Sport mode selected on the transmission selector, using the paddle shifters switches the transmission into a sequential manual mode.
For everyday driving, Sport mode seems to be the best fit, but we did find ourselves frequently twisting the knob over to Sport+ when we encountered the hillier and twistier portions of our prescribed drive route, and then switching it back to Sport mode when the conditions calmed. We are generally huge fans of the adaptive damper systems which are finding their way into more and more Acura (and Honda) products, and the RDX is no exception. Having the ability to switch the ride/handling tradeoff into 2 or 3 different modes on the fly is an extremely compelling feature. In the case of the RDX, the adaptive damper system is limited to the Advance models, but the good news is that the standard dampers found on all of the other trim levels do a very good job of striking a balance of ride and handling, and it places a very slight emphasis on the sportier side of the spectrum. For this reason, the adaptive damper system isn't necessarily a MUST have item on the RDX, which is good news if you really like the RDX A-Spec.
The RDX's electrically assisted power steering system (EPS) is much like every other Acura EPS system in that it doesn't really deliver much in the way of feel, especially when compared to a few of its European rivals. But on the plus side it is nicely weighted, responsive, and precise. The RDX's standard Acurawatch system includes Acura's Lane Keeping Assist (LKAS) system which helps reduce fatigue on longer road trips, and this system generally works very well on well-marked, divided highways.
We did not have the opportunity to drive the front-wheel-drive versions of the 2019 RDX, but we were told by several of the engineers that they actually prefer the light feel of the FWD versions over the SH-AWD versions. For now, we'll have to take their word for it, but we had tremendous fun driving the SH-AWD version. With its 40% improved torque capacity, the 4th generation SH-AWD unit really helps bend the RDX around corners at the types of velocities that don't seem possible. At very low speeds it still ultimately has a bit of a front-wheel-drive feel, but it doesn't take much road speed for that sensation to diminish to the point where the RDX develops a much more balanced feel, and the sensation that the rear is truly pushing you around corners. To demonstrate the new abilities of the 4th generation SH-AWD system, Acura set up a gravel test track and specially prepared a few RDXs by fully defeating their stability control and traction control systems. Then they invited us to drive the RDXs as quickly as possible through slalom cones on this narrow strip, in order to demonstrate how much rotation (yaw) that the new SH-AWD system could generate. This was an impressive demonstration and quite a bit of fun, as well.
Overall, the 2019 RDX provides the driver with a very good driving position, with all of the key controls falling readily to hand. The driving response is quite intuitive, with strong and firm braking feel. Sometimes you will hear Acura engineers talking about the car being designed to follow the will of the driver, and the RDX easily fits that description. Interior noise is kept well muted most of the time, though we did find the tires singing a bit louder over some of the more coarse road surfaces. The 2.0T engine sounds nice and throaty in the A-Spec. We thought it sounded a little sterile in the Advance though - unfortunately it seems that the added sound dampening materials of the Advance filter out some of the good stuff. There seems to be a little bit of boost lag when starting off from a stop, but for the most part the throttle is quite responsive and having peak torque of 280lb-ft available between 1600 and 4500rpms means that gear selection isn't quite as critical as it would be with peakier engines. Acceleration is brisk, but not mindbendingly quick. We performed some informal 0-60mph testing and found the RDX to hit that mark in about 6.3 seconds, a figure which placed it about a half second quicker than the quickest of the European competitors (Audi Q5) that were on hand. This makes sense as the RDX is one of the lightest vehicles in its class while simultaneously delivering the most horsepower, for the best power to weight ratio (by 9%-13%) in its category.
Fuel economy seems to be the one area where the RDX's powertrain delivers only average results. FWD versions with the 19" wheels are good for EPA ratings of 22/28/24 mpg (city/hwy/combined), while the SH-AWD models are rated at 21/27/23 mpg. For the A-Spec models with 20" wheels, the highway fuel economy takes a 1mpg hit in both cases, but the combined rating remains unchanged.
In terms of overall feel, we found the Audi Q5 to probably be the best of the competitors and closest in feel to the RDX. The Q5 has a sprightly sense of eagerness and response to every input, and feels light on its feet and athletic without resorting to an overly stiff suspension, though it could benefit from slightly stiffer damping. It also has a slightly more rear-biased feel to the power delivery, which we prefer. Mechanically it is very polished and the interior design is very nice. Similarly equipped to the RDX Advance, the Q5 stickers for about $8000 more, though, and that gap can actually grow as you compare some of the lower trim levels with equivalent equipment. The X3 came up second amongst the competitors. The powertrain didn't feel quite as lively as the Q5's, and while the chassis was fundamentally good, we felt that there was too much throttle-induced understeer. The GLC was a reasonably nice drive but the chassis was softly damped and a bit too springy, and the powertrain didn't feel nearly as responsive as the Q5. Bringing up the rear is the XC60. The XC60 is interesting because its design stands out in this crowd and both the interior and exterior are beautifully finished. This is about where the praise ends, though, as it drives too much like a Volvo. It's not bad, but in this company it feels a little boring.
When we think about this third generation RDX, we can't help but to remember how the third generation Acura TL splashed onto the scene. Here was a car that fired a shot clear across the prow of the finest German makes, upped the ante on power, performance, technology, and features while simultaneously undercutting them in price by a sizable margin. That TL turned out to be a HUGE success for Acura, and we sort of think that this RDX could provide a similar sort of repeat performance for Acura. It clearly belongs in the conversation with the best of the European examples, it delivers equivalent or more performance, equivalent or more features and technology, top class safety and a price that undercuts all of them.
1 Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) excluding tax, license, registration, $995 destination charge and options. Dealer prices may vary. 2 Based on 2019 EPA fuel economy ratings. Use for comparison purposes only. Your mileage will vary depending on how you drive and maintain your vehicle, driving conditions and other factors.