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Friday, January 2, 2009

Acura RDX 2008

The Acura RDX is all about sporty driving, which is why it uses a turbocharged four-cylinder engine to make its hearty 240 horsepower. This is the first turbocharged engine that Acura has produced. It's 2.3 liters, and comes out of the Acura TSX, with many changes making a completely different powerband. Proving its commitment to sport, the RDX uses a sequential five-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters, a firm independent suspension made for cornering, and Acura's patented SH-AWD (Super Handling All Wheel Drive) system, which delivers a higher proportion of power to the outside rear wheel under hard cornering, thus keeping the car in line. Proving its commitment to luxury, the RDX comes trimmed in leather, no cloth interior is available, and it comes standard with other luxury touches, such as a power moonroof and dual-zone climate control. In short, the RDX is designed for drivers who do not want to compromise cornering for a comfortable ride (hence, the firm suspension), but want upscale accommodations. It also needs to be someone who doesn't care about dramatic or distinctive styling, because the RDX closely resembles the Honda CR-V. Women, who normally go for the Acura approach of combining a silky-smooth ride with performance, will want to think twice about the RDX, given its firm suspension. The RDX was launched as a 2007 model, and changes for 2008 consist of upgrades. The Bluetooth hands-free phone interface comes standard on 2008 models. Also standard are a two-way position driver's seat memory and an auto-dimming day/night rearview mirror. A new exterior color, Polished Metal Metallic, is available. If you are in Hawaii, lucky you, and now your RDX will have access to the navigation system's 1.7 million city and street names along with access to AcuraLink Satellite Communication System with Real Time Traffic. The Real Time Traffic system now covers 76 major metropolitan areas with the addition of 32 more for 2008.

Model Lineup

Acura RDX ($33,195) comes with leather upholstery, heated front seats, power moonroof, Bluetooth hands-free phone interface, XM satellite radio, 18-inch alloy wheels with all-season tires, xenon HID headlights with foglamps, the 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, a five-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters on the steering wheel, the patented SH-AWD (SH for Super Handling) system, four-wheel disc anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution.

The RDX Tech model ($36,695) features the Technology Package: a 10-speaker, 410-watt sound system designed by legendary recording engineer Elliot Scheiner, navigation system with voice command, rearview camera, and the AcuraLink Satellite Communication System with Real Time Traffic.

Safety features include dual-stage frontal airbags, side airbags in front, side curtain airbags with rollover sensor, electronic stability control (VSA), active front head restraints to help protect against whiplash, side-impact door beams, and a tire pressure monitor. The RDX received a 2007 "Top Safety Pick" from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which performs crash tests for the insurance industry generally regarded as more severe than those conducted by the federal government through its National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Walk Around

The Acura RDX is about one inch longer in wheelbase than the Honda CR-V, the company's non-luxury small sport-utility vehicle, and two inches longer overall. The appearance of the two cars is similar enough that you'd never look at them and say that one should cost $10,000 more than the other; in fact, some might think the Honda is better looking. The sculpting on the sides of the RDX appears gratuitous, not dynamic, and less traditional than that on the CR-V, which seems to have some reason, at least.

The nose of the RDX is its most distinctive feature. The grille is a wide shallow vee, the Acura theme, but under that is a black air intake with opposing angles, riding on top of the bumper. It's the highest undisguised air intake we can think of. And under the bumper is another air opening. The intercooled turbo under the hood needs a lot of air.

Behind the C pillar there's a small window that you can't really discern because the C pillar is black and the window is tinted so darkly. From the inside, it affords good visibility, no blind spots when looking over your shoulder.

The rear end of the RDX resembles a Subaru Tribeca, an observation which, based on most opinions of the Tribeca's Edsel-like tail, is something shy of a compliment. Between the taillights, the sheetmetal on the liftgate is molded into the shape of the vector, again suggesting the Acura symbol or theme. This sculpting surrounds the large license plate indent, so the suggestion is quite subtle. You might have to look a long time, like we did, to see it.

Interior Features

The Acura RDX dashboard cascades with colors, textures and levels. The top is wide and flat, black vinyl; there's a three-inch tall strip of dark titanium plastic in the center, broken by the display screen; and at the bottom it turns to smooth vinyl in light gray. The top and plastic strip are grained with minutely raised crossed diagonal lines, a sort of diamond-like golf ball effect. So there are three textures and three colors.

On the top center of the dashboard, tucked under the windshield, is a narrow digital display that indicates time of day, radio station, the interior temperature setting on each side of the car, and where the vents are pointed. It's hard to see in sunlight.

