Acura RDX — Nimble crossover, sporty excitement

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The 2011 Acura RDX caught our attention in a big way. We had not driven an RDX since its first model year in 2007 and forgot just how enjoyable it is. If you have lost sight of the Acura — now in its fifth year of production — while shopping such products as the BMW X3 or Infiniti EX35 you might find it advantageous to take a test drive.

This is of course if you need the security of a sophisticated all-wheel drive system in a high-riding vehicle that goes fast, handles like a sports car and pampers its passengers with luxury appointments.

We were taken with this Acura more than with its big brother. If you need a third-row seat and enough towing capacity to pull a recreational vehicle or a boat the new MDX, which we drove just a couple weeks prior to taking delivery of the RDX does a lot of things well —including hauling a half dozen people and pulling the family boat — it costs more, it’s more ponderous in its performance and handling and it’s too big for our needs.

We only need room for four adults, we don’t tow anything, and driving this small, nimble crossover with loads of excitement fit us perfectly.

The RDX is a relatively new breed of animal, a small luxury crossover vehicle. The segment has mushroomed over the past few years and now includes such standouts as the aforementioned BMW and Infiniti as well as such newcomers at the Mercedes GLK350 and Audi Q5. But none in our view offer a better combination of sporty feel and performance than the RDX.

The RDX is equipped with a 2.3-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine generating 240 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque in a vehicle that can haul up to 60 cubic feet of stuff, go 0 to 60 in around 6.5 seconds with a quarter mile time of under 15 seconds at over 92 miles per hour, and skid pad numbers that simply outclass almost everything in the crossover segment regardless of size.

We had a load of fun throwing the RDX through the twists and turns of mountain and country roads and then accelerating on the straights. We were all smiles at the Acura’s precise and confidence-inspiring steering. We took pleasure in the thick steering wheel in our hands.

As we come down to earth we note that the RDX is a high-rider with 6.3 inches of ground clearance and an all-wheel drive system that not only moves torque from front to back, but from side to side as well. The torque management system not only helps in bad-weather situations, but in dry-road cornering maneuvers as well.

As much as 70 percent of the torque can be shifted to the rear wheels when accelerating and cornering, and up to 100 percent of that torque can be shifted to either side as conditions dictate.

The downside to the vehicle’s handling prowess is a stiff, jiggly ride that may be off-putting to some sensitive behinds. We had no problem with the ride, but we encourage prospective buyers to travel some uneven pavement during the test drive.

Going fast in a hurry means a slight bit of turbo-lag, but it’s hard to detect and the wonderful urgency displayed at any speed through the five-speed automatic is smile-inducing. The vehicle’s go-fast persona is enhanced with standard paddle shifters mounted on the steering wheel.

Some may be put off by the RDX styling, but we found it aggressive without being overdone. However, we liked the overall look better prior to the 2010 model year when Acura was compelled to slap the big-blade grille on the RDX. It looked so much cleaner with the old setup. It wouldn’t detract us from a purchase, but when will designers at Honda admit that the snowplow grille treatments on most of their recent vehicles just doesn’t cut it?

A footnote here — the 2011 RDX can be purchased in front-wheel drive only, which may be a consideration for those living in warm weather climates. Not only will it save a few bucks on purchase price, the 2WD is slightly more fuel efficient.

The interior is a great place to live. The leather-trimmed seats are comfortable and supportive and the gauges are as good as it gets. Three round hooded pods enclose backlit white, red and blue readouts that are as vivid in bright sun as they are at night. In addition to the speedometer, the center pod includes outside temperature, odometer and a display that shows the current torque split.

A wide swath of aluminum trim neatly breaks up the black textures. It can also be found along the edges of the center console and on the door pulls.

We highly recommend the technology package, which includes an easy to use navigation system with real-time traffic updates, a rearview camera, Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free phoning and a premium 410-watt surround-sound system that can play either CDs or DVD audio discs.

In that configuration, the RDX comes with the requisite controller knob just below the navigation screen. But it’s easy to use and most of the climate and audio controls can be accessed independently of the controller. Storage cubbies are handy and the center console bin is large enough to swallow up a small laptop computer.

Rear-seat passengers —provided there are only two — will find comfortable accommodations with enough head and leg room for long-distance travel. And when carrying cargo is paramount, the seatbacks can be folded 60-40 to open the rear to 60.6 cubic feet of space. There is a very usable 27.8 cubic feet behind the rear seats.

As with all Acura products, trim levels determine content. In the case of the RDX, it starts at $33,480 in base front-wheel drive format. If that is as far as your budget can take you, fear not. You will get a very well equipped vehicle that this year includes as standard equipment a great-sounding seven-speaker 360-watt audio system and a rear-view camera system integrated into the rear view mirror.

There are three other packages topping out at $38,580. That’s the one we drove.

The biggest downside to the RDX is gas mileage. It is EPA rated on premium fuel at 17/22 in all-wheel drive and a bit better 19/24 in front-wheel drive.

Base price: $33,480; as driven, $38,580
Engine: 2.3-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 240 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 260 foot-pounds @ 4,500 rpm
Drive: all-wheel
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 104.3 inches
Length: 182.5 inches
Curb weight: 3,942 pounds
Turning circle: 39.2 feet
Towing capacity: 1,500 pounds
Luggage capacity: 27.8 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 61 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 18 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 22 mpg highway, 17 mpg city
0-60: 6.5 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: BMW X3, Audi Q5, Mercedes GLK350

The Good:
• Muscular turbocharged engine
• Aggressive handling qualities
• Load of standard features for base price

The Bad:
• Suspension may be too stiff for some

The Ugly:
• Gas mileage on premium is anemic