Driven: 2013 Acura RDX

By Seyth Miersma

March 28, 2012

—Scottsdale, Arizona
The current, now outgoing, Acura RDX was a pretty rad small crossover for car enthusiasts that mostly care about a vehicle being fun to drive. With a punchy, roaring, turbocharged four-cylinder engine, stickum and grace thanks to Super Handling-All Wheel Drive, and the sort of puggish good looks than only a fanboy could really love, it was a crossover that largely defied the standard formula.
That all sounds like high praise to us, whose Involvement Index-flavored outlook on life generally finds us lukewarm about “standard” crossovers. But the truth is that Acura had aimed the first RDX at a young, hip, male demographic, but found that most actual buyers were older, empty-nest Boomers. With that information clear, and a next-generation RDX due up, the automaker set its sights on a vehicle that was a bit larger, more comfortable, and far more traditional than the punk-rock first-gen car.
[Click here to read our review of the 2012 Cadillac SRX.]
With that as background, it would be difficult to rate this 2013 RDX as anything but a direct bullseye for Acura’s development team. This new crossover sort of “joins the herd” in terms of overall character and performance, and then immediately attempts to gain separation in the more traditional arenas of ride quality, content, fuel economy, and price. 
Apart from the alteration of the exterior appearance—we’re guessing that the new RDX will probably be more loved for its looks than the last one, but you can judge that for yourselves—the most obvious revision to the RDX formula lies with its 3.5-liter V-6 engine. The larger V-6 puts out 273 horsepower and 251 pound-feet of torque, which is a gain of 33 horses relative to the old 2.3-liter turbo, and a loss of some 9 pound-feet of torque.
Perhaps the biggest difference between old and new, though, is character. The turbo motor felt punchier and harder-worked than the new six, and seemed, especially in the middle of the rev range, to be more responsive. Much of that feeling is undoubtedly due to the old car’s louder, more visceral power delivery, because the truth of the matter is that the 2013 RDX is a match for the old in terms of Acura-measured 0-60 time (just under seven seconds).
In our drive from suburban Scottsdale, through some meandering (if not exactly winding) roads, and with lots of time on the freeway, we generally enjoyed the smooth and laidback V-6 powertrain. The RDX feels rather fleet for this class of SUV, the six-speed auto transmission unobtrusive, and our monitoring of the fuel economy gauge over around 40 highway miles led us to believe that the speculated 28 miles per gallon (highway) for the front-drive version will be easy to achieve in real life. For those keeping score on the econ front, RDX’s 20/28 city/highway mpg numbers are about as good as it gets in this segment, as long as you leave the hybrids out of the equation (which we’re happy to do).
It seems a good time to mention that, while we did get some miles in in the AWD version of the RDX, the bulk of our test drive was spent in the front-drive car. Now that Acura has moved away from the performance-oriented, torque-vectoring SH-AWD system in favor of a less complex AWD setup, our general impression is that the all-wheels-driven car simply feels more “front-drivery” than did the last car. Acura has tuned this system to be just as competent in low-traction situations, but without as much dynamic grip in the dry. We’ll be sure to test out that last part when we get the AWD version in our office and on a good road, and that first part if we’re able to drive the new RDX come next winter. Stay tuned.
With the power and speed quotient about the same in this new Acura, it’s fair to say that the suspension tuning and attendant ride quality is the biggest single dynamic change to the RDX. The engineers have gone all-in on the feeling of luxury here, and the result is a glass-smooth ride that aids overall comfort in a massive way. Surface imperfections from the road, even big cracks and bumps, were dialed out almost completely. Even still, the softer RDX didn’t seem to “float” overly much when cresting larger bumps and small hills at speed. When cornering effort is ramped up, there’s plenty of softness in the suspension, as well as a CUV-standard amount of roll. You won’t be confused into thinking you’ve slipped behind the wheel of an NSX, that’s for sure. The RDX is well-suited to smoothing out the rough places of the world—if not driving through them aggressively.
Steering feel is lacking overall, which matches the rest of the ride/handling balance from a character standpoint. The tiller has a good amount of heft to it, even if the dead-ahead and on-lock feedback is very minimal. The oft-used but accurate phrase “video game-like” is very apt here. Despite this dynamic deficit, and noting that turn-in and response are both pretty lethargic, we’re forced to admit that the tuning strategy here fits well with the car as a whole.
Seriously complementing this ultra-smooth ride and relaxed steering is an ultra-quiet cabin for the RDX. Road, wind, and engine noise have all been banished from the cabin in large measure, creating a vehicle that should compete with the best of the segment here.
The feeling from the driver’s seat is a kind of “smart-luxury” vibe that is typical of Acura. The company has streamlined its HVAC/entertainment interface relative to other new products in the lineup, and materials quality generally feels up to snuff in the segment. As always, those looking for outright plushness will prefer the confines of a BMW X3 or Mercedes-Benz GLK, but will pay more, feature to feature, than will the Acura buyer. Moreover, we’d put the optional ELS sound system up against the up-sale offering from any other high-end crossover peddler—the stereo sounds great, and we can’t wait to get one into the shop for a full audio test.
In short: while we’re a little sad to lose the quirky RDX of the last few years, there’s no question that this new, plushy version is set to do serious damage in the premium crossover world. We think that Acura is poised to do very well with this 2013 RDX, even if the enthusiast buyer is left to ponder other options.
VS: Lexus RX350
Somehow, despite the RDX having smaller dimensions overall (it’s more than four inches shorter in total length), Acura claims to have almost exactly as much room for passengers, and even more useable cargo space than does the RX350. A neat trick, to be certain.
Answering the space issue is a great start for the Acura, which absolutely faces the stiffest in-segment competition from its Lexus rival.
A base RX350 FWD carries an MSRP of $39,075, while an RDX with all-wheel drive and Acura’s technology package is expected to start at $39,420 (the base Acura has an MSRP of $34,320). That means an awful lot of content for the RDX versus its primary competitor, even though the Acura’s price has jumped up by a few grand versus the outgoing version.
We also think that the RX comparison is especially apt, because it’s very clear that the new thinking and engineering of the Acura has been geared toward a Lexus audience (i.e., a comfort-seeking rather than excitement-seeking driver).
Cost of ownership, residual value, and overall satisfaction may still trend in favor of the dominant RX, but the RDX at last poses a realistic cross-shop for this buyer.
VS: BMW X3 xDrive28i
The X3 with the 35i engine is more of a straightforward comparison, in terms of power, for the newly V-6-equipped RDX, but the slightly slower BMW xDrive28i still offers a more engaging driving dynamic.
For a bit more than the asking price of the new RDX AWD, the X3 offers a willing engine, nice handling, and faster, more responsive steering. Of course the BMW is smaller, less frugal, less capacious, and a bit heavier, too.
A straight comparison test would be needed to iron out exactly which one is more compelling overall, but on paper the RDX presents one hell of an argument here.
2013 Acura RDX FWD
Engine: V-6, 3.5 liters, 24v
Output: 273 hp/251 lb-ft
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 20/28 mpg
Cargo Capacity: 61.3 cu ft
Base Price: $34,320
On Sale: April 2, 2012