The navigation system is controlled by a big ugly knob in the center of the center stack. It pushes in, up, down, left and right. Acura has an excellent reputation for its navigation systems. We've found them among the best and easiest to operate.

We found the rearview monitor a bit fuzzy, dim at night (which might be from dim backup lights), and often too dark to be useful, at dusk or on overcast days.

The perforated leather seats are comfortable, and the driver can perch up high to see over the short nose of the car. The 10-way power driver's seat has a two-position memory feature for 2008; the passenger's seat is manual. Both front seats have high and low heat settings. There's lumbar support, although a sore back still ensued after a four-hour drive with a lot of stressful freeway stop-and-go.

The gauges are nicely lit at night, in blue and white. The tachometer is at left, redline 6800, with an insert that shows turbocharger boost.

A big speedometer is in the center with an information display inside it, and on the right is a gauge of similar size but which only contains an indicator of what gear the transmission is in, plus fuel level. It would be nice if a temperature gauge was in that space, because, as it is, you can only find out if the car is overheating by suspecting it, and then checking on the information display inside the speedometer, scrolling through other information to find it.

The info display can also show which wheels are getting the power with the SH-AWD, or Super Handling All-Wheel Drive. This system sends more power to the outside rear wheel when the car cornering aggressively, which keeps it on line; of course, that's exactly the time you'd not want to look down to check the display. There's also an instantaneous fuel mileage display, a bar from 0 to 50, but we did not find it to be practically readable.

The EPA-rated mileage is 17/22 mpg City/Highway, and we got 17.6 miles per gallon (on premium fuel) at an average of 34 mph running stop-and-go on the freeway and 80 mph when we broke out. The fuel mileage didn't change much after that, with mostly around-town driving.

The leather-wrapped steering wheel feels nice in your hands, if busy, with controls for a half-dozen or more things, including paddles for upshifting and downshifting the sequential transmission. It's kind of ugly, though. It has three spokes, at 3, 9 and 6 o'clock, and they're trimmed in aluminum-look plastic, with a design that makes the wheel look like a scale model of a space station.

There are terrific grab handles for closing the front and rear doors, something we wish all cars were smart enough to have, especially for the driver.

There are nice little storage compartments, and a humongously deep center console compartment, with trays at the bottom that lift out to reveal a secret spot that's another couple inches deep. It's 16.9 inches from front to back, 12.2 inches deep and 5.5 inches wide, big enough for a laptop or briefcase, and it's lockable.

The parking brake pedal is too low for effective left-foot braking. It catches your toe when you move your foot to the brake pedal from its resting position on the floorboard when braking with the left foot; you have to slide your foot right, lift it, slide it farther right, then lower it on the brake pedal, sort of a fast S-shaped movement.

There seems to be decent knee room in the rear seat; we had a tall passenger back there who said she had enough room, but the specs of 37.7 inches are pretty tight. The rear passengers have cupholders in the folding armrest, door pockets and map pockets in the front seatbacks. The 60/40 rear seatbacks fold flat, after the cushions flip against the front seatbacks.

Cargo space behind the rear seat is in short supply, with just 27.8 cubic feet, but then this isn't a big SUV. With the rear seats lowered, there's 60.6 cubic feet.

Driving Impressions

The most fun you can have with an Acura RDX is driving it through corners like a sports car. It does a really great job of this. The paddle-shifting transmission shifts smoothly and obeys your input.

This is the first turbocharged car Acura has ever made. Honda has been the technology leader with small engines for a long time and this 2.3-liter turbo is about as high-tech as they come. The turbocharger changes the power characteristics quite a lot from the more peaky Acura TSX, although it doesn't smooth out the engine. There's 260 pound-feet of torque, and no turbo lag, but when the transmission is in Drive, it kicks up and down when you're driving casually uphill. Apparently the turbo confuses it, something we'd seen in the past with Volkswagen's 2.0T turbos. To stop it, you have to use the Sport, or manual, mode.

In the manual mode, the transmission obeys your commands except when you downshift at an engine speed it thinks is too high, or upshift at one it thinks is too low. Then at least it tells you that it's rejected your input by flashing; some systems indicate the car is in the gear you've chosen, even if they don't shift to it.

In stop-and-go freeway traffic, we found it difficult to accelerate smoothly. Acura invented drive-by-wire throttle, and, because so many other cars with this electronic system also have hair-trigger throttles, we wonder if the system still has a ways to go. In any case, this does not make the RDX a great commuter car in heavy traffic.

A bigger flaw than a quick throttle or unsettled transmission is the ride. A front-seat passenger said she could feel every bump, especially on the freeway. We could feel them too. It was like a jolt, over the freeway ridges.

Of course, this firmness in the suspension enables the RDX to perform like a sports car around the corners. Acura boasts that it will out-corner a BMW X3, which was developed on the Nurburgring circuit in Germany. So, good for the RDX. But is it worth the trade-off, if the suspension can't also offer a comfortable ride on the freeway? Maybe. You decide.

We drove one RDX in California then spent a week in another RDX in the Northwest, just in time for snow and ice. We tested the ABS by slamming on the brakes going down a steep hill with hard-packed snow at 20 miles per hour. The response was beautiful; it took a long time to get stopped, maybe 100 feet, but we were able to steer anywhere we wanted to, without sliding, while our foot was mashed to the pedal (as we watched 10 inches of snow slide off the roof and down onto the hood). We should point out that the P235/55R18 Michelin Pilot tires are considered high-performance all-season, meaning they weren't made for this sort of thing; all-season generally means three seasons.

Then we went to a slushy parking lot, and tried to cut donuts at hard throttle, to test the stability control, called VSA. The RDX just turned its tight circles, 39.1 feet, without sliding. Pretty amazing.

A couple days later the slush froze into sheer, lumpy ice. We returned to the bottom of our steep hill. The city had put up barriers because the road was considered dangerous. We drove around the barrier and charged uphill, considering it our duty to New Car Test Drive readers. It was fascinating to feel the all-wheel drive work, and watch the readout on the instrument panel indicate with bars which of the four tires was getting the torque, based on how slippery it was under each tire at any moment. The RDX struggled, and once came to a complete halt, not spinning, just shutting down the throttle because it couldn't find grip. The RDX slid downhill backwards on the ice, with the brake pedal mashed; the ABS did not appear to be working, maybe because it had started sliding from a dead stop, so the sensors didn't know it was sliding. The RDX found a dry patch under one wheel, and when that wheel bit and held onto the patch, the vehicle turned perpendicular in the road.

Both front wheels were on a dry spot now. We gave it a lot of gas, turned tightly back uphill, and looked for spots that weren't so icy. The all-wheel-drive system, which can send 70 percent of its torque to the rear wheels, struggled for grip, its computer sensors playing the throttle and brakes on and off at four separate wheels at lightning speed, and we made it to the top. Great stuff, especially with those high-performance wide profile tires.

In winter conditions like these, you can't beat a high-tech vehicle, with all-wheel drive, anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, six air bags and xenon headlamps. Not to mention heated seats and heated mirrors.

Model Line Overview

Model lineup: Acura RDX ($33,195); RDX Tech ($36,695)
Engines: 240-hp 2.3-liter turbocharged inline-4
Transmissions: 5-speed sequential automatic
Safety equipment (standard): dual stage frontal airbags, side-impact airbags, curtain airbags with rollover sensor; electronic stability control (VSA), ABS, EBD, Brake Assist, active front head restraints, tire pressure monitor
Safety equipment (optional): N/A
Basic warranty: 4 years/50,000 miles
Assembled in: Marysville, Ohio

Specifications As Tested

Model tested (MSRP): Acura RDX Tech ($33,195)
Standard equipment: leather upholstery, air conditioning, power windows, power remote locks, cruise control, information display, fog lamps, power moonroof, 18-inch alloy wheels, xenon HID headlights, heated mirrors, XM satellite radio
Options as tested (MSRP): Technology Package ($3500) with 10-speaker 410-watt sound system, navigation system with voice command, rearview camera, hands-free phone interface, AcuraLink Satellite Communication System with Real Time Traffic
Destination charge: ($670)
Gas guzzler tax: N/A
Price as tested (MSRP): $37,365
Layout: all-wheel drive
Engine: 2.3-liter dohc turbocharged inline-4
Horsepower (hp @ rpm): 240 @ 6000
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm): 260 @ 4500
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy: 17/22 mpg
Wheelbase: 104.3 in.
Length/width/height: 180.7/73.6/65.2 in.
Track, f/r: 61.9/62.6 in.
Turning circle: 39.2 ft.
Seating capacity: 5
Head/hip/leg room, f: 38.7/54.4/41.8 in.
Head/hip/leg room, m: N/A
Head/hip/leg room, r: 38.3/53.0/37.7 in.
Cargo volume: 60.6 cu. ft.
Payload: N/A
Towing capacity: 1500 Lbs.
Suspension, f: independent, MacPherson strut
Suspension, r: independent, multi-link
Ground clearance: 5.1 in.
Curb weight: 3924 lbs.
Tires: P235/55R18
Brakes, f/r: disc/disc with ABS, EBD, Brake Assist
Fuel capacity: 18.0 gal